Top Tips for Fussy Eater
Dr Clare Llewelyn and Dr Hayley Syrad are infant nutrition experts and co-authors of An Appetite for Life: How to Feed Your Child from the Start, the most up to date resource on what science says about raising healthy eaters. Here are their five top tips for getting your child to eat their greens:
Many parents assume that their child dislikes a vegetable if they refuse to eat it after two or three offerings. But research has shown that it can take up to 15-20 ‘exposures’ (offerings) to an unfamiliar or disliked food before a child is willing even to put it in their mouth. Repeated exposure to a particular vegetable increases your child’s familiarity with it, and therefore reduces the fear factor; this will make your child more willing to try it. Repeated tasting eventually leads to acceptance and liking. So if your child doesn’t seem to like a vegetable, or flatly refuses even to try it, offer a small amount of it everyday for 20 days in a row.
2) Be a model for your child
An important part of a child’s willingness to try a new vegetable is learning that it is safe to eat. Children often do this vicariously by watching others eat and enjoy that particular food. Research has shown that one of the best strategies to get your child to eat a particular vegetable is to eat it in front of your child, and with your child. For example, cut a vegetable into two small pieces; eat your piece and say how delicious it is, and ask your child to try their piece. You can also use other adults or children to model healthy eating for your child - anyone who willingly eats vegetables will do!
3) Incentivise your child with a non-food reward
If your child is very reluctant to try a new vegetable, you can offer them a non-food reward as an incentive. Research has shown that children are often willing to ‘go the extra mile’ if there is a reward on offer. Simple praise works well for many children, as do more tangible rewards such as star charts, stickers, or badges. You could also give your child a token each time he or she tries the food, and once they have earned a certain number they win a non-food prize (e.g. a game, toy, outing, or colouring book).
4) Never reward food with food
It is tempting to bribe your child to eat a disliked food by offering them their favourite food as a reward – e.g. “If you eat your broccoli you can have ice-cream for dessert”. But while this might work the first couple of times, research has shown that this is not a good strategy in the long run. In fact, it tends to increase a child’s dislike for the problem food even more, but also increases their liking for the reward food, which tends to be foods high in sugar and fat. Use non-food rewards instead.
5) Don’t pressure your child to eat
Pressuring a child to eat something they don’t like, or to eat more than they want to, is not a fruitful endeavour. Research has shown that it can result in your child disliking the problem food even more, being even less willing to eat it and, if pressure is excessive, it can even lead to food aversion. Pressuring a child to eat can take many forms, such as coaxing (“just eat one more piece”), punishment (“if you don’t finish your beans you won’t be going to the playground”), emotional blackmail (“mummy/daddy will be upset if you don’t finish your broccoli”), and rules (“you’re not allowed to leave the table until you have finished your carrots”). Never try to force-feed your child by putting food into their mouth and making them swallow it.