How to manage picky eaters — A dietitian shares her top tips to make mealtimes stress and fuss-free

06 Apr 2022

Living with a picky eater is tough, and time-consuming. So, we talked to our accredited practising dietitian partner, Michelle Theodosi from The Lifestyle Dietitian, to get the lowdown on how to manage fussing at mealtimes.  You’ll be pleased to know there’s a whole host of strategies you can try to bring harmony back to the dinner table. 

Let’s start with the fact that ‘picky’ or ‘fussy’ eating is incredibly common among young children. In fact, a recent study estimated that 22% of children over 30 months of age were picky eaters. However, there is great variation in how we measure or define fussy eating, with some studies even suggesting picky eating behaviours could occur in anywhere from 6% to 59% of children – that’s a fair range! 

According to Michelle, children typically need to see/be offered new foods 10 to 15 times before they even agree to eat it, however around half of parents stop offering new foods after two to three exposures. 

Michelle’s top 5 tips to help address ‘picky’ eating
  1. Everyone has a role to play at the table – parents/carers decide what/when and where to eat, since they know best which foods will nourish their children’s bodies. Children decide if/how much they will eat, since they know how much they need to eat to grow in the way that’s right for them. 
  2. Create a positive mealtime environment – when we force feed a child or exert pressure to eat, we turn on their fight/flight or freeze response. This causes the stress hormone cortisol to rise, shutting off the child’s appetite and making it even harder to try new foods. Instead, focus on connecting as a family, talking about everyone’s day and role modelling the positive eating behaviours you want your child to build. 
  3. Routine, routine, routine – establish set meal/snack times, with time in between, to allow your child to feel hungry by the next mealtime. Hunger is a big help when it comes to trying new foods. 
  4. Exposure – research shows it takes 10 to 15 exposures for a child to even try a new food. To expose your child to different foods, try telling stories, such as calling broccoli ‘little trees where fairies/trolls live’, and involve them in the planning/shopping/cooking process.
  5. Keep it child-sized – dishing up a plate of food that’s too big can be overwhelming for a child, and make them refuse the meal altogether. Try serving up a smaller plate – they can always ask for more. Also, when trying new foods, include a tiny serve of the new food in a paper patty pan (not touching any other foods), as this can reduce the fear and overwhelm some children’s experience when trying new foods.
Should you put a time limit on mealtimes?

Michelle suggests setting a time limit of about 20 minutes for meals, saying anything beyond this ‘’isn’t fun for your child and can interfere with creating a positive relationship with mealtimes”. 

“If your child hasn’t eaten the food within the allocated time, remove it and don’t offer more food until the next planned meal or snack time,” she advises. “This sets up the expectation that meals and snacks are only offered at select times, using hunger as a helpful tool to encourage children to eat at the scheduled times. It also helps children understand it’s their parent or carer’s job to choose what, when and where they eat, and their job to decide whether they eat.”

The table or the TV – where should you feed young children?

When it comes to mealtimes, Michelle recommends removing all distractions, such as televisions, games and toys, saying that when watching a screen, young children: 

  • Are no longer in tune with their natural hungry/full cues, which tell them how much food they need to eat to grow the way their body likes
  • Do not register what the food looks, smells, tastes or sounds like, missing out on important exposure opportunities. 

“Screens teach children to turn off their senses and chew mindlessly, and while this may lead them to eat more in the short-term, it doesn’t help in the long run. As soon as the distraction is removed and their senses are switched back on, it’s as if the child is experiencing the food for the first time, and they may appear afraid of it, unsure how to approach it – or refuse it completely,” said Michelle. 

She also suggests having children sit in a stable chair with their feet firmly on the floor, or use a foot stool if they can’t reach, during mealtimes.

To bribe or not to bribe – that is the mealtime question

“If you finish your veggies, we can have dessert after!” Who hasn’t heard that at the table? But Michelle advises that the longer we use food bribes to get children to eat foods they don’t like, the more they will want the reward food – and the less they will want the food you were trying to get them to eat in the first place. 

“By bribing children with food, it puts the reward food on a really high pedestal, sending a message that healthy eating is a chore. The best thing we can do with food bribes? Stop using them. If you want to use rewards, then opt for non-food options such as stickers or trips to the park,” added Michelle.

8 easy ways to boost your child’s fruit and vegetable intake
  1. DIY pizzas – spread tomato paste onto wholegrain wraps or pita bread and set out bowls of veggies (chopped cherry tomatoes, shredded baby spinach, sliced zucchini, cooked pumpkin cubes and grated cheese) for a family competition to make the most colourful pizza
  2. Tacos – put bowls of fresh veggies and meat mix on the table and invite your child to build their own tacos. Remember to grate onion, carrot and zucchini into the meat mix for extra hidden veggies!
  3. Watermelon pizza – spread yoghurt onto watermelon slices and top with chopped fruit and muesli or rolled oats for a yummy lunch or snack idea
  4. Kebabs – adding colourful veggies to kebabs is an easy way to include additional vegetables in your child’s diet. Cook your own lamb kofta for the kebab and grate in some extra veggies too
  5. Homemade burgers – another easy way to sneak some veggies into the burger pattie, and encourage your child to make a colourful burger by adding tomato, lettuce, grated carrot, cucumber and more
  6. Smoothies – blend a yoghurt, milk, fruit and/or oats into a tasty smoothie – or freeze in summer to make great ice blocks
  7. Bake muffins together – and add grated fruit to sweet muffins and grated veggies to savoury flavours. Children are more likely to eat new foods if they have been involved in the cooking process.
  8. Reinvent the hot dog – if your child loves hot dogs, make a banana hot dog by spreading peanut butter on wholemeal bread and wrapping it around a banana – yum!
Picky eating at home vs childcare

Michelle says some children are fussier with their food at home compared to their days in an early learning environment – which can be frustrating for parents. 

“Childcare centres are great at providing routines – a pre-meal routine, a sit-down routine, a group eating routine and a clean-up routine,” explains Michelle. “Children thrive on this predictability, since it gives them time to disengage from their previous task before moving onto the next task of eating. It also gives them time to get hungry for their next meal, so they’re ready to eat when food is offered. 

“Also, the group dynamic in an early learning environment is incredibly powerful. By eating with others in a low-pressure situation, children are encouraged to try the foods their friends are eating and are more likely to independently choose to experiment with new foods, especially if they are able to serve themselves from bowls in the centre of the table.”

Michelle adds that for children who struggle with sensory overload or feel performance anxiety around the impending food routine, a group meal environment may make eating even more difficult. In which case, it’s important to seek help to uncover the cause of the food refusal in the first place. 

When to seek help about picky eating? 

If you are unsure whether your child’s picky eating is affecting their growth and development, check in with your GP who can make sure your child is tracking appropriately along their growth charts, and order any blood tests or arrange Dietitian or paediatrician referrals if there are any concerns. 

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