I’ve been a paediatric dietitian for almost 20 years and no matter what speciality I’ve worked in the one concern that parents have sought my advice over more than anything else is managing fussy eating.
I understand that it’s huge source of stress for parents - worrying that your child is not getting enough nutrition, worrying what the consequences of that might be, not to mention the endless time spent in the kitchen making meals that no one eats or dealing with the meltdowns, tantrums or just plain whining that your child actually wanted food x. It’s exhausting!
If I could give you one piece of advice from my time spent as a dietitian it would be that you’re probably doing better than you think you are. Many of our food groups have interchangeable nutrients, so whilst your child might not be eating vegetables, they can still get plenty of fibre and b vitamins from breads and cereals. Vitamin C or B-carotene? Well you can get those from fruit too, and iron? Fortified foods like weet-bix, or using more seeds in homemade baked goods can really help here.
A point I often make to families is that there is more than one dietary pattern that can provide the basic nutrients required for growth and development. Sure, overtime we want to work towards a dietary pattern more inline with our Australian Dietary Guidelines (which are thought to be optimal for providing balanced nutrition for our more sedentary lives and prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, some types of caner and heart disease).
I’d also like to tell you that moving your child towards this dietary pattern is a marathon, not a sprint. There really are no quick fixes or magic wands we can wave to get your child eating vegetables overnight. It’s more about a consistent approach adopted over years.
With that in mind I wanted to give you 3 strategies you can action right now to get your child eating better.
1. Serve a fruit plate (or fruit and raw veggies) with dinner -
A lot of children enjoy fruit more than vegetables and you know what ? They actually have a fairly similar nutrient profile. Yes fruit has a little more natural sugar, and so contains more energy, but it isn’t the sugar from fruit that we worry about from a health point of view. Learning to manage the texture of fruit, which can be squishy, juicy, crunchy or have seeds puts kids on the path to learning to like vegetables. Ticking off some key nutrients at dinner like fibre, B-carotene and vitamin C can be really reassuring for us parents too. A lot of kids also find a plate of raw vegetables more manageable than cooked vegetables mixed into a wet dish. Part of this is that they can easily identify what they are eating, and the texture of raw vegetables tends to be a bit more uniform (no surprise squishy, stringy or juicy bits).
2. Don’t reinforce your child’s poor eating habits
Many of us do this by accident. When we know our kids have set food preferences, many of us find it easier to serve them food we know that they will eat. For our kids to eat a variety of foods they need to be offered a variety of foods. Variety and proportion need to be role modelled and taught. Meal plan for the week ensuring that you have a variety of different meals on offer. Tell your child that every member of the family gets to pick a meal they’d like to eat. For those meals you know they are likely to be reluctant to eat, see the point above and include a fruit plate, some bread or salad or something else you know your child can enjoy at the table even if they don’t eat the main course.
3. The Back - Up Plan
I would never ever recommend short order cooking for your child. It teaches them that they are in charge of the food (not you) and holds them back from making true progress. A better approach is to include something on the dinner table that you know your child can enjoy (bread, corn on the cobb as a side etc..). However, there are always going to be those meals when you get it wrong and there’s nothing they like, what to do then?
In her book It’s not about the Broccoli food sociologist Dina Rose talks about having an effective back up plan that still promotes progress with expanding your child’s diet.
If you are constantly giving in to your child at the dinner table and getting up to make them a different meal or fix them a snack, they know that they can always get the food they want from you. There is no incentive to want to try the meal. An effective back up plan is a pre-agreed upon food that has to meet a few criteria. It can’t be a favourite food, it must be a “no-cook" item, it must provide some nutritional value, it MUST always be the same food - no negotiations here. I’d go a step further and say sit down with your child discuss this new strategy and together come up with the food. Then write down that food on a card, have both of your sign it and stick it somewhere visible like the fridge. Then you need to follow through and make sure that it is always available and freely offer it when a meal is rejected.
A nutritious cereal option like weet-bix or muesli would be my recommendation, but fruit toast, vita wheats or grainy bread with a spread would all work well too. The magic in the back up plan is that the food is fairly boring. Knowing it’s there can be a safety net that avoids a meltdown, but also the fact that it never changes means that that alone will get many kids to branch out and come and try what is on offer at the dinner table. And if they don’t want their back up food? No problem, they have to wait until your next planned occasion of eating to get something different (eg breakfast if we’re talking about the evening meal).
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