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“...But I Don’t Like It!” – Effective Strategies For Managing Fussy Eaters

  • “...But I Don’t Like It!” – Effective Strategies For Managing Fussy Eaters

Are you making a meal out of child feeding? Loughborough University’s Dr Emma Haycraft offers advice on avoiding some common pitfalls…

Caregivers are often keen to promote a healthy, balanced diet – but children may have other ideas!

Research carried out at Loughborough University shows that 85% of parents believe feeding and mealtime routines are important when selecting a childcare provider. With snacks and mealtimes providing key cornerstones of the day, the value of developing feeding expertise within the early years sector should not be underestimated.

Most children go through a stage of fussy eating. This is totally normal behaviour, but how this fussiness is managed can affect whether children outgrow it, or if it will continue as they get older. This is why childcare providers have such an important role in helping to develop healthy eating habits.

The pressure pitfall

There are several common feeding pitfalls that it’s important for early years settings to avoid. These include pressuring children to eat more than they want to; children’s preferences for unhealthy foods; children’s food refusal; restricting children’s access to certain foods; and caregivers’ use of food as a reward for good behaviour.

Being faced with a child who refuses to eat vegetables or fruit, but who will happily eat ‘junk’ foods, can be worrying for those taking care of them. Caregivers may feel a need to pressure or force the child to eat, believing that this is in the child’s best interests – but pressuring a child to eat certain food, or to eat more than they wish, can have unintended consequences.

Research has shown that foods people are pressured or forced to eat become less desirable, which means children are even less likely to want to eat their broccoli or lasagne if they feel compelled to do so.

There is also evidence that shows if a child is repeatedly pressured to eat more than they want to at mealtimes, it can ‘teach’ them to ignore their internal cues about fullness and hunger, which in the long term can contribute to childhood weight gain and obesity.

Practical steps

If a child is refusing to eat foods, there are certain practical steps we recommend. These include:

Going back to basics
Children tend to be extremely good at knowing when they are hungry or full, so try to trust them. They will let you know when they are ready to eat and when they have eaten enough.

Examining the evidence
Think about how long it’s been since the child last had a snack or filling drink, such as milk. Might they be too tired to sit at the table and eat well? Are they feeling unwell? If they are poorly, they may not want to eat.

Putting yourself in their shoes
Try to imagine what it would be like if you were not hungry and were being coaxed to eat – even force-fed – or if you were unsure of the safety of the food on offer. Eating should be a pleasurable experience that meets a biological need, not about pleasing someone else.

Observing the ‘Rule of Palm’ when it comes to portion sizes
As a guide, a single portion is roughly what would fit in the palm of the child’s hand. Meals should include a ‘palmful’ of the main attraction and two to three palms of the accompanying foods. Providing too much food could be why children refuse to eat.

Making food fun

It can help to introduce activities that make food enjoyable. For example:

Find pictures of fruit and vegetables that children can colour in, cut out and stick somewhere. Use play-dough to make fruit and vegetables.

You don’t need expensive equipment, or even a garden. Many types of food can be grown indoors using yoghurt pots or on a windowsill.

Involve children in your food preparation, so that they get used to seeing and handling foods in various states – be it raw, peeled, grated, boiled, steamed or roasted.

Be a good role model. Watching you eat and enjoy a food can lessen the extent to which a child is worried by it. Similarly, seeing other children eating a food can be a good incentive for a child to try it.

Alongside colleagues Drs. Gemma Witcomb and Claire Farrow, Dr Emma Haycraft has developed ‘Tips and Tools for Child Feeding’ – an interactive workshop providing evidence-based information and practical support for caregivers who want to foster healthier, happy eating behaviours among the children in their care.

To to find out more and to register your interest, visit www.feedingkids.org.uk, email [email protected] or follow @FeedingKidsUK

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