I met Livvy over a year ago now when she was just setting up her business and I was immediately intrigued by what she did. Livvy’s a children’s behavioural specialist, doesn’t every Mum need one of these! So when we met up again earlier this year I asked if she’d share her secrets on how to manage those tricky eating habits with our little ones. It’s something I often talk to my clients about and grapple with as a Mum myself! Here’s what Livvy has to say …
What our kids eat (or won’t eat) is a hot topic for most parents I work with. While some children are happy to try anything you put in front of them and love exploring new tastes and textures, it’s very common to experience the complete opposite of this. Mealtimes can be real stress points in family life (particularly as they happen 3 times a day!) and we all know there is nothing more frustrating than having the meal you’ve lovingly prepared rejected without so much as a mouthful passing their lips.
Many books recommend that the best way to get our kids eating a healthy balanced diet is to prepare home cooked food and to all sit down together to eat as a family. This sounds simple enough, but in my experience I found this tricky when my kids were little. Juggling the needs of 3 kids when one child needs spoon feeding, the other one needs their food cut up, one sends their food flying accidentally (or not) across the room, one falls off their chair, one needs a wee and so on – not exactly conducive to all sitting down together. My kids always needed to eat by 5pm and my husband was rarely home from work by then, preparing a healthy meal is not always the challenge!
So many parents contact me asking for advice on how to achieve smooth, stress-free meal times, for strategies to encourage their reluctant eaters to try new tastes/textures and to help promote good eating habits.
Here are my top tips for happy mealtimes and some ways in which you might encourage the fussier eaters amongst our little ones.
Have age appropriate expectations on the amount you expect your kids to eat. If you have kids of different ages, remember that a 2 year old and a 4 year old may need different amounts of food. You should also take this into account when assessing how much they have eaten, the 2 year old may not have eaten as much as the 4 year old but this does not mean the 2 year old has not eaten enough. In our quest to represent every food group your child can end up with a huge portion of food on their plate and this can seem daunting to many children. Look at how much they had on their plate and judge it from what they HAVE eaten and not what they HAVE NOT. Those of you with older kids who are massively into fairness – if you let your toddler finish when there is loads left on their plate, this will seem unfair to the 8 year old who is expected to eat everything, this unnecessary conflict can be averted by putting less on your toddlers plate to start with.
If you have a resistant “trier” don’t bombard them with too many new things at once. Introduce things gradually and make sure to reward all attempts to try or even touch new foods. If you have a child who is resistant to trying make them feel like they have a choice, try not to make them feel like you are making them try something as this is likely to end with both parent and child feeling frustrated. If your child is highly motivated by one particular food then the “if you try (x) then you can have (y)” method works well. Many children come to mealtimes starving and just need food in their tummies and quickly, you would think then that this would be a good time to throw something new into the mix, but this is often not the case. With a child like this changing the rules at mealtimes may not have the effect you want. So having a “new foods/tastes” trying session that is not at mealtimes might be more successful.
Behaviour change is not always immediate, it can take time to change a behaviour, and this is the same when getting used to a new flavour or texture so try to be patient and praise the little steps.
Try not to make your kids feel like they have no choice. “Why are you making me eat this?” Is a common phrase many parents hear. A simple response to this is “I am not making you eat it, it is your choice. If you choose to eat it then you can have (x,y,z)”. Try not to assume that food is immediately rewarding to our kids, some kids need additional reinforcement to stay eating, try new things, sit nicely etc. So don’t be afraid to use rewards for encouraging eating, find your child’s currency and reward them for trying, tasting and eating new foods. Older children can be more resistant to trying new things, and the older you get it can take longer to get to like new flavours. Also their arguments for not trying get better! Older children really do benefit from choice so try to introduce few foods and flavours in a way they do not feel like they have too.
Try to avoid making threats you might struggle to follow through with , such as “if you don’t eat this now, there is no more food this evening.” Although we might mean it in that moment, it is hard to send a child to bed a few hours later complaining of a hungry tummy. Switching the message to “if you eat (x) you can have (y)”, is a more positive way to effect behaviour change than “if you don’t eat (x) then there will be no (y)”. Always try to praise the behaviour you want to see more of, so praise and give attention to the eating and trying and not the resistance.
Remember that kids don’t always feel the same amount of hunger each day, they have hungry days and not so hungry days. They are also pretty good at self regulating through a 24 hour period so if they’ve had a huge breakfast bear this in mind for lunch and tea.
Have clear family rules that you stick to. These rules should reflect what is important to you as a family. Rules that allow you to march to the beat of your own family drum will be easier to stick to.
Ask yourself is my fussy eater getting more of my attention when they are being fussy than when they eat everything? Try to praise them when they are eating, when they are sitting nicely, using their cutlery etc.
Don’t feel pressured to or guilty if you haven’t introduced every flavour from every continent! Work within your own comfort zone.
Don’t be afraid to say actually he prefers raw carrots to cooked carrots, and praise yourself and your child for eating carrots at all.
Last point, I always try to remember that when I grew up you could only get satsumas at Christmas, I had never heard of couscous and I had certainly never tried sushi. We have a huge range of foods for our kids these days so have realistic expectations on yourselves. We all try our best everyday for our kids so don’t be too hard on yourselves if your child seems less adventurous or prefers a few staple favourites this is OK. Sometimes just filling the tank should be the primary goal of mealtimes.
Strategies are most effective when they are family specific, please get in touch if you would like help with fussy eaters or resistant triers, have a look at my website for more details Let’s Ask Livvy.
‘Look after yourself first and then you’ll have the energy for everything else’
Nicky is a registered nutritional therapist who takes an integrative approach that works on both the body and the mind. She’s passionate about teaching women (and Mums) to look after themselves first, so that they can be there for their children and have the energy for whatever life has in store.
Nicky qualified from The Institute for Optimum Nutrition in 2009 and is registered with The British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT), and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).