Hands up, who has fussy kids? I certainly do!
My six year old has sensory issues, and it has taken me five very long years to get him to eat a decent and varied diet. My two year old isn’t fussy, he just isn’t interested in food. He would much rather be jumping up and down dancing on the table, than actually sitting down at it to eat.
Over the past 5 or so years, I’ve learnt ways to get my kids to eat healthy, nutritious food. I’ve also learnt some ways that really don’t work… But I’ve managed to get my 6 year old to eat a diet of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, soy beans and milk, nuts and seeds, with minimal sugar and only occasional vegan junk food, so I feel like I’ve done something right!
It takes a lot of patience, and dedication, but it is possible to get even the fussiest of kids to eat a healthy, varied diet. Here are my top 10 tips, based on my own experience with my kids.
1. Don’t offer unhealthy snacks
Let’s start with the hard one! I know that it is so easy to give in to their begging and give them the junk food they’re asking for. I know. You’re tired, they’re tired, and you just want them to eat something. We’ve all done it. But the fact is, if the food isn’t there, then they can’t eat it. This is especially important for after school snacks. It is so easy for kids to fill up on unhealthy snacks, and then have no room left for dinner. If you make sure that the majority of meals that they eat are healthy foods, then you can be happy knowing that they’re eating healthy foods.
Being a mum of a child with sensory issues, I know that this tip comes with some big caveats. There are some kids that will eventually eat healthy food once they work out the junk food isn’t available, but there are others who would rather starve than eat something unfamiliar. My son was the latter. Don’t despair if your child is also like this, you can still shift their diet to healthy foods – I did. We went from a diet of hot chips and toast, to a very healthy meal. It just takes hard work and a lot of patience. The best way to do this is with my second tip.
2. Serve new foods with familiar foods
When trying to transition your child’s diet, give them a small serving of the new food alongside familiar foods that you know they’ll eat. It can be overwhelming for less adventurous kids to be faced with a plateful of food they’ve never seen, or tasted before. We have had many a breakdown caused by me introducing a new food too fast. If I’m serving up a new food, I’ll give it to my son along with brown rice or pasta, and some carrots and broccoli, which I know he likes. Then he needs to eat the familiar foods, and just try the new one.
3. Eat together
I know that it isn’t always possible for families to eat together in this busy day and age, but it really helps to get your kids to eat their food. There’s nothing like a bit of peer pressure to get kids eating! My two year old will sit for a lot longer to eat if we’re all sitting down together. It also helps that he sees us eating the food as well. Kids love to copy older siblings and grown ups, so use this to your advantage to get your kids to eat.
4. Don’t make a fuss if they refuse
This one is hard. You’ve spent an hour in the kitchen cooking a delicious new pasta dish that you think is tastes amazing. You serve it up to your kids alongside some safe foods, and they refuse to even touch it. I don’t know how many times this has happened to me… The most important thing to remember here is to not make a fuss. Yes, that meal you spent so much time on could quite possibly end up in the bin, but mealtimes need to be a safe time for children. If they get in trouble for not eating their food, then they are going to start having negative associations with dinnertime, which will cause far more issues.
5. Offer a new food lots of times
My son didn’t even touch the broccoli I served him the first five or so times I served it to him. I persevered though, and it is now one of his favourites. He even took a stalk of broccoli to school one day in a show and tell session of favourite foods. I certainly felt like I’d had a parenting win that day! Your child might turn up their nose at a new food the first time you offer it, but if you don’t make a big deal of it, and keep offering, their curiosity will eventually win them over. I’ve found this with every food I’ve offered my son. He hasn’t liked all of them, and that’s okay, but he has eventually tried them all. They say that you have to offer a food to a child fifteen times before they will like it. This sounds crazy, I know, but I know from experience that it’s true!
6. Serve on fun and exciting plates and bowls
My kids are always more excited about food if they have an exciting plate or bowl, or even if their food has been served in a fun way. There are heaps of options these days. You could find a plate with your child’s favourite character on it, or one with different segments for food. This works even better if you get your child to help pick the plates. You can make it a fun shopping trip, and keep the excitement until dinner time.
I also use different shaped cookie cutters to make my kids’ food into fun shapes. It’s amazing how much more exciting star shaped food is than normal food!
7. Have something nutritious that you know they’ll eat
I always have a backup option that is healthy, and I know my kids will eat. If I offer a new pasta sauce, I’ll only serve it on half of the pasta, and I’ll have some plain pasta with vegan Parmesan and some safe veggies on the side. The other night I served some new bean patties, and I served these with wholemeal rice noodles, broccoli and edamame beans on the side. That way, I know that even if my boys don’t touch the patties (which they didn’t) they’ve at least had a nutritious meal.
The other aspect of this point is to have a healthy fall back option if the entire meal is a disaster. If your child flat out refuses to eat the food, and there’s no way to get them to eat without it being an all out fight and match of wills, then having a nutritious fallback option will mean you don’t resort to junk food to get them to eat. Our fallback is a peanut butter sandwich on rye bread. When my six year old was younger, it was this healthy chocolate smoothie. Other options you could try are wholemeal pasta, wholemeal pita bread and hummus, porridge. Whatever it is, it needs to be something that you know your child will eat, and something that’s healthy. Cakes, muffins and biscuits are not generally a good idea for this.
8. Serve with sauce
This tip doesn’t work with all kids. My six year old, who has sensory issues, will not touch anything with sauce on it. I have to give him everything completely plain and not combined with anything else. My two year old, on the other hand, loves sauce. He will even dip his fingers into sauce and eat it straight. It has been quite a learning curve for me, but I have found that if I serve new and healthy foods with a dip or sauce, then my two year old will eat a lot more than if they’re just plain. This doesn’t just have to be the usual tomato sauce (or ketchup). It can anything from sweet and sour sauce or sweet soy sauce to hummus, guacamole, or pesto.
9. Ask them what they feel like
This one does, obviously, come with some limits. If given free reign, I’m sure my kids would like hot chips for dinner every night, with ice cream for dessert. I’m not saying to let them eat whatever they like. Instead, come up with a few different options, then let your child choose which they’d prefer. I will often ask if my boys would prefer pasta or rice for dinner, then I’ll serve something with whichever one they choose. You may need to get your kids to take turns being the one to pick dinner, otherwise you’ll end up with a different meal to cook for everyone! This could also happen each night when you’re making dinner, or when you’re doing your meal plan for the week.
10. Get them involved
Lastly, get your kids involved with the shopping and cooking. They will be more interested if they’re eating something they’ve helped to create. You can get them to help you pick interesting fruits and vegetables at the shops, or have them peel the veggies for dinner. Even just helping to mix will get young children more involved with dinner.
I hope these tips can help you to get your fussy kids to eat more. The biggest things to remember are to keep meal times as stress free as possible, and be patient. Also, remember to try different techniques. Some of these ideas will work well with some kids, and not with others. You know your kids best, so you know what will help the most. It will take time to get your kids’ eating habits to turn around, but with a bit of work, it can be done.