Saturday, 21 February 2015

6 tips for managing fussy eating (and apologies for the clickbait title!)

Fussy eating. Is there anything more annoying when you work with children? I'm fairly certain this is entirely a first world problem, too - pretty sure you wouldn't find children who do not have enough to eat on a daily basis being picky about what they like and don't like.

Personally, I find fussy eating very difficult to understand, as I have never been a fussy eater. I like all food, and the idea that there can be foods which somehow upset our taste buds, our palate, our mouth feels - huh?? So when I began my job and discovered that the bug is a fussy eater, my heart sank just a tiny bit. I love the job and I knew that I would still love the job, but I also knew how exhausting and upsetting trying to manage a fussy eater day in, day out is.

So it took me a couple of months to really work on it with the bug, but I think we're finally there; we're finally at the point where he will eat (almost) anything I put in front of him. And here are my tips on how to deal with fussy eating!

1. Were they always fussy?

Identifying whether this fussiness is in their nature or a new situation from their environment actually helps more than you know. The bug was not a fussy eater until he went to school - or to be more precise, until he started year one. Looking into it further, we discovered that although in reception the children were not given a choice about the meal they had at lunch, in year one they were given the choice between a full meal which changed every day - casserole, wraps, stir fry, bolognese etc. - and pasta with cheese. So naturally, every day all the boys in year one were having pasta and cheese for lunch, every single day. Combine this with the bug hearing other boys saying, "I don't like this" "I don't like that food type" and you can see where his fussiness was coming from. Any child given the choice will choose the simple carby option which skips out on the veg. Some children, though, are fussy from the word go and will refuse pretty much everything during weaning even. They will take longer to learn to eat lots of foods, and you will need more patience with them. They can be brought around in the same way, but it may well take them longer to settle to new ways of eating.

2. Control

Children start off life with basically no control - they poo and wee when it comes, they are fed when they're hungry, they can't move for themselves or speak for themselves, they don't get any choices in food or companions, in clothes or environment. Gradually they gain more control, learning to crawl, then walk, learning to pick things up and push them away. They learn to talk and vocalise what they want and what they think. It's understandable that children will push for more control, because they want to be in control of their own life just as much as you or I do. So I found that the bug would be more willing to eat if he got some choice in supper. He doesn't get the choice of what he's having, but he does get the choice of which vegetables he will have, and he gets a "this or that" choice - peas and broccoli or tomatoes and cucumber etc. He does not have free reign of choice, he gets to choose between two options. It satisfies his need for control but helps him to make a secure decision within boundaries.

3. Knowledge is power

Almost every child will ask what they're having for supper. Big mistake! Don't tell them! I was brought up with evasive answers like "puff pie and squeal" or "table and chair legs". I don't know why we feel a need to tell our children what they're eating - maybe we want to feel that they'll develop a liking for lots of foods by knowing what lots of foods look and taste like? Instead, the minute you say, "it's chicken korma with rice" the child will say, "I don't like rice" or something to that effect. The bug no longer gets told what he's eating. He can guess away but I will not answer. This also stops him from deciding to dislike a meal before he's actually tasted it. A large part of children disliking foods is that they have made up their mind not to in advance, and by then trying it is pointless and won't make them like it. Just don't tell them, and they have to try it before they can decide. As a result he has eaten cauliflower cheese thinking it's macaroni and cheese and told me it was absolutely delicious, despite having told his mum that he hates cauliflower. and this leads me onto my next point...

4. Which foods do they actually dislike?

The bug has a list as long as my arm of foods he would say he doesn't like. Most of them he eats without necessarily knowing that he's eating them. Cooked carrot, for example, he will eat as long as he doesn't know it's in there. It gets grated into bolognese, and he's happy. Potato, on the other hand, he will not stomach under any circumstances (yet). I do think that there are a couple of foods where the Bug does not like the taste of that food on its own. This is okay. If he has maybe 3 or 4 foods that he absolutely definitely does not like, that's okay. But working out which they really don't like and which just aren't favourites, and which are all about control is important. Most children should like most food, and sometimes it's about trying the food in many different ways before you can conclude that they definitely don't like it. And if you have a child who can retch on command, this does not mean they don't like it. It just means they have another way to try to control the situation.

