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Dealing with fussiness and food refusal

Baby dropped his food
Credit: iStock.com/GCShutter

Trying to give your child a meal you’ve spent precious time preparing can be very frustrating when fussy eaters refuse to even take a mouthful.

It’s not unusual for parents to dread mealtime, worrying that their child will cry and fuss when being offered food. But it’s important to recognise the shift in interest around food is closely aligned with the child’s growing independence.

Karen Campbell, Professor of Population Nutrition at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, says one of the biggest challenges around fussy eating is that if children are supported to become fussy eaters we nurture a generation of children with less healthy diets overall. 

“By the age of 18 months children are well aware of what you want them to do. They’ve totally tuned in to the fact you want them to eat and that becomes a point for manipulation. How great to get more attention from my parent when I say, ‘No, I’m not going to eat!’,” Professor Campbell says.

“For many parents the fear of a child going hungry results in them trying anything to get them to eat. Often parents will offer their child something they know they’d prefer, such as yoghurt instead of vegetables.

“It’s a good idea to offer food in an environment not laden with emotion. So try to be able to back away from the fact you just spent 30 minutes preparing dinner and making the meal look lovely only to have the child refuse to eat. 

“It would be good for parents and children alike to try to remove the emotional baggage from food. When we do this, we’re much more relaxed about a child choosing not to eat safe in the knowledge that it’s an extremely rare thing in Australia for a child to become malnourished.”

Professor Campbell says it’s important for parents to remember that the more they fuss, the more the child will fuss.

“Children are highly tuned to which parent buttons to press to get a reaction – and eating or not does get a reaction!

“So your job as a parent is to provide healthy nutritious food at predictable intervals and the child decides whether to eat and how much to eat,” Professor Campbell says.

It would be good for parents and children alike to try to remove the emotional baggage from food. When we do this, we’re much more relaxed about a child choosing not to eat safe in the knowledge that it’s an extremely rare thing in Australia for a child to become malnourished.
Professor Karen Campbell

Avoid 'pushing' a child to eat

If the child doesn’t eat very much then this may well be because they’re not actually hungry. 

Professor Campbell suggests parents leave the food for the amount of time they feel is appropriate, and ideally when the parent is sitting at the table and eating too.

“Then you can remove the food without comment. Try to back away and let them feel some autonomy in their eating.  It’s similar to baby-led weaning, where the baby is provided with food on their high chair tray –  and they take control of their eating – usually with much mess and hands. 

The main idea here is that parents are not involved in seeking to ‘push’ their child to eat – the outcome of having a bowl of food and a spoon placed squarely in the parent’s hands, Professor Campbell says.

“Of course, once parents introduce a spoon to mealtimes there’s a desire to keep pushing until the bowl is finished. It’s a little bit about power and a little bit about seeing that they finish their food.”

Try not to bring your own bias to the table

When it comes to a healthy diet, Professor Campbell says the idea of what a truly healthy diet looks like will differ across cultures.

“If you look at diets that will promote our health across life, they are rich in plant foods, such as fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes and whole grain cereals.  We need more of these foods and less fat and sugar than we currently eat.

“While this is the ideal, the opposite is our reality.  We know that children eat relatively fewer vegetables as they move through childhood and that sweet snacks and drinks are often the foods that replace them.”

Professor Campbell’s work with many parents over the past 20 years highlights that parents often bring their own biases about vegetables to the table. It’s important that the fact that we don’t enjoy particular foods – often vegetables – shouldn’t limit us offering these to our children. 

“We’ll all be far healthier if we eat a wide range of vegetables in the context of a healthy diet. It’s really important to be aware of your own food biases and to try not to pass these on to your children.

“Parents often fall into the trap of thinking their children won’t like what they don’t like. Most of us don’t eat a wide variety of vegetables. Another thing to remember is that if you offer your child, broccoli for example, and they spit it out, it doesn’t mean they don’t like it.

“Research tell us that it takes up to ten tastes of a new food – ideally served with a known and loved food – to see if they enjoy it. We can all get acclimatised to different tastes.”

Professor Campbell invites all parents of very young children to take part in a free online course Infant Nutrition: from Breastfeeding to Baby's First Solids, led by nutritional experts from Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Science. 

In the course parents learn what and how much to feed babies, how to wean them and practical strategies for dealing with fussy eaters as babies move from milk to mushy foods to take their place at the family table.

This free course will run online on 29 July and 18 November 2019.