This post contains affiliate links.
There are few things more worrying for anyone caring for young children then a fussy eater. It’s so easy to become desperate, when your kid won’t eat anything but chocolate, ice cream and sweetcorn. Or if they refuse to eat anything green. At all. Ever. The battle of wills can be intense as parents and carers of all stripes find they have to make an impossible decision: affect a will of iron and potentially face their child going hungry, or cave in, set a terrible precedent and risk the kid’s malnutrition as they exist on a diet of Rice Krispie Squares and cake.
However, this needn’t be an either/or situation. Lord knows there are enough books, blogs and articles about how to negotiate this tricky childcare issue. As a childcare professional, I’ve read them all and I believe I’ve isolated the most effective advice out there when it comes to dealing with itinerant candy-driven toddlers. Here are the fruits of my labours:
- Assert Who’s Boss (But Pick Your Battles)
Anyone who looks after children knows that this noble undertaking is pretty much made of compromises and negotiation. However, when it comes to helping kids eat healthily, it’s important to realise both that you are the person in charge and that winning small battles bit-by-bit is the only way to break bad habits. For that reason, don’t foist seventeen different types of organic produce on your young charge. Yes, nutrition is important and following a colour coded scheme of vegetable servings might seem the way forward, but frankly, getting a child to develop a taste for one vegetable is much more important than offering them a rainbow of choices (that will only end up on the floor anyway). Kids dig routine. Give it to them. Offer limited options. Peas. Carrots. Beans. Experiment, sure but pace yourself. This is the long game.
- The ‘Just One Bite’ Principle
When it comes to training kids to try new things, it’s important to note that it takes 30 bites to develop a taste for something. With that in mind, persevere with foods, even if they’ve been rejected a few times. The ‘Just One Bite’ principle comes into its own here – you can offer a small reward in exchange for minimal co-operation. If no co-operation is offered, then you wait them out. Some people call this bribery but those people are probably childless. Good incentives to offer include: 5 minutes extra of child’s favourite limited activity (playing computer games, watching a youtube clip etc.) or get creative and offer a whole incentive scheme: little star stickers, adding up to a treat for consistent good behaviour. Keep the rewards small, manageable and don’t reward with unhealthy food, no matter how tempting. It’s important to move away psychologically from the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.
- Give Older Children Agency…..
As babies become toddlers, they start to crave a measure of control over their environment. If you give your toddler an element of choice, they become more likely to ‘own’ that choice and actually partake of their vegetables. Take your kids to the supermarket and get them to pick out the veg that looks the best – this can actually be quite a fun game of identifying colours and shapes. Then, when it comes to mealtime, offer them a choice of two vegetable and honour whichever decision they make.
- ….But Know When To Take Choice Away
Sometimes kids will flat-out refuse to touch their plate. If you find that mealtime seems likely to stretch into the next month, you can offer an alternative meal but make sure that you’re consistent. Do not let your child dictate the alternative – offer them something small but nutritious: a bowl of cereal, a small sandwich, a fruit salad. This meal can then become your ‘default’ if the dinnertime battles continue. Once a pattern is established – a pattern in which the balance of power is very much in your arena – you can begin more complex negotiations, return to the ‘Just One Bite’ strategy.
- Keep a sense of humour
Odds are, you are covered in Weetabix. Embrace this. Or at least accept it as part of the process. Mealtimes are a time to exercise maximum patience and fortitude. Perhaps you won’t win every battle, but you will win the war. Good luck, soldier. All power to your broccoli spear.
Candice McGuinness writes about nursery nurse jobs and taming wild toddlers for Nursery World Jobs