A nutritionist gives advice on how to feed a fussy child

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Children often find the challenge of exploring new things and situations more exciting  than mealtimes, leaving parents uncertain about how to provide their offspring with optimal nutrition. And to make things worse, according to research, half of children under the age of two are classified as fussy eaters. If mealtimes in your house are a daily struggle, here are a few practical tips that could help: 

1. Make mealtimes fun

Like adults, children tend to eat with their eyes. Make their meals interesting and appealing:

  • Use colourful kid-sized cups, plates, utensils, straws, and placemats. Find plates and cups with your child’s favourite cartoon character.
  • Cut and arrange foods like vegetables and sandwiches into interesting shapes.
  • To make your children proud of their food, involve them in preparing salads, mixing ingredients in a bowl, or setting the table.
  • Use a star chart to mark off how many fruits and vegetables are eaten at each meal. Encourage your child to experiment with colours, using a variety of different fruits and vegetables. Place the star chart somewhere visible and offer your child a reward when a goal is reached, such as going on a play date or an extra story at bedtime.
  • Make a game of it. Print a picture of a rainbow and stick it on the fridge. Encourage your child to eat a fruit and vegetable each day from a different colour of the rainbow. For example, tomatoes and watermelon are red, berries and beetroot are purple, and mangoes and carrots are orange.
  • According to research, fussy eaters are less likely to enjoy mixed dishes like spaghetti Bolognese. Focus on snack platters and single foods. 
  • Offer one new food at a time and plate it separately instead of with other foods.

2. Be patient

A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that the caregivers had to offer a new food a maximum of five times before children decided they dislike it. Yet researchers say that it takes up to 15 repeated exposures to a new food before a child accepts it. Patience is key, though it's understandably easier said than done. This is what you can do in the meantime:

  • Offer one new food at a time and only in small amounts, so as not to overwhelm your child.
  • Make sure there is always one food on the dinner table that you can reasonably expect your child to eat. Serve a new food along with a favourite food. This will help improve the likelihood of your child accepting the new food. The child’s acceptance of a new food is also highly influenced by verbal praise from parents.
  • Children thrive on routine and schedule. Establish a signal for meal time such as a warm bath or hand washing, and allow time for play after meals. The anticipation may encourage your child to finish the food on their plate.
  • Force feeding should be avoided. Remember that fussy eating may not just be about food but also about the striving for independence, which is part of a child’s normal social and physical development.

3. Set a proper example

It is clear from research that a child’s acceptance of a new food is strongly influenced by parents and siblings. Your own acceptance of food as a parent also plays a key role. Here is how you can set a good example:

  • Start influencing your child during pregnancy. Research shows a child’s exposure to flavours through the amniotic fluid and breast milk may influence food acceptance.
  • If you don’t want your child to eat a certain type of food, don’t bring into the home or be seen eating it. Such observations may undermine healthy, nutritious food and create the impression that sweet treats should be valued over healthier foods.
  • Set an example by allowing your child to see you trying new and interesting foods. Choose a fruit or vegetable at the supermarket and encourage your child to do the same. Choosing the food will encourage your child to "take ownership" of it and eat it. 
  •  A child’s acceptance of a new food is also influenced by verbal praise. Use a positive, friendly tone of voice. Focus less on spilled juice or a floor covered with peas, and rather create a warm and inviting eating environment.
  • It's important for children to enjoy food in a non-distracting environment, and eating as a family around a table and not in front of the TV is recommended. Sometimes children refuse food to seek attention. The best solution is to let it go without fussing, forcing or fighting.

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