Children who refuse to eat certain things (or in some cases, most things) can cause concern for parents who want to ensure their little ones are getting the nutrition they need in their growing bodies. Some version of the words “I don’t like that,” before even tasting a mouthful, are echoed New Zealand-wide by fussy children who won’t be swayed by even the sneakiest vegetable inclusion to a meal. Research has suggested it can take children up to seven interactions with a food before they accept it; many parents are exhausted after the first attempt.
So how do we get our little humans to be open to consuming the whole, real foods that fuel their bodies with the nutrients they require and foster a positive relationship with food from a young age? It can require patience, consistency and a whole lot of resilience. Here are some strategies that can help you get your children over this nourishment hurdle.
- Explain the nutritional value to them.
Children are curious creatures, always wanting to know how things work and the “why” behind them. Instead of suggesting that they eat something because it is “healthy” (a word that has no connotation to most three-year-olds), explain the benefit of eating a particular thing. Even from a young age, when children start to hear the “so what” – the reason the orange is a good choice for them – they are more likely to eat the food. Link the nutritious food choice to something that they care about, for example, being a good rugby player or dancer.
- Involve them in the preparation and cooking process.
Children who are included in food preparation and the cooking of meals are more likely to get excited about eating what you’ve created together. It also provides an excellent opportunity to explain to them the nutritional benefit of each ingredient. This may not work as an “every day” strategy since it may not be a quick process but involve them as often as it works for you. For older children, give them specific tasks (such as washing the vegetables) or assign a night of the week where they plan the menu (with guidance of course) and you cook together.
- Change your language around food
We’ve been conditioned to perceive foods as either “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Foods aren’t healthy—they are nutritious. Or not. Humans are healthy. Or we are not. It is more accurate and more beneficial to describe a food as nutritious or nourishing rather than healthy or unhealthy. The more nutritious food we choose, the healthier we are. The older children become, the more they will have created their own perception about what is “healthy”. For some children, healthy and food in the same sentence is a win and something they want to partake in. While for others, they link “healthy” to “yuck”. Through food language and explanations that are meaningful to them, help children to establish a pattern of making nutritious food choices that they perceive as beneficial for their bodies throughout their lives.
- Are they zinc or iron deficient?
Zinc is responsible for the taste and texture of food and unfortunately zinc deficiencies are common in children. It can be a vicious cycle as foods rich in zinc may not be readily chosen by children who particularly need it, which include oysters, beef and lamb. Iron is essential for a good appetite and this too, is a common nutritional deficiency in childhood, and one that can lead to fussy eating.