Don't overfeed ... Experts say hungry kids are far less fussy than others.

Don't overfeed ... Experts say hungry kids are far less fussy than others.

Is the dinner table a battleground of tears, tantrums and threats? Are you at your wits' end to know how to get your fussy child to eat?

From an 18-month-old baby still on four bottles of milk a day to children who eat Vegemite sandwiches for every meal, accredited practising dietician and Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson, Kate Di Prima, has seen every kind of fussy eater. Her most extreme case was an eight-year-old who had to be picked up from a school camp as a result of food issues. "She flatly refused to eat anything because all she ate was chicken nuggets and chips and she wasn't allowed to take those to camp, so she got herself into such a state she had to be brought home".

According to Di Prima, the co-author of More Peas Please, Solutions For Feeding Fussy Eaters, dieticians and other specialists are seeing increasing numbers of children with feeding problems, food fussiness or food group avoidance.

"There doesn't appear to be any clinical evidence as to why," she says. "But the possible reasons may be many childrens' taste buds are corrupted by salt and sugar early, mixed messages for parents as to what to do, missing cues as to when to introduce and change textures of solids, and busy lifestyles leading to disrupted routines."

The age of food fussiness is between the age of 12 months and two and a half years, Di Prima explains. Eating problems tend to escalate further when parents don't take a tough stance. She says that parents want harmony in the house and across the family, "so one of the mistakes they make is providing multiple meals and snacks to tempt their child to eat. For a young child this is a learning curve, so they think 'all I have to say is no and I'll eventually get what I want'".

Child food and nutrition expert and author Annabel Karmel agrees. "Often parents give in and let their children have the three or four dishes they know are going to be eaten, just to get them to eat. This restricted diet is effectively encouraging their fussy eating - a child will come to associate kicking up a fuss with getting food they want.

"It's better to stop giving these few foods, and if your child is adamant he won't eat anything else you'll soon find that once he's hungry, he'll become a lot less fussy. In that way you can break the pattern and give your child the variety of foods he needs to develop properly."

We asked four experts to give their top tips for trying to get a fussy eater back on track.

Child and adolescent psychologist, Clare Rowe:

  • Don't negotiate, reason or beg your child to eat. Children learn quickly that parents can't physically make them eat. What, when and where children eat is determined by parents, and as obvious as this sounds, sometimes parents need to be reminded of it.
  • Don't become a 'meal coach'. Usually parents try and 'sell' their children the benefits of eating certain foods, eg, "carrots are good for your eyesight". Then it moves to coaxing and bribing (offering dessert), and then guilt ("think of all the children starving"), and finally threats ("you won't be watching any TV this week"). These strategies don't work. Eventually most parents cave in to the demands of their child.
  • Stay neutral and ignore tantrums. A child will only eat chicken nuggets, hot dogs and unhealthy foods if they're available. Parents need to remember that hunger is motivating. It's much better for a child to go hungry for a few hours or skip a meal (this won't hurt them!) rather than to maintain disruptive habits.
  • When trying to introduce a new food, don't give up. Often a child needs to be presented with a food between five and 10 times before they'll try it.

Annabel Karmel

  • Get your kids into the kitchen. Most children adore cooking and it's amazing how being involved in the planning and preparing of a meal can stimulate a child's appetite.
  • Give small portions - it's not good to overload your child's plate. And attractive presentation can make the difference between your child accepting and refusing food; whole fruit may well not get eaten, while fresh fruit threaded onto skewers or straws immediately becomes more appealing.
  • Make your own healthy junk food if your child is set on fast food. For example, try burgers made from lean minced meat, fish fingers made from fish fillets coated in seasoned flour, egg and crushed cornflakes and ice lollies made by blending fresh fruit like watermelon and strawberry.

Eve Reed, accredited practising dietitian specialising in child and family nutrition

  • Don't use distractions such as TV, DVDs, games or toys to distract your child while you spoon in the food.
  • Offer food at mealtimes, breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Don't give food between these times, even if they ask for it. If they're eating or snacking in between these mealtimes they're less likely to be hungry when you want them to eat.
  • Eat with your child, and offer them the same food you're eating. Include plain rice, pasta or bread at dinner so if they don't want to eat anything else, there's something they'll eat if they're hungry.

Kate Di Prima

  • If a meal is refused and the child is asking for something else - or worse, having a tantrum - the meal needs to be removed and the child offered water to calm them down. If the child asks for food, return a half-portion of the meal (reheat if cold, and cut into small, bite-sized pieces). Never offer a new meal or a bottle or cup of milk, as this is a reward for their behavior (the wrong learning curve). The cycle will continue the next day and beyond if not broken.
  • Don't give in. Young children learn through routine and set rules, and eventually learn that they have to sit at the table to eat, or try at least one piece of fruit. Children will keep pushing the boundaries if they know you may give in. Compare eating to wearing a seat belt or a hat in the sun: accept that it's a set rule.

However, adds Clare Rowe, "If the child is losing weight, or if the difficult behaviour is chronic, I advise parents to consult their paediatrician."

Annabel Karmel's bestselling book Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner is available from Ebury Press. Kate Di Prima's More Peas Please is available from Allen and Unwin. Eve Reed's practice is at Family Food Works, and Clare Rowe is at Sydney South Child Psychology.