Most toddlers go through a fussy stage with their eating. However it’s a whole different ball game when your 8, 9, 10 plus child is still only eating a handful of foods. Most parents in this situation have tried a million strategies to get their child to eat but find that nothing seems to make any difference. All that happens is everyone gets more and more stressed and relationships start to be impacted. So if you’re screaming “Help my child still won’t eat!” here are my survival strategies for stressed out families with older fussy eaters.
Number one: Don’t beat yourself up!
Now I know that your blood probably boils when other parents talk about the successful strategies they have implemented that have helped their little ones get healthy. Remember they are probably lying or at least embellishing truth. Spare a thought for me, I’m a food and health professional and I love all those strategies and recommend them myself as a first line of attack. Other parents, teachers and health professionals may tell you to:
- Enjoy growing fruit and veg with your kids, it will really increase their interest in healthy eating
- Spend happy Saturdays cooking healthy dishes as a family. Include heaps of vegetables from all the colours of the rainbow. Once they’ve been involved your kids will sit down and tuck in with you.
- Eat together as a family, your are the best role model when your kids see you eating healthily they will start to copy you.
- Bag up healthy snack packs for football matches, ballet competitions and school break times so that non-one is tempted to think about sweets or crisps
- Avoid buying those awful sweetened cereals because “it’s just an excuse for confectionary!”
- Remember that it’s your responsibility to provide healthy nourishing meals and your kids have to learn to take responsibility for eating them.
- Make sure everyone uses their sugar App. religiously everyday to keep well below that 6tsp/day limit.
When I became a parent encouraging my kids to grow, cook and eat a balanced, healthy diet was high up on my agenda and there is nothing wrong with the advice above. However many years down the parenting track I am yet to experience the joy of this healthy eating parenting utopia and believe me I’ve tried it all.
Before you click out thinking “why should I listen to you then?” I need to tell you that there are many good reasons why some children will continue to struggle to eat a variety of foods and that helping them is a long-term labour of love. We can help them improve their habits but we cannot change them. More importantly we can also change the way we react to it all. It’s almost certainly not your fault, after all if you’re reading this you’ve probably tried all the usual strategies that work just fine for everyone else. You’re not doing it all wrong, you are just trying to be a good parent, so have yourself a slice of beetroot and chocolate cake or whatever floats your boat and read on.
Number two: Take time to understand your child
There are three key reasons why children struggle to cope with new foods:
- They are quite literally afraid of new foods. This may be associated with being coerced into eating foods that they found enormously unpleasant when they were younger or with other unpleasant early years experiences such as illness or grief which they associate with food. However sometimes there is no particular reason that anyone can detect, it’s just the way it is. If you did try some coercing in the early days remember you did the same as everyone else. You didn’t know then that your child would have a bad reaction to it so try not to wallow in guilt – there is a way forward.
- They were not introduced to enough variety early on. If you were going through a tough time when weaning your child and on reflection would have liked to have done some things differently, again please don’t blame yourself. Life is complicated and sometimes things don’t turn out as we imagined.
- They have sensory processing difficulties. This means that sensory signals don’t get processed normally and don’t trigger the usual responses. Kids who experience this over-respond or under-respond to sensory information and some crave powerful sensory experiences. The problem can affect all senses or just one or two. Touch, smell, sight and taste are all involved in eating so if any of these senses are affected then it can impact eating and drinking. For example someone who over-responds may experience food as more strong-smelling, thicker, thinner or more powerfully flavoured than it actually is. Someone who under-responds may not notice smells, tastes or textures and someone who is sensory seeking may crave pungent, gloopy or crunchy foods. These symptoms are often seen in people with ADHD or Autism or other neuro-developmental conditions but they can be seen in people with no other diagnoses.
For some of my clients their child’s early years’ experiences are something they know little about because they have adopted or fostered children from the care system who were with their birth families in the early days. This brings added complexities as these children have often experienced significant trauma and neglect and sometimes exposure to drugs and alcohol in the womb and all this brings added complexities.
Because there are different reasons why children refuse a varied diet, developing a plan to help them improve is necessarily a process of trial and error. So you’re going to need patience, which is why you must keep going back to these first 2 tips.
Number three: Get the foundations right
Whatever your individual set of circumstances there are there are 5 things you need to get in place
- Never force feed your child or put them under pressure to eat something they refuse. Saying: “If you don’t eat this then there’s no snack/pudding etc” just heightens stress and makes it more likely that the food will be rejected however much the snack or pudding is desired. It also gives the message that sweet/fatty foods are yummy but this other stuff is just what we have to eat. We want our children to enjoy a varied diet.
- Don’t put new foods on the same plate as foods that are already accepted, you may end up with the whole lot getting rejected. Try new foods in between meals instead.
- Don’t assume that if your child is hungry they will eat. I have clients whose children did not eat anything for days and virtually nothing for weeks when they imposed a zero tolerance regime in relation to their child’s fussiness.
- The most important thing is that your child must gain weight and grow normally. Calories and protein are the priorities under these circumstances. This may mean that you have to feed your child foods you consider unhealthy maybe because they have a lot of fat and sugar. I know this feels counter-intuitive but if your child misses a growth spurt it will be very hard to catch up. Of course you will worry about the longterm effects of the fat and sugar. Reducing their risk of disease in later life is important and the goal is to eventually achieve a healthy diet but growth has to be number one. An all round multivitamin and mineral supplement is probably an important addition to the diet until you can increase the variety.
- Your child will probably be aware that their diet is not very good and this might make them feel guilty or inadequate. They will be getting education about a healthy diet at school so talk to them about what that looks like and how great it’s going to be when they can eat a variety of foods from the different food groups. Let them know that you are there to help them and that you believe they will get there. Say something like “I’m glad you learnt about dairy foods (or whatever) today, they are so good for healthy bones. It’s going to be great when you can eat them. I’m going to stick with you and help and in the meantime this supplement tablet will help too.” That way you get to give a healthy eating message, whilst also offering reassurance.
You will need to get friends, family and your child’s school on board with this too. Kids spend a lot of time eating outside the home and you don’t want all your good work being undone everyday. Your dietitian will be happy to write a letter for school explaining appropriate strategies.
Number five: Get professional help
Depending on your issues it may help to have an assessment from a Child Psychiatrist to understand if there are any specific diagnoses. If you think your child has fear issues a Child Psychologist can help and Occupational Therapists can offer support with sensory issues. I know I would say this but assessment, advice and support from an appropriately experienced Dietitian is key. Your Dietitian will be able to identify any nutritional deficiencies, advise how best to correct them given the challenges you face and provide much more detailed and personalised strategies to help you with the foundations set out above. These are just survival tips the aim is to get from surviving to thriving so please do get help.
If you would like help for your family please see the one:one section in the services tab here and make an enquiry about my “Explore Family Plus” programme or any specific help you think you need.