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Nutrition and kids: Tips for fussy eaters

Fussy eating behaviour is common across childhood and can be a stressful and frustrating time for parents and carers. But there are ways to support fussy eaters to get the best bite. Cue the expert!

We continue our chat with dietitian, postdoctoral researcher for Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation and MacKillop foster carer, Ruth, about ways to support fussy eaters.

Why is my child a fussy eater?

There is no single cause for fussy eating – there is likely to be different reasons for children living in a range of circumstances. Parents and carers need to remember that most adults have foods that they don’t like, and this also applies to children. Causes for fussy eating may include:

  • They don’t like the taste or texture of a particular food. It might be as simple as that. Certain foods may make a child’s tongue feel funny, or seem too spicy for them, or they may get an uncomfortable feeling in their tummy after they eat it. Little people often don’t have the words to explain why they don’t like certain foods so they may just refuse to eat it. Some kids just don’t like certain foods.
  • They have never tried the food before. New foods may appear strange or unusual to a child. If you’re caring children or young people who been through several living situations or carers, they may not have been exposed to a wide range of foods or had routine or consistency with their diet. They may have had to constantly negotiate new foods. This can be distressing time for kids, so meal times might be stressful for them.
  • Children with certain conditions such as autism may have high levels of sensitivity to certain textures and smells. It is really important to understand their medical history to know how to best support them with nutrition.
  • Fatigue and tiredness. Some kids might get to a certain point of the day and be too tired (or hungry) to negotiate a new food. Try not to leave meals too late.

What are some nutritious foods to look out for that fussy eaters may not get enough of?

Key nutrients to consider are:

  • Protein – Children need enough protein so that their muscles and bones grow. Protein generally comes from food from animals including meat, poultry and eggs, cheese or milk. We can also get planted-based protein from foods such as quinoa, legumes, pulses and tofu.
  • Calcium – Children need calcium for their bones to grow. Calcium-rich foods generally come from dairy products including milk, cheese and yoghurt. You can also get calcium from green leafy vegetables and foods that have been fortified with calcium (e.g., some brands of soy milk).
  • Fibre – Fibre helps to protect gut health and can prevent constipation. Children should eat a range of wholefoods including fruits, vegetables and wholegrain.
  • Energy – Kids need plenty of energy in their diet so that they can grow and thrive. Children and young people should be getting most of their energy from foods you can place in your five food groups. These are: 1. Meat or alternatives, 2. Wholegrain cereals, 3. Fruit, 4. Vegetables and 5. Dairy. Children should not eat too much energy from foods outside the five food groups.

Many parents and carers are time poor. What are some easy ways to get kids to try new foods?

The first thing I’d say is don’t make mealtimes a battle. If you’ve got a child that’s refusing to eat something, you can’t force them. Addressing fussy eating is a journey and you need to be calm and patient. Young children haven’t been on the planet for very long and they’re still learning their preferences, and how to express their preferences appropriately.

The next thing is to make sure you have set mealtimes and snack times. Children need regular meals and snacks to meet their nutritional needs. Setting-up a regular meal and snack pattern will take a bit of anxiety and stress out of mealtimes. Not knowing when their next meal will be could be a stressful experience for children. So, make sure that you set up a regular meal pattern - even before trying to introduce new foods.

Model healthy eating behaviours to the children and young people in your care. It is really confusing for children to be asked to eat something that their carers won’t eat! Eat with your child. We’re social beings and food is a socialiser. A child should not eat alone. This might be the last thing a parent or carer wants to do at the end of day when they just want to get kids off to bed so that they can have their tea in peace and quiet. However, a key aspect in addressing a fussy eater is modelling healthy eating behaviours yourself. Make the effort to eat with them regularly. This will pay dividends later on.

Is taking supplements an alternative?

Supplements should not be given to children unless you’ve had advice from your GP or a dietitian. Particularly if you’re caring for a child that isn’t your own child, or even if it’s your own child, you have a duty of care to follow that up with a dietitian or a GP.

If my child refuses to eat their dinner, what’s the best way to respond?

You don’t want to be a pushover. You are the adult in the house and you are there to protect them and support your child to make good decisions. One thing a parent or carer can do during mealtimes is focus on one food that the child likes (e.g., chicken). Offer this food in the healthiest way possible. For example, if your child loves chicken nuggets, try a roast chicken instead. Make eating it easy by pulling the meat off the bone so that’s easy to eat. Or give them a drumstick, as they can use their hands.

It’s not like a light switch where your child is going to stop being a fussy eater because you asked them to. You need to help them progress with their food preferences by offering them similar things but a more healthy version and build up their list of foods that they are willing to try.

And finally…

If there’s something that you’re really worried about (e.g., if you think there’s something a bit odd in their response to foods or they are getting really distressed), there could be something more going on. If that’s the case, you can take them to a paediatrician or dietitian so that they can do an assessment and provide advice.

The other thing to remember is to not underestimate the value of food as a socializer and as a way to connect with each other. The ideal scenario is for people to eat together and to share meals, particularly with little kids. Kids don’t like being alone, they want you with them.

A big thank you to Ruth for sharing her expertise and wisdom. In case you missed it, you can also check out our conversation with Ruth about What makes a balanced diet.