Our nutrition expert Sophie Bruno offer tips for handling fussy eaters using food psychology.
Children, especially toddlers and young children, are notoriously difficult eaters. Meal times can be a common source of anxiety for parents, and may feature power struggles as children undergo the realization that they can exert control over their parents by employing food as a tactic.
A parent’s instinctive reaction is to employ common-sense tactics:
Reasoning: you used to love this before, it is delicious; bribery: no dessert until you have finished your veggies; and even resorting to threats: you can’t get down from the table until you have cleared your plate.
These Food psychology tactics are renowned for being ineffective and may cause a significant amount of anguish as children challenge their parents’ authority.
Here are some tips for managing the situation if your child begins to dissect their food and single out inoffensive ingredients for rejection.
Be calmly self-assured, but not overly flexible
You set the rules – offer simple, healthy food and do not ask them what they want.
Avoid blackmail or force
Forbidding a child to leave the table until they have eaten their meal may backfire. It can reinforce an aversion rather than creating a good habit. If the food is refused, calmly take the meal away and re-offer when hunger is next expressed. There should be no pressure; do not insist on your child eating as studies illustrate that this may exacerbate the situation.
Be careful with your message
Children often pick up on cues that vegetables are not enjoyable when it is expressed that they should be eaten because ‘they are good for you’. The formulation of rewards is key in food psychology: messages such as ‘no dessert until you have eaten your vegetables’ ascribes a more appealing nature to desserts. Try to reward your children with non-food related items, such as a walk in the park, to help your child to develop healthy habits. Also, make an effort not to be overly restrictive with access to liked foods, as this will only enhance their desirability.
Keep your emotions under control
Children are good at detecting feelings. Ensure you control your emotions and keep your worry under wraps. If children sense it they can exploit you with their picky eating habits, which may aggravate the situation. Do not over-praise good behaviour – this can have a similar effect to exhibiting concern about refusal to eat.
Resist the urge to give in
If a child learns you are a pushover and will eventually give in and feed them what they desire when they refuse a certain kind of food, they have gained the upper hand. Their fussy eating will persist, and your battles with food will be never-ending. Be firm and stick to a ‘this or nothing’ policy. Missing a meal occasionally will not harm a child and may even be educational by promoting better eating habits for the future.
Be a good role model
When children observe others enjoying a food, they are more likely to try and imitate by relishing it themselves. Fill your meals with vegetables and demonstrate your enjoyment, without over-exaggerating.