We had a post Confirmation celebration in the house recently and as I handed round a plate of sausage rolls, my nephew looked up at me and asked accusatorily, scrutinising my face, “They don’t have mushrooms in them, do they?”

We all have foods that we don’t particularly like, or choose not to eat, but what constitutes a “fussy eater”? Characterised by an unwillingness to eat familiar foods, try new foods or having strong food preferences, there is no agreed definition of fussy eating.

Consequently, fussy eaters can sometimes go unrecognised for years, with the hope that it’s just a phase they’ll grow out of. Dr Colette Reynolds, healthy eating coach and founder of Growing Healthy Eaters says, “If it’s continuing for more than six months, it’s not a phase.”

What should our children eat? “Three words,” Colette replies. “What we eat.”

Commonly, fussy eating begins around 14 to 16 months. “It’s like nature’s way of protecting them, that if they’re mobile and eat everything then they’re going to eat poisonous berries and flowers, so if they get fussy as they get mobile it’s like a safety mechanism,” says Cathy Monaghan, CORU-registered senior paediatric dietician from www.weaning.ie.

It’s also a way of asserting independence. “They want to be the boss and have a say in their eating,” says Colette.

Refusing the nutritious food we offer them or being very selective can be worrying and stressful for the parent. It’s best not to show your anxiety to your child as it only exacerbates the situation, making the child more stressed.

Try instead to get your child to tune into their own hunger. Do they feel hungry? If the answer is yes, then they should eat. But if they don’t feel hungry, they shouldn’t eat. “The aim is that our children are hungry for mealtimes but when we present the food, we shouldn’t make our kids eat it by pressurising them,” Colette says.

Easing stressful mealtimes

You can further ease stressful mealtimes by focusing less on the food. Telling jokes or connecting with your child by chatting about the day can make for a far more positive mealtime. Your child may be used to eating in front of a screen to distract them, but our goal should be no screens - replace the screen with an audiobook or music or gradually reduce the time on the screen.

Instead of asking an open-ended question like “What do you want for dinner?” you might offer them two or three options and let them pick one. “Offering control in a healthy way is a good idea,” Colette says. “Research generally shows children are more likely to eat a food that they pick themselves.”

Filling up on snacks can result in a child not being hungry at mealtimes. It may be hard to break this cycle fuelled by our concern to at least get some food inside them. Offer a reasonable food that they like such as plain pasta for dinner. If they don’t eat it then and are hungry for a snack at bedtime, re-offer them the plain pasta rather than a snack. Consider changing the times of meals - if they come home ravenous from school, serve their dinner then.

“You don’t make progress at the table, you make progress by getting the child to help you with the shopping, using food in arts and crafts, getting them to scrape the plates after dinner so they’re interacting with food with no pressure to eat it,” says Cathy.

Playing with food

Growing up, we were always told not to play with our food, but Colette actively encourages hands-on exposure whether they smell, lick or touch it. “They’re getting more knowledge about what the food is like and then it’s not as scary,” she says. Encourage your child to put the food in their mouth. You can say there’s always an opt-out, if they’re not happy with it - they can spit it out into a tissue.

Some parents resort to subterfuge, hiding the vegetables in the meals. Colette wouldn’t recommend this approach exclusively as children will never see what it looks, tastes and feels like. It’s best to get the child onboard.

Bribes for finishing their broccoli may work in the short-term, but in the long-term broccoli is no more appealing and can lead to a battle of wills, with you saying to eat two spoons and they’ll only eat one.

When packed lunches come home untouched it can be soul-destroying for parents. Include three or four components that are quick and easy to eat, with no surprises. If you’re not sure if they like it, try it at another time. Encourage your child to get involved in making the lunch – they’ll be more likely to eat it.

“The time that you’ll probably make the least amount of progress at meals is dinner-time because everybody is most tired and least hungry,” says Cathy. “It’s not unusual for toddlers to eat well twice in the day because their appetite has changed and they’re going to be eating less than we think they need to eat.”

A few tweaks at breakfast might be a better time to try and change things because the child is most rested and most hungry. Cathy suggests having a sharing plate alongside the usual cereal and demonstrating the behaviour we want to see by keeping things relaxed, sitting and chatting with them.

Maybe I’ll serve mushrooms at the next Confirmation.

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