Change how you see fussy eat­ing, writes Dr Justin Coul­son

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Speak pos­i­tively about eat­ing

Q How do I get my chil­dren to eat healthy food with­out the fight­ing and ar­gu­ing that ac­com­pa­nies our meal­times? My chil­dren are aged six and three and only want junk food. If I don’t give them chips, cheese or hot dogs, they refuse to eat. I feel like I’m con­stantly brib­ing or ha­rass­ing them.

A With six chil­dren, I’ve heard ev­ery ex­cuse for why they won’t eat some­thing. Here are some ex­am­ples: Mum makes it taste bet­ter (I had cooked that night); I don’t like it; It’s scary; It’s too spicy (it was plain rice); I’m tired; She looked at me; It’s too cold; It’s too hot; Th­ese scram­bled eggs aren’t like the ones you gave me yes­ter­day. Aaaargh!

Be­cause we are mo­ti­vated to make sure our chil­dren are eat­ing “right”, we make some com­mon mis­takes. Th­ese in­clude ap­ply­ing pres­sure to our chil­dren; giv­ing too much choice; us­ing shame and guilt to mo­ti­vate healthy eat­ing and us­ing food as re­ward or for calm­ing.

Each of th­ese re­sponses to fussy eaters is po­ten­tially un­help­ful. One sug­ges­tion: change how you see fussy eat­ing. Do you see it as a prob­lem that needs to be fixed? Or do you see it as a (usu­ally) nor­mal phase in most chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ment that you can help them through with con­sis­tency, sup­port and en­cour­age­ment?

We of­ten be­lieve that if we con­trol our kids’ eat­ing, they will be­come less fussy. This is rarely true. Our chil­dren re­sist us when they feel con­trolled and usu­ally be­come even fussier — and hard to han­dle.

What we feed our chil­dren is less im­por­tant than how we feed them. We want our chil­dren to eat healthy food, but it is more im­por­tant that they have a healthy re­la­tion­ship with food. What we teach chil­dren about food from their ear­li­est years can shape at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iours for many years (even decades) to come. A healthy re­la­tion­ship with food is less about “eat­ing your vegetables”, “eat­ing break­fast”, or “not eat­ing too much junk food”. In­stead it’s about “eat­ing dif­fer­ent foods”, “not cut­ting out any foods or groups of foods”, or “eat­ing enough to not be hun­gry’’.

Re­mem­ber, be a good role model. I know what you’re think­ing: My chil­dren don’t care if I’m hav­ing whole­grains and green smooth­ies. They don’t want any­thing ex­cept sweets, hot chips, and pasta! But just go with me on this for now. Be­ing a good ex­am­ple is a solid first step. You’re play­ing a long game.

Sec­ond, stay calm and re­duce pres­sure. I ap­pre­ci­ate this is dif­fi­cult and con­fess to hav­ing dropped my bun­dle on some nights, but it makes a big dif­fer­ence.

Third, speak pos­i­tively about food and eat­ing. Talk about foods that give us en­ergy, foods that fill up our tummy, foods that taste de­li­cious, foods that help us grow. And speak about them neu­trally, with­out judg­ment. Food is just food. Some foods sim­ply do th­ese im­por­tant things bet­ter than oth­ers.

Fourth, serve “healthy food” a lot of the time and “some­times food” some­times. Re­mem­ber, you are the gate­keeper. You are the Cap­tain of the Kitchen Cup­board! If you don’t like what the kids are eat­ing, it is up to you to de­cide whether it needs to be in the house. What the fam­ily gets on their plates is up to you. Your child de­cides how much, or whether they eat. If they choose not to eat, that’s fine. I’m not aware of any child who has starved them­selves when par­ents pro­vide good food con­sis­tently.

Bonus tip here — al­ways make sure there’s some­thing nu­tri­tious they like at each meal.

Fifth, va­ri­ety! If your chil­dren are picky eaters, serve a va­ri­ety of foods on a reg­u­lar ba­sis so that they are ex­posed to sim­i­lar foods fre­quently. A few years ago I wrote an e-book called Eat Right With­out A Fight with di­eti­tian Fiona Suther­land from Body­wise Aus­tralia. It’s avail­able at hap­py­fam­i­ and I’m sure it could help you.

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