Lots of parents face the constant battle of getting their little ones to eat a balanced diet; in particular, enough fruits and vegetables. Fussy eating is a really common parental concern; with half of parents labeling their little ones as ‘picky’ when it comes to their food .
Fussy eating is actually a normal part of growing up and for the most part, doesn’t need to cause you worry. Most children continue to grow and thrive and as long as their picky eating phase is fairly short lasting, no more action is generally needed.
If it carries on and children don’t eat a good variety of foods, there could be more long-lasting implications. One thing to consider is that poor diets in childhood can often predict poor diets in adulthood, which could increase the risk of chronic disease . After all, ‘Balanced nutrition early in life is essential for health later in life’ . In today’s current global epidemic of obesity, we are all aware of the need to support healthy behaviors in the next generation. Studies have linked fussy eating habits with higher intakes of saturated fats; and less varieties of fruits and vegetables eaten; the same behaviors often linked to obesity. Fussy eaters also seem to have lower intakes of folate, fiber, vitamin E and vitamin C, likely linked to their reduced intake of fruits and vegetables . Research is also now showing the impact that low intakes of particular nutrients can have on learning and development. Studies in England have shown that children with the lowest levels of omega-3 fatty acids (DHA) in their blood had poorer reading skills . Even for those not labeled picky, there are shocking government statistics about our children’s diets with the majority eating too much sugar and not enough oily fish, fruits, vegetables or fiber . This could spell disaster for their long-term health.The good news – there are some things parents can do to help.
Be a model – a role model that is
Family meals are pretty powerful when it comes to encouraging healthy habits in little ones. In fact, they lead to a 35 percent lower chance a child will engage in disordered eating, a 24 percent higher chance of them eating healthier foods and a 12 percent lower risk of them being overweight .
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
Refusal of new foods is entirely normal. Don’t stress or make a fuss. Simply remove what isn’t eaten without comment but continue to offer the same food alongside more accepted foods at future mealtimes. It could take 15-25 exposures before they like it and continuing to offer it increases the chances it will be eaten, eventually.
Chart their successes
Enlist their help in designing a chart for pride and place it on the fridge door. You can use this chart to track trying new fruits or vegetables, reaching five portions a day or for increasing variety by adding stickers. If reward charts aren’t your thing, marbles in a glass jar can serve the same purpose. Make sure good efforts are rewarded regularly but don’t be tempted to reward eating well with liked foods (for instance cake or chocolate), this just reinforces the idea that this food is better. Try using a play date or game outside together as an incentive.
Look what I did
Emerging evidence also supports the idea that simply seeing, touching, learning about and handling food can increase its acceptance in the same way as repeated exposures, from a grow your own vegetable patch to food pictures in books .
Get your children involved in food preparation. From growing their own cress on a window ledge to tending their own patch outside, taking them to a pick-your-own farm and enlisting their help with washing, stirring, mixing and cooking. Touching, seeing and handling foods can help your child get familiar with different fruits and vegetables and therefore make them more likely to eat them.
Make them interesting
Use fruits and vegetables in interesting ways. Try making fruit ice pops, root vegetable cakes like carrot cake or beetroot brownie, and making pieces of art on a plate. Adding some fun and interest to meals makes eating less of a bore.
To hide or not to hide, that is the question
There are lots of ways to hide extra servings of fruit and vegetables in children’s food from offering a juice (with some hidden juiced veggies inside), in soups, pasta sauces and even mashed potato (by swapping some mashed carrot, butternut squash and swede in place of potato). However, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a helpful solution long term. It can certainly provide more nutrients in the short term but working with children to increase their acceptance of fruits and vegetables is the real goal. Helping them to understand the importance of a balanced diet in feeling and being well can help set them up with good eating habits for life.
That being said, being aware of any dietary shortfalls and bridging the gap can at least help keep them well in the short term while you do the real work underneath. There are lots of ways to increase intakes of lacking nutrients. If your little one won’t eat oily fish, consider fortified foods and drinks like DHA-fortified milk and eggs. If they lack variety in their diets, they may well benefit from a vitamin and mineral supplement to make up any shortfall. Combining fortified foods and the strategies above can help them be well in both the short and long term.
Carruth BR et al (2004). Prevalence of ‘‘picky/fussy’’ eaters among infants and toddlers and their caregivers’ decision about offering new food. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol 104, pp. 57–64. (2)