Ahead of the Fussy Eater S.O.S Evening on Friday 9th November at the Royal Well Hotel, Alex from Feed the Brood gives us her top tips on how to handle little fussy eaters! I read her tips with great gusto as am going through a bit of a tricky time with my youngest and can’t wait to put these tips into action. I’m sure they will be really useful for anyone else with a fussy eater too!
“Go to your room without any tea!” These are the childhood memories that stick. Even as an adult, I can’t fall asleep with a grumbling belly.
This empty, hollow feeling that bubbles up from the gut is what we’re so fearful of for our children. Will my child feel sad and unloved if I don’t give them something they’ll eat?
It’s totally understandable. From the moment our firstborn is in our arms, we’re hardwired to feed them every few hours. The female anatomy even provides the ever-embarrassing ‘let-down’ cue when a baby cries. It might not even be the right baby, but the primitive body obliges regardless.
And it’s the most prominent form of communication we have with our children from the get go. They holler, we respond with milk. In the nights, they only need whimper in preparation for a scream and we pop up ‘ta-dah!’ with boob or bottle to soothe their aching bellies and gently wipe away their tears.
How then, are we supposed to know when to switch from sole-provider to bad-cop and stop offering food on demand? Is it when they’re a year old? Is it two?
The answer is Never.
In 1983, highly regarded dietitian and therapist Ellyn Satter created the ‘Division of Responsibility’ from whence came the phrase:
I provide the food and you eat it.
And I couldn’t agree more. It’s at the heart of so many conversations I have with nutritionists and dieticians, but most importantly, I’m living and breathing it with my brood at the dinner table each night. And in my opinion, it’s the Golden Ticket.
Under the Division of Responsibility, there’s no need to bribe, reward or cajole at any age. There’s no need to worry if your child refuses food. That’s not your job. If you put a nutritious meal on the family table, that’s your end of the bargain done. You nailed it, Love. All you have to do now is keep calm whilst you let your child do their job and make a decision as to whether they want to eat.
So, how do you put this into practice without starving the life out of your child? If you’re at the start of your feeding journey with your family, you can begin with the best of intentions. But if you’re in the thick of fussy eating fury every single mealtime, you know you’ll have a tough job on your hands to get them eating happily at the table each mealtime.
Fear not. Here are my top tips to ensure that you don’t end up with a hunger strike:
♥ Stick to a feeding structure – young children need food every 2-3 hrs. Plan snacks at mid-morning and mid-afternoon to ensure that they feel hungry enough but not starving at mealtimes. The best way to do this is make up a Tupperware pot of snacks that are similar to a mini-meal – half a pitta with hummus inside, some slices of carrot or cucumber and a few cubes of cheese is a good example of a snack box you could offer. Keep it in your handbag for the half past ten grumps and you’ll be laughing. Quite literally.
♥ Meal plan – it’s been said before and you’ll hear it again and again for ever more; meal planning is the dog’s danglers. I’m lazy and love cutting corners, so it isn’t something only for the organised mum! I’ll break it down to show you how I do it: I book a food delivery slot for a Sunday night every week (I use Ocado Reserved). I sit down with a piece of paper and a cook book on either a Thursday/Friday/Saturday, I map out the week, figure out when I have time to cook longer meals and when I need something rapid, preferably out of the freezer. I order the food. Done. Making a meal plan doesn’t need to be onerous, but having a plan will mean that you spend less time staring into the fridge wondering what to cook. It will allow you to cook the more adventurous variety of foods your fussy eater needs exposure to, you’ll save money and eat healthier as an added benefit.
♥ Include a few dishes in each meal – plan your family meal to include something your fussy eater will likely eat alongside a wide variety of things they won’t eat or haven’t ever eaten before. Repeated exposure to just seeing the foods is the first step to getting them eating it. Construction food like fajitas is an example of a meal that includes multiple elements on offer. If you’re thinking about doing lasagne, why not include garlic bread and salady bits on the side? Or deconstruct it completely and serve it up Bolognese style, but with the meat and pasta offered separately. Over a long period, your fussy eater will start to help themselves to the meat and other elements – provided it’s their own decision.
♥ Make happy family mealtimes a top priority – it may sound militant, but you’ll notice the difference extremely quickly if you sit down with your children for the majority of your meals. I cannot emphasise enough the difference it will make if you stay at the table with the children during the meal. And better still, eating at the same time so they can copy the way you eat and behave at the table. Try to take all the focus away from the fussy eating behaviour and make a big point of initiating fun and interesting conversation about other stuff. I find that it’s an amazing opportunity to bond with my kids every day and it helps them develop their conversation skills at the same time. Depending on their age, try some of these: Would you rather be a lion or a lizard? Where in the world would you go on holiday if you could? What’s your favourite planet? Etc etc. Ultimately if you make the family mealtime a positive experience, they’ll want to come to the table, they’ll have a better appetite when they sit down (stress suppresses appetite) and they’ll behave better when they’re there.
♥ Steer clear of charts, bribes or even encouragement to eat – this one is simplest to explain, but hardest to do: don’t say anything other than “That’s ok, you don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to.” By saying that mantra repeatedly, you’re allowing your child the choice of what they eat and how much they eat and it also puts meddling adults straight about how you’re dealing with it. If they choose to eat the square sum of zero, that’s fine. Comfort yourself in the fact that they ate a planned mid-afternoon snack, and maybe they don’t feel hungry. Comfort yourself also in the idea that the hunger they feel as a result of their refusal will play a part in a wider learning experience which will eventually lead to a better relationship with food.
♥ Whatever you do, don’t provide a rescue meal – if you start offering and providing alternatives to the main family meal, you’ll completely undermine the process of trying to tackle fussy eating altogether. Any time you or another caregiver does this, you’re giving them the subconscious message that they can keep demanding alternatives and you’ll keep providing – in short, they know the family meal isn’t actually intended for them. What you can do initially, is save them some of the family meal with cling film on in the fridge and offer it again later if they complain of hunger. You may also be offering a piece of fruit or yoghurt after the meal and this can still be offered. It’s a nutritional element of the meal that shouldn’t be held hostage in return for pleasing you. Allowing them to choose to eat what you have provided is key. You provide, they decide!
So, if you’re feeling inspired by these six top tips, come along to meet me and my dietitian collaborator Sarah Almond-Bushell at the Royal Wells Hotel next Friday evening 9th November. Sarah is an expert dietitian and feeding therapist who has most recently been working for Annabel Karmel on her latest edition of her weaning book. We have been working together to develop our 30 top tips for fussy eating and will be able to share them with you in much greater detail on the night. The Fussy Eaters S.O.S. Evening promises to be packed full of tips and information on how to apply a strategy for fussy eating for the whole family.
Book now at www.feedthebrood.com/events
This is a collaborative post with Feed the Brood.