10 Tips to help kids develop a healthy relationship with eating

Research shows that the first years of a child’s life may be the optimal window for establishing healthy eating behaviours.

Like all child development, learning to eat is a skill that takes time and practice. As parents, there are a number of things you can do to best support your child along the learning process and help them establish a health relationship with food!

When starting solids, feeding babies may seem fun… but for many parents, mealtimes can soon become a battlefield wrought with stress, anxiety and lots of wasted food! Even the best eaters can suddenly become fussy as they reach toddlerhood and learn that they can have an opinion about what they will and won’t eat! In one study, the percentage of children identified as picky eaters by their caregivers increased from 19% to 50% from four to 24 months!

While fussy eating is normal and common, there are things you can do to make mealtimes less stressful and bring the fun back to food!

Dr Rachel Cohen PhD, Clinical Psychologist and founder of High Chair Catchy shares her 10 tips to make mealtimes less stressful with a fussy eater

Top Tips to change dietary habits for fussy eaters

1)    Focus on what’s in your control: We as parents are responsible for what and when we feed our children. Our children decide how much they eat. Ellyn Satter calls this the “division of responsibility”. This takes the pressure out of mealtimes where we no longer focus on how much our child is eating but focus instead on providing nutritious (what) and regular (when) meals. Letting our child decide how much they eat is crucial to help them learn to regulate their own appetites and develop positive associations with food and eating.

2)    Serve a “safe” food with every meal: This is a food that you know that your toddler will eat (like rice, fruit or bread). Include this safe and familiar food together with the new or less favoured foods you are exposing them to. Even if they will likely refuse the other food you’ve put on the plate, still serve it (without pressuring them to eat it).

3)    Keep mealtimes pressure-free: Never force feed or pressure a child to eat. Saying things like “just taste this” or insisting they eat “one more bite” is unhelpful and counterproductive. If they refuse food, don’t over-react or pressure them. Sometimes they keep refusing because they know they get a reaction. By stopping to pressure, bargain or over-react to food refusal, we eliminate the power struggle, keep mealtimes relaxed, and with time you’ll see your child try more things voluntarily than if you had pushed!

4)    Don’t make a replacement meal: If your toddler knows that if they refuse dinner and can get whatever snack they want 10 minutes later, they’ll keep doing it… Many parents fall into this trap of becoming a restaurant with a never-ending menu of options! Instead let them know what’s on offer for dinner that night and don’t offer alternatives when they refuse. Remember if you’ve included a safe food in the meal you know they will eat if they’re hungry. If they don’t eat anything, that’s OK too. This may not go smoothly the first few times, but if you stay steadfast in this approach they’ll understand very quickly that the kitchen is closed and get with the program.

5)    Eat together as much as possible: When it comes to most things parenting, children learn more from what they see you do, than what they hear you say. The best way to encourage a fussy eater to try new foods is for them to see you eating it yourself. Family meals are an opportune time to model healthy eating and enjoyment of a diverse range of foods. A study of 2-5 year old children in the UK found that eating the same food as their parents was the best predicter of pre-schooler vegetable consumption.

6)    Provide repeated exposure to new foods: Often parents offer a new food only a handful of times before quickly deciding their child doesn’t like that food and excluding it from future meals. Researchers have found that preschool-aged children tend to require up to 15 exposures to a new food before they “trust” it and even taste it. So, don’t just write off a food because they refused it the first time (or the 10th time)! Keep it in the repertoire.

7)    Embrace the mess: Fussing over our kids while they eat can lead to fussy eaters! How much would you enjoy mealtimes if someone was wiping your face when you spilled, correcting how you used your spoon or fretting about the mess you were making. Doesn’t sound so fun, does it? Instead, letting our kids make mess while they learn to feed themselves is crucial to setting up positive associations with food and eating. Using a food catcher helps parents embrace the mess without stressing about the clean up after or wasted food!

8)    Make food fun: Many children who are fussy eaters are very sensitive to different textures and can be reluctant to touch and try new foods. Messy play (outside of mealtimes) with food helps them get used to new textures. Handling and touching new foods without pressure to eat them will help your toddler become familiar with new foods, get used to different textures and more likely to try them in the future.  Let them get involved in food preparation and cooking, do sensory play activities with different textured foods, and present food in playful ways on their plate.

9)    Keep a routine: Make sure you’re feeding them at their best – toddlers don’t eat well if they become over hungry or overtired. Try keep a daily routine of 3 meals and 2-3 snacks around your toddler’s sleeping pattern instead of continuous snacking throughout the day.

10) Drop the guilt: There will be days when our kids will hardly eat or we may lose our cool. That’s ok! Just as our children are learning, we as parents are learning too. Maybe all they ate today was fish nuggets and chips and there wasn’t a vegetable in sight. That’s OK too! Did you know, a child’s body absorbs nutrients over a one to two-week period?! So, take the pressure off yourself (and them!) and aim for variety and balance over the week instead of a perfectly balanced plate every single meal!

As a clinical psychologist, PhD, specialising in eating disorders, Rachel knows that the best way to support your child in developing a healthy relationship with eating is to create relaxed and pressure-free mealtimes, where exploring, playing, and making mess with food is encouraged! However, as a mum, she couldn’t stand the constant clean up. That’s why she invented High Chair Catchy. High Chair Catchy allows Rachel to practice what she preaches as a psychologist, and let her daughter explore her food with all her senses, without stressing about the mess!