Fussy Eater Mealtime behaviours

We’ll be diving deeper into this topic in our Happy Healthy Eaters Members club, click here to join.

Food isn’t nutrition until it’s eaten.

I love this saying as often as parents we want our children to eat the healthy meals we have prepared for them but often our children will push back and refuse. They know their own minds and they want to independently decide what they will and won’t eat.

What makes family mealtimes successful is often as much to do with the way you feed, or ‘food parent’ as well as the types of food you provide.

As a parent you will influence many of your child’s thoughts and behaviours around food including

·      likes and dislikes,

·      how much they eat, and

·      their mealtime behaviours.

Getting food parenting right is really important to avoid problems like food refusal, fussy eating, making healthy choices, and even weight issues.

Research in food parenting is a fairly new area of psychology and it has revealed a lot of very useful information that many food experts have suspected for years:

 Here is what we know so far:

Encouragement is pressure

Encouraging your child to eat is not a good thing. 

Prompting with “don’t forget to eat your green beans” or  “you can’t leave the table till you clear your plate” has negative consequences. 

Initially it makes the kitchen table a high-pressure environment disturbing the sense of calm that is essential for successful eating. Pressure causes the release of stress hormones, which turn off appetite instantly makes your child no longer feel hungry.

A child who is eager to please his Mum and Dad will probably clear his plate or eat those green beans whether he wants them or not, and this can lead to him becoming overweight as he is always eating beyond his appetite.

Being instructed to eat forces him to ignore his own body’s signs that tell him to stop when he is full and alters his appetite so that he loses his self-regulation (knowing when to stop eating when full) signals.

Babies are born with an innate ability to regulate their food intake and this lasts till around the age of 5.

Most toddlers will refuse your requests to eat; they can become angry as you have taken away their newly found independence around the meal that they were in charge of. It’s not unusual for this to escalate into a tantrum and for them to refuse those foods continually…adding them to their ‘most hated’ list.

Other toddlers may not become cross, they will just ignore you altogether! A lot is to do with temperament.

Fussy Eater Mealtime behaviours by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Offering a reward is bribery

How often have you said “just one more spoon then you can have ice cream for pudding” or “if you don’t finish your dinner you won’t be allowed a biscuit later” or “if you eat your broccoli I’ll let you watch a bit more on the iPad.”

The reward becomes significantly more desirable than it would have been without the task attached to it.

The dinner that needs to be finished or the last spoonful is just a-means-to-an-end to get that ice cream, biscuit or iPad.  As a result, the child doesn’t learn to like the food they had to eat, they just learn to tolerate it and the reward becomes even more attractive!

A recent study from the USA asked children to eat a new food offering them prizes of stickers and TV time as a reward if they did.  Some children readily agreed and received their reward, others dug in their heels and refused.

However almost all of those children added the ‘new food’ to their disliked food list when asked about it at a later date. This study evidences that you can sometimes get children to eat with bribery but you can’t get them to like the food, in-fact this study tells us that you could increase their dislike of the food even more!

We realise that encouragement and reward lead to negative thoughts and behaviours around foods.

It’s leading to disinterest in food at best or becoming overweight or under-nourished at worst.  Entire family mealtimes can become high-pressure environments and toddlers can begin to dread them, refusing to sit at the table or even come into the room at mealtimes. Fussy eating behaviour can be exacerbated and children can develop a fear of even seeing a new food at the table.

There are no good foods and bad foods

Parents sometimes make the mistake of suggesting that some foods are good or healthy whereas others are bad or unhealthy.

Bad or unhealthy foods are often restricted or avoided in the home but research tells us is that these foods become tremendously desirable to children, as they get older.

For example, if a toddler is never exposed to chocolate, when he becomes a school-aged child he will overindulge at any opportunity such as when going for tea at other children’s houses or spending all his pocket money on it at the school disco.

Children are innately drawn towards foods that they cannot have. Likewise, if chocolate is brought into the home at Christmas or Easter, your child may overeat and be unable to self regulate, only stopping when they feel or become sick.

Furthermore, as they grow older children may feel guilty when eating these foods because they’ve learned that they’re ‘bad’ which could damage their self-esteem.

A better plan is to allow treats as a regular part of normal family eating. Have a plan though so kids know what to expect and when. This might be ‘sweets at the weekend’ or ‘ice creams after dinner on Thursdays’. It doesn’t matter what the rule is, agree on something that works for your family and stick with it!

What do you think?

Could these guidelines work for you and your family? Check out my next blog to learn about the 4 different food parenting styles.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here then I’d like to introduce you to the Happy Healthy Eaters Club. This is a members-only club where you’ll learn how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.

The club will teach you all about food and parenting techniques so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins) and make you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.

Your parenting around food means that your little one will learn to be excited to try new foods, family mealtimes are a breeze and there’s not a reward, bribe, or iPad insight and you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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