FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Change how you see fussy eating, writes Dr Justin Coulson
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 happyfamilies.com.au and I’m sure it could help you.