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'You're not alone': How to manage fussy eaters

By Dr Kaylene Henderson|

There are few situations more stressful than having a child who is reluctant to eat, yet incredibly, 20 to 50 per cent of healthy children experience fussy eating.

If this is the case for your child, it can be reassuring to know you're not alone.

Here are five dietitian-approved tips to help your fussy eater.

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Don't force a child to eat what's in front of them (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

1. Understand that accepting new foods is actually a learning process

Just like learning to swim, some of our children will find this learning more challenging and take a little longer than others.

While some kids will eat just about anything you put in front of them, others will need to be offered a new food several times before they eat it.

It's reassuring to know that this variation among our children is perfectly normal, and that we needn't become angry or helpless along the way.

2. Reduce mealtime stress

Just as we wouldn't force our children to swim a lap of the pool if they haven't yet learned how to swim, we also shouldn't force our kids to eat what's put in front of them.

The reality is, children learn better when they're calm - not stressed. They also have better appetites when they're feeling less stressed, so keeping mealtimes stress-free as we expose them to new foods becomes a win-win situation!

To lessen stress, try offering new foods on a side plate so that these aren't touching the other foods on your child's plate. Or offer deconstructed meals where your children all opt in to a range of healthy offerings - meals like make-your-own tacos or rice paper rolls.

That way, everyone in your family is assured of a healthy meal, even if the contents of everyone's tacos or rice paper rolls are a little different.?

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Lessen the stress during mealtimes, children learn better when they are calm. (iStock)

3. Allow learning to be simple and playful

Dietitians tell us that children may need to be offered a new food more than 10 times before they try it. But that's not to say they can't learn along the way.

Allow your little learner to touch or smell their food as they start to feel more comfortable with it. Since young children learn best through play, consider allowing them to have fun with their foods as they explore the texture, the smell and ultimately the taste of all the new foods you'd like them to try.

Remember, this is a learning process for your child. And learning through taste is only one way for children to learn to like the new foods on offer.

4. Gradually expose your child to a broad range of foods?

Don't lose sight of the overall goal, which is to nourish your child and to teach them healthy eating habits.

It can be tempting to keep the peace by sticking with the same few foods that you know your child will eat (chicken nuggets anyone?) or to offer them less healthy snack foods 'just to get them to eat'.

Sure, it takes longer to keep offering new foods as your child learns at their pace, but the end goal makes it worth it.?

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Get kids involved in the kitchen (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

5. Stick to your role and avoid power struggles

Dietitians describe a helpful concept known as 'The Division of Responsibility' - the idea that you and your child are responsible for different things when it comes to mealtimes.

As the parent, you are responsible for deciding what your family eats as well as when and where you all eat. Your child on the other hand, is responsible for deciding how much they'll eat. Your child might eat less than you'd like on any given night, but, they know their hunger better than you do.

So relax, take the pressure off and think creatively about how you can bring a little fun back into your child's learning. With the scene set, your child will then learn to enjoy a broad range of foods at their own pace.?

You've got this.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is a highly trained Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, one of Australia's leading parenting experts and a grateful mother-of-three.

The advice in this article is general in nature. Please always consult a medical professional to obtain advice that is tailored to yours or child's specific condition.

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