5. Ban the phrase "I don't like"

I hate this phrase. Nothing gets my blood boiling quite like it. I have put in a lot of time and effort, in planning and preparing a meal for you and the only thing you have to say is that you don't like this or that? No gratitude, no appreciation, no pointing out of what you do like. I find it rude, in fact. So at our table, the phrase "I don't like" is banned. It took the Bug a few days to get used to it, but every time he started to say it I would interrupt him by telling him, "I don't want to hear that" or "I'm not interested" or "we don't say that, it's rude". He now has the hang of it, and I rarely, if ever, hear the phrase. Instead, if the bug has actually really enjoyed a meal, I get told, "that was delicious, that was really yummy, I love it!" Meal times are a lot more pleasant, I feel less grumpy, and the Bug gets frowned at less!

6. Motivate them to clean their plates

The Bug is very materially motivated - very common at his age. And his school does house points. So what I decided to do was to use this to encourage good eating habits. He now has a house point chart at home, and certain squares are highlighted. When he gets enough house points to reach a highlighted square, he gets a small treat of his choosing - a keyring, or a small toy or something to that effect. These squares are places 30 or 40 housepoints apart, so he doesn't reach them often. But he's very motivated to get housepoints as often as possible. He doesn't lose housepoints either - once he's earned it, it's there. He knows every supper time he gets one housepoint for trying everything, and one for cleaning his plate. He used to try to negotiate how many mouthfuls he had to do (another thing I hate), but now he knows it's his decision. He doesn't get too much food on his plate, he gets slightly under what I would expect him to manage so that he can ask for more if he wants. But he knows that if he finishes it he gets a housepoint. If he decides to leave food, he doesn't. So far he has cleaned every single plate since we started this. Result! Find out what motivates your child, be it stickers, telly time, a trip or a treat and find a way to use it to encourage your child to eat. Make it feel attainable, but still be a challenge - and don't give in or compromise on the conditions. It must be a proper forkful try of each food for one housepoint. It must be a properly scraped round plate for the second.

It's amazing when you put these sort of things into practice how quickly children catch on. It's incredibly important to be consistent - the Bug knows it's the same every night. Every night he will be given a meal without being told what's in it. Every night there are two housepoints available for his eating. Every night he knows we don't say "I don't like". It's the same routine, every night, and he is better for it. I would not longer call him a fussy eater, as I no longer her him complain about foods. He now eats foods he used to tell his mum he hated, and he eats them without any fuss.

Now we just need to work on his table manners!

This post has been a long time coming, and I've spent a lot of energy working on it. As a nanny it's very close to my heart, and the improvements in Bug's eating have given me relief too as I no longer have a battle at mealtimes every night. Sometimes it's still like pulling teeth, as he is so slow to eat - think an hour and a half to finish a plateful some nights - but on the whole we're more relaxed, and happier with it. I don't have to nag him to try things or eat things, which means I can concentrate on feeding the bean and chatting instead. No doubt there will be many people out there who will cry that these tips did not work or help in the slightest - no, they won't work for every case, as children are all so different. But I firmly believe that they would work for most children. Often when somebody says that something doesn't work I find that when I do it, it does, and that makes me wonder if the tips in fact did not work for the adult, rather than the child. The old cry of, "my child won't have their nappy changed" is one of the most common, and I have tips for that too which despite parents saying they won't work have then worked on their child every time I do them! Sometimes it's about the adults believing that the problem has solutions, and inviting an outside party to help or to offer advice is a good thing. Once you see that it works for your child too, your confidence can grow. But if all else fails, just remember that the majority of children grown out of the majority of problems you struggle with in their childhood. Sometimes what it needs most is time.

Love love xx

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