What do I feed my fussy child? It can be hard to know. But there are some key principles which will make it easier. Here’s the story so far

The Division of Responsibility outlines the roles of both parents/caregivers and children when it comes to food and meal times.

Children have the simple role of deciding how much to eat. Parents/caregivers decide the What, When and Where of meals.

Adults decide: What to eat. When to eat. Where to eat.

Children decide: How much to eat.

The When refers to the timing of meals and snacks, which plays an important role when addressing fussy eating tendencies. Where your child eats also plays a crucial role in addressing fussy eating

Which brings us to the final responsibility:

What:  What food is offered to my child at a meal or snack.

Gaining experience

Fussy eaters will often refuse a food and tell us it’s because they don’t like it, but more often than not they haven’t even tasted the food before coming to that conclusion. A more accurate statement would be that they are inexperienced with the refused food. A normal part of childhood development is to go through a period of neophobia – a fear of new foods. The other thing about children is that they have very limited capacity for long-term memory, particularly in infancy. So, while you clearly remember them smashing out the carrot purees and zucchini fritters as a baby, if they haven’t had this in recent times it is a new and foreign food to them and you need to treat it as such.

Try, try again

The only way to overcome neophobia is repeated exposures to a food. This is true for both new foods and those foods that have previously been refused – because as mentioned above, they most likely refused it because they were inexperienced with it, not because of a dislike of the taste. Even if they reject a food, continue to offer it regularly. Research shows that children need to be exposed to a food many times before they will accept it.

Start small

While it is important not to let a child’s fussiness dictate the foods offered, in these early stages we do need to be considerate of their lack of experience with certain foods. Start out small – have a small portion of a new food on their dinner plate alongside other readily accepted foods. Encourage your child to interact with the new food – smell it, taste it – but remember it’s up to them to decide how much they eat. Avoid offering alternatives – as the adult you are responsible for the What, and this food is what you have chosen. If the child is hungry it is their responsibility to address that hunger with the food chosen by you.

Draw the line

Remember – it is the child’s responsibility to decide how much is eaten. You can certainly encourage them to try a new food but resist the urge to use food bribes (for example “If you take a bite you can have ice-cream for dessert). This has been shown to make them less likely to enjoy the new food in the long term. If they are not eating because they are genuinely full then encouraging them to eat beyond this (“one more bite”) can also teach them not to listen to their body’s hunger and satiety cues, which can lead to developing a habit of overeating.

It is also important to avoid forcing a child to eat or threatening them with punishment for not eating. Meal and snack times need to be an enjoyable experience that your child is willing to participate in.

Once your child has become familiar with a greater range of foods then you can take the next step and offer meals and snacks that incorporate these newly accepted foods. Repeated exposure is the key to keeping these new foods in. If they go too long between offerings then that food moves back into unfamiliar territory.

There are some food ideas for the “WHAT”:

To give you a another perspective on the What, Kate Freeman, has articulated what a healthy day of food could look like for kids.

As with all of the steps in addressing fussy eating, it is essential that you are consistent in your approach. Once you have decided “What” that decision is final, there are no alternatives.

Michelle Bulman is our Paediatric Dietitian expert and can help you with a fussy eater.