The main problem for parents of fussy eaters is inconvenience. Rather than eating what everyone else in the family is eating, fussy eaters require separate meals to be prepared or certain food items need to be picked out. This also makes eating out more of a challenge. Despite this, many parents will find it far easier to work around their child’s restricted eating than to risk triggering a meltdown over not being able to eat.
It is a commonly accepted strategy in early intervention programs to only offer the food that you want your child to eat and nothing else. Your child is expected to either eat it or miss the meal entirely. The rationale is that hunger is an innate drive and that your child will eat anything if they are hungry enough. While this may work, it is usually accompanied with a large period of stress for yourself and your child.A strategy which I have found to achieve the same result without the extended period of stress is one based on modelling and desensitisation
The trick to fussy eating is to increase your child’s motivation to try certain foods so it doesn’t seem like you are forcing them to eat them. If your child is a fussy eater, chances are that you and your child will have fought over certain foods whether it is cucumber or lamb. Therefore, you will probably find that unfamiliar foods are far easier to be added into your child’s existing diet.
To begin, you will want to give your child their usual food(s) during meal times. However, give yourself and others the new food item that you want your child to eventually eat and make a big fuss about how exciting it is to eat this new food item. Be dramatic! You could talk about what it looks/smells/tastes like and the texture of the food. For example, broccoli can look like small trees, meaning you are eating an entire tree, which sounds far more interesting than you eating your vegetables or “greens”. Keep these conversations between those who have that particular food and subtly have a look to see if your child is looking on with interest. If you notice your child looking at you and everyone else eat, it is a good sign that you have planted the seed. If not, repeat the process for a few more days, trying different ways to capture your child’s attention.
The first step was to introduce (expose) the food to your child. The next step is to get your child involved in the feeding process which will help build up the fun associated with the food. Begin this step by feeding someone else that food. You can do something similar to the classic “here comes the aeroplane” routine. Go around the table feeding others the food. Again, a dramatic and positive response to eating the food is ideal. Done correctly, your child should start to look forward to seeing how the next person will react when they are fed.
Gauge your child’s interest by seeing if they are smiling or laughing at everyone’s responses. If they are, great! Chances are, they will want to have a turn to feed you or other people that food. Encourage them to do it and turn it into a fun activity.
Once you have established this activity and your child looks forward to feeding you and other people, it is finally time for your child to try the food.
Before I get into the next step, it is worth pointing out that you may find it helpful to cut your child’s piece into the smallest whole amount that allows it to be experienced in full. For example, cutting broccoli vertically allows both the head and stalk to be experienced rather than just the head.
Start by feeding yourself and others the food just as you have established in the previous step. However, rather than skipping your child, give him or her a turn to provide a response. If they do eat it, quickly move onto the next person in the same manner. The aim here is to have your child eat it as part of the activity. If the activity suddenly ended after your child eats the food, then there will be no motivation for your child to continue to eat it.
If you are successful after this step, the rest will be relatively smooth sailing. You can increase the portion size as well as integrate new foods into the activity in the same manner.
It is important that the foods used in the activity described above become part of your child’s everyday meals without the need for there to be an activity in order for your child to eat that particular food item. Therefore, the final step is to include the food item in meals without drawing your child’s attention to it. If there is slight resistance to the food, you can cut it into smaller portions and/or keep your child’s mind occupied with something else while they eat so they are not focussed on that food item.