Dear Father Hood: how do you cure a fussy eater?
Food, glorious food. Except when you’re a toddler. I mean, seriously – is there anything more frustrating than having a kid who just won’t eat fruit or veg? Stop scratching your head. The answer is no, which is why I signed up for the Toddler Food MOT workshop at The Dadsnet’s recent DadCon.
It was hosted by baby and toddler food brand Organix, it was run by kids healthy eating expert Lucy Thomas and it set out to help adults understand why their child suddenly becomes a fussy eater, before offering up some tips around how mums and dads can conquer a toddler’s eating issues.
Ooh, sounds interesting. It really was.
Why toddlers become fussy eaters
The ‘helping adults to understand’ section used a couple of volunteers, the scene from Indiana Jones where Indy & Co are served chilled monkey brains and a handful of unidentifiable brown liquids (some of which were edible and some of which were not) to explain the concept of food neophobia.
This process, which sees kids restrict their diet to foods they know and recognise, tends to begin at around the time toddlers start to walk. It is sparked by a sudden realisation that certain things are unsafe to eat (e.g. mud, bleach, daddy’s medicine), and it often reaches its peak at around the 18-month mark.
But that’s not the really bad news. Oh no. The really bad news is that the fussy eating issues that are ignited by neophobia can continue all the way up the age of SIX! My initial thought? Blimey, that’s a lot of Cheerios.
Once she’d given everyone a handle on the cause of a toddler’s dietary quirks, it was time for Lucy to cackle loudly, grab her bag and head home to count her money. Only joking. It was actually time for her to reveal her top tips for overcoming this stage. Are you ready for them? Great, then here goes…
1. Changing your child’s diet is an ultra-marathon not a sprint
You know the expression, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?” Well, it’s highly plausible that it was invented by some poor parent who was trying to get their kid to eat a new fruit or vegetable.
“It can take up to 15-20 exposures to a food before your child will begin to embrace a new food,” explains Lucy.
Yes, that does say 15-20.
2. Don’t use to ‘T’ word
Picture the scene. You’ve been up since the crack of dawn, but have somehow managed to cook something nice for dinner. You put the spoon to your kid’s mouth and… they bat it onto the floor. So you try again and they do it again. You swear internally, take a deep breath and go for a third attempt. Same result, so you get a little agitated and say, “just try it”, “eat it”, or perhaps “come on, just taste it”.
Sounds reasonable enough, right? Wrong. It turns out instructions like “eat”, “try” and “taste” make your child feel like they are being pressurised, and when they feel pressurised they are even less likely to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.
3. But do use the ‘L’ word
“Offering your little one a food which is ‘like’ something they already enjoy is a great way to introduce them to something new,” says Lucy. “For example, if they like slices of cucumber, they may be willing to explore slices of courgette if you say it’s ‘like’ cucumber.”
4. Incorporate food into games
Regular Father-Hood readers will know that I love a good game, and it turns out Lucy is the same. From orange squeezing competitions to hiding carrots around the house and garden, she suggested loads of activities that would get your kid used to touching, feeling and tasting healthy foods. My top three were:
A. Kick the ball, crunch a carrot
- Go the garden with your kid, a ball and the vegetable that helps you see in the dark.
- Kick the ball to your kid, take a bite out of the carrot, say “mmmm mmm” and grin.
- Get your kid to do the same.
B. Fruit sort race
- Put a variety of coloured fruit in a plastic container on the table.
- Place three of four coloured plates on the table.
- Challenge your toddler to sort the fruit onto the correctly coloured plates in the quickest time possible.
- Stop the clock.
- Clap excitedly, smile profusely and encourage them to lick, or kiss, each of their fingers.
C. Monster teeth
- Cut a fruit or vegetable your kid is wary of into strips.
- Place these strips under your top lip, so it looks like you’ve developed big, colourful teeth.
- Make your best monster noise and wander around like a comedy ogre.
- Encourage your kid to do the same.
First, you pick a foodstuff (e.g. celery). Then you choose a nursery rhyme or popular children’s song. (e.g. Row, row, row, your boat). And then you mess around with the food, while singing an altered version of the song (e.g. “Row, row, row, celery”). What’s not to like?
6. Change the environment
According to Lucy, taking food off the dinner table and into different and potentially exciting new environments like the garden or “under the table” can help to make it more appealing to a fussy eater.
“You have more chance of success if you make it part of an adventure,” she reveals.
Well, don’t just sit there. Grab a pineapple and head for the park.
7. Praise is really important
You know how you over-celebrated and gave your kid a sticker every time they peed into the potty or went into nursery without crying? Well, this is pretty much the same idea.
“Praise your toddler for taking small steps on their food adventure and offer stickers for touching and smelling a new food,” advises Lucy. “Next time, they might be more willing to kiss or lick it. And after a few weeks they might surprise you by crunching a new vegetable or nibbling an unusual grain.”
8. Take to the bath
Lucy suggests mixing new food adventures with bath time for two reasons. First, if they are playing with a new fruit and squeeze loads of juice out of it, it doesn’t matter, as they are in the bath. Second, spinach (a food which a lot of toddlers refuse to eat) is sticky when it is wet, so you can encourage your kid to stick it to their hand, then their arm, then their forehead and then, finally, their tongue.
“This might be a fleeting touch, but it means that tasting on a very basic level has taken place,” explains Lucy.
9. Never attempt to introduce new food at meal times
Due to the whole “15-20 exposures before a fussy eater will embrace a new food” thing, attempting to shove a previously unknown item into your kid’s mouth at breakfast, lunch or dinner almost guarantees yourself a horrible half-hour and a second shot at making dinner.
Instead, try to keep new foods fun and introduce them at snack times.
10. Cut some shapes
No, Lucy is not talking about dancing (although if it incorporates food and makes your kid smile, then why not give it a go?). She is talking about grabbing a knife or pastry cutter, channelling your inner Picasso and making some ‘food art’ along the lines of the animals in the below picture (credit to Ryan from Organix).
Are we nearly there yet? Yes, we are. In fact, we’re finished. So go forth and cure your toddler’s fussy eating habits. And remember to tell them that Father-Hood sent you.
Until next time…