Tears, tantrums… and that’s just the parents. If you find yourself dreading mealtimes as the dining table becomes a battleground, then rest assured – you are not alone.
Caroline O’Connor is a registered dietitian specialising in babies and children. Her popular website solidstart.ie and Instagram page sees her inundated with requests from worried parents who are stressed out because of what they see as their child’s limited diet.
It is estimated that up to 75 per cent of parents will struggle with picky eating at some point, O’Connor says.
“Most toddlers will go through a phase of only eating chicken nuggets or pasta or bread,” she says. “The reality is that the majority will come through this phase without any intervention but sometimes parents can do things with the best of intentions that make things worse.”
Toddlers tend to get fussy with their food at around 18 months because they want to have more autonomy – this includes over what they eat. Their appetite has also diminished because their rate of growth has slowed right down, O’Connor notes: “when that’s the case, you can afford to be more selective over what you eat.” Some children are naturally cautious of new foods, while others have a genuine phobia, she adds.
This natural developmental stage is then compounded by what O’Connor says can be “unrealistic expectations” by parents of what and how much their child should be eating.
“They are increasingly worried because they aren’t eating anything and that creates extra pressure at mealtimes, making children more anxious and less likely to eat,” she says. This pressure may not help the situation and indeed, can make things worse. “Insisting a child eats something they don’t want to can entrench the fussy eating,” O’Connor warns.
If you’ve been nodding your head in agreement, you won’t be surprised to hear that O’Connor’s online classes for parents of fussy eaters have long waiting lists. The goal is to offer helpful feeding strategies, she explains. “These won’t make your child immediately exit this stage but can significantly ease the path and not make things any worse.”
Most of us remember being told to clear our plates as children, but O’Connor ascribes to the “parent provides, child decides” school of thought. She advises that parents simply continue to expose their toddler to new foods and take away the pressure. “You have to respect that and give them some autonomy.”
This doesn’t mean making another supper if the first is summarily rejected, however. “You definitely shouldn’t do that. You want to have a couple of things on the plate and make sure there is one thing that they reliably eat most of the time. It’s about being considerate of their needs,” she advises. “After that I would just leave it because otherwise you are letting your child dictate what food is served and really that’s the parent’s job.”
Next to picky eating, weaning onto solid foods is the other main issue that causes parents consternation. While there is some evidence to suggest that babies weaned onto green or bitter vegetables are more likely to develop a taste for those foods, O’Connor is quick to emphasise that there is no definitive approach that parents should take when weaning a baby. Parents should also not feel under pressure to follow elaborate recipes.
“There is no right or wrong – the goal of weaning should simply be to feed your baby modified versions of what the family eats. You don’t need to give your baby quinoa, for example, if that’s not part of your family diet,” she says.
As a mum of four kids, O’Connor says she has a relaxed approach to feeding her children – “it’s not about perfection”.
“I feel sorry for parents because I think there is a huge amount of pressure that wasn’t there before, for their child to be seen to be eating a wide variety of foods,” she says.
“I have parents contacting me who are worried their child doesn’t like hummus or pesto – these are foods that children were never exposed to before, I don’t think I had them until I was in my late 20s!”
Picky eating is a broad spectrum, she explains. “Some parents are worried because their children won’t eat any green vegetables, whereas others would be happy if they would just eat a different pasta shape.”
One way of tackling fussy eating is to get children involved in preparing and cooking their own food. No age is too young for this, says Deirdre Doyle, a qualified health coach who founded the Cool Food School in a bid to promote healthy eating in a fun way.
“Picky eating is simply children trying to exert control over their environment. In my experience, children who are exposed to food and cook with it and do so in a non-pressure environment, they engage with food in a really positive way.”
Doyle works with children of all ages but her core work is with pre-schoolers, aged three and upwards. “I chose that age because they are the ones that need it and we can make most of an impact because that’s when they start to form their habits.” She says there are lots of things that children can do safely in the kitchen – she even sells a range of safe knives and peelers online.
Ultimately, it’s about creating a positive relationship with food and making family mealtimes relaxed and enjoyable, O’Connor says. “It’s not what you offer, it’s how you offer it.”