Updated: Jun 30, 2021
For a lot of people, family mealtimes are a precious time of the day when the family come together to share food and drink and socialise. Throughout the world, mealtimes and food sharing can be steeped in tradition, where family recipes are learned and handed down through generations, and favourite meals are enjoyed. It is part of our food culture.
Then there’s the modern-day scenario, the reality you might say. If you have children, of any age, then you know the days of uninterrupted conversations or quiet, slow enjoyment of food are over! I’m not saying everyone’s children are as unruly at the table as mine, but I know mine are not the only picky eaters / slow eaters/food refusers out there!
Over the years and from my own experience as a very picky and slow eater, I know all the tricks used by children to get out of eating food. Hiding vegetables, dropping food on the floor, toothache, sudden onset tummy ache! You name it, I’ve seen it. And this can be very stressful and worrying for parents. It’s important to know that you are not alone, and as frustrating as this behaviour can be it’s quite normal.
Lots of children go through a stage of food rejection. Just remember, as with any stage it will not last forever, but in the interests of their health and your sanity, here are some tips helping to speed up that process and make mealtimes a little more enjoyable.
1) Engage children in meal preparation. Children are more likely to eat a food if they have grown it/picked it/washed it/chopped it/cooked it. It doesn’t have to be the whole process but the more involved they are the more likely they are to try the food afterwards.
2) Make food fun. I’m not suggesting food fights at the table! But other creative ways to engage the children’s imagination. Toddlers love role-playing with food or making faces with the food on their plate. For slightly older children, a fun way to explore new tastes and textures is to do a blindfolded taste test. Fill a plate with a variety of small amounts of food and get your little ones to use their sense of smell, touch and taste to identify what’s on the plate. Try growing your own food from seeds. This is a fantastic and educational experience for children and adults alike. You can buy seeds from your local nursery or simply cut open a pepper or tomato, extract a seed or two and grow them on a windowsill.
3) Eating together, modelling behaviour. Studies have shown that modelling behaviour has a much more positive impact on children’s eating attitudes and overall diet quality than parental dietary control (1). If you enjoy a variety of different tastes and textures, your children will be more likely to at least try those foods. This is one of the main benefits of eating meals with your children whenever possible.
4) Giving your children some control. We all want to feel in control of our own bodies, this is no different for children. Letting your child choose some of their own meals that week is a great start. It doesn’t mean you have to eat something with chips every day that week, there can be some compromise. Perhaps ask them to choose from a recipe book that has some options in it that you know your child has tried and accepted in the past, or present them with several recipe cards and ask them to pick one. Make sure they are happy with the options they are presented with and don’t force them to choose the ‘best of a bad bunch! Remind them on the day that you are eating their meal and try to engage them in the meal prep (tip 1). Try serving dinner buffet style. This is another way to let children choose the foods and amounts they put on their plate making them feel valued and in control. But importantly it also gives them a chance to think about their appetite as well as hunger and fullness cues (satiety). Remember to reinforce positive words to describe the food, and discourage negative phrases like ‘it’s disgusting/awful’. Remind them it’s just food, which some people enjoy and one that they do not. Yet.
5) Try, try and try again! It might seem obvious, but this is really crucial. We should be conscious of food waste so it can be really hard to continue trying new foods with your child when you know they might not be eaten. But it is so important. Studies show that it often takes multiple exposures before a food will be accepted (2,3). The food must be tasted though, and remember to praise your child for trying. So, if the food is tried but no more is eaten, go back to tip 3, modelling behaviour, it’s ok to enjoy your child’s left-overs! Remember in this case perseverance pays off; we can’t expect a child to accept food that they have no exposure to. Furthermore, tastes change, even more so at a young age so keep trying and one day, the food will disappear off the plate (into the mouth hopefully!) without a word of complaint.
I hope you find these tips useful. If you need further information on feeding young children or have any specific questions about suitable foods for children with allergies and intolerances, please reach out for further advice.
Aimee is a family nutritionist with over 15 years of experience working in the food and drinks industry. She is passionate about coaching individuals to feel their best. Health and wellbeing all come from within and what better place to start than with your diet.
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(1) Brown, R., & Ogden, J. (2004). Children’s eating attitudes and behaviour: a study of the modelling and control theories of parental influence. Health education research, 19(3), 261-271.
(2) Maier, A., Chabanet, C., Schaal, B., Issanchou, S., & Leathwood, P. (2007). Effects of repeated exposure on acceptance of initially disliked vegetables in 7-month old infants. Food quality and preference, 18 (8), 1023-1032.
(3) Birch, L. L. (1998). Development of food acceptance patterns in the first years of life. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 57 (4), 617-624.