Dealing with fussy eaters – how to be a positive food role model

30th October 2017

Fussy eating is a developmental stage many children go through as they strive to become more independent, affecting 10-20% of all children under five. This poses a huge challenge for nursery workers, who are under pressure to ensure that every child in their care receives a balanced diet.

A nutritious diet can stabilise energy, sharpen the mind and improve mood - allowing children to maximise their potential both at home and at nursery. So how can you help encourage children within your setting to eat well and develop a positive relationship with food?

Lead by example

Children learn by example and love to copy, making nursery workers important influencers when it comes to children’s eating habits. To effectively deliver a healthy eating policy in a nursery, it’s important that all staff send out positive messages about food.

Top tips:

  • Nursery workers should try eating lunch and snacks at the same time at children. Research suggests that group mealtimes have a big impact on children’s food choices later in life, and helps encourage consumption of fruit, vegetables and dairy products
  • When eating around children, nursery workers should make an effort to eat across all food groups – including a good mix of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, lean meats, fish, beans and pulses. If you make poor choices, the children in your care will be encouraged to do the same.
  • It’s crucial to pay close attention to the way all employees talk about food to avoid communicating negativity. Focus should be placed upon encouraging and supporting the children to eat well and not passing on individual habits and choices.
  • Investing in an effective food management policy and continuous professional development for staff can help support nursery workers in practicing what they preach, and secure emotional buy-in from every individual in the setting.
  • Increase Exposure

Nursery workers have an important role to play in increasing a child's familiarity with fruits and vegetables - not only at mealtimes, but all day long. The aim is to make these a familiar part of everyday life and not just a dreaded moment at the lunch table.

Top tips:

  • Point out and talk about healthy foods with the children as often as possible. Read books that contain bright images of fruits and vegetables, organise trips to local farmers markets and use real fruits and vegetables in games and activities. Allow children to help pick out foods, taste foods in different contexts and encourage physical contact with new foods.
  • Peer pressure can be a positive influence on a fussy eater. Seeing other children getting stuck in and enjoying different foods can encourage fussy child to experiment, so sit picky eaters next to the more adventurous at meal times.
  • Children love to eat foods they have grown themselves. You don’t need an allotment or any expertise - many foods can be grown in a pot on a windowsill. A freshly picked tomato just off the plant can be much more appealing than one chopped up on a plate!

Give responsibility

Often children don’t like different foods to touch each other on a plate, or for food they dislike to touch food they do like. A better solution to piling up plates of food and expecting them to eat everything is to allow children to serve themselves (providing help if necessary).  

Top tips:

  • Encourage fussy beaters to take small portions and go for seconds if they are still hungry. This will seem less overwhelming than large, adult-sized portions
  • If a child is not keen on a particular food, let them have more of something else. We all have our favourite meals, as well as our pet hates, and so it’s important to acknowledge personal tastes.

Make it fun

Meal times are a social occasion and when treated as that the food becomes less of an issue. Fussy eaters will find themselves enjoying food much more if it’s not associated with stress.

Top tips:

  • Do not stand over children watching every last mouthful; instead encourage them to eat, chat and have fun. Once food is no longer the only focus of the meal, picky eaters often forget about resisting food and start to enjoy it.
  • Keep track of when and how a food is offered to children with stickers - you can offer a sticker for every new vegetable eaten or when children taste a food they have previously rejected.
  • Don’t give too much attention to food refusal - this can simply encourage it. Instead, focus positively on those who are eating well and discuss aspects of the meal that were particularly enjoyed. It may take time, but children will eventually realise that they will get more attention from eating well than they do from being fussy.

Keep at it

Studies show that children are born with an innate fondness for sweet foods and less of a preference for bitter or sour foods, as a built in protection mechanism – so it’s no surprise that they prefer Haribo to leafy greens.

Top tips:

  • To help override this response, it’s important to repeatedly expose children to flavours that they are naturally wary of, rather than simply feeding them the foods they like to eat. If a child rejects kale and broccoli and is never offered it again, they simply won’t EVER learn to like it.
  • It takes approximately 11 times for a child to try a new food. To make the process easier, try to offer the same food in different ways. For example, raw carrot as sticks (great for dipping) but also boiled, grated or in a smoothie.

Avoid making separate meals

Offering up a selection of entirely alternative meals at meal times teaches children that they can control the food they eat, which they will soon learn to exploit.

Top Tips:

  • Set out the mealtime rules at the beginning of every meal (i.e. what the meal is and how much of it needs to be eaten in order to be allowed pudding) and then stick to them

  • If a meal is refused, it’s best to clear it away after 20 minutes or so (or after the other children have finished) and put it in the fridge to try again later.

  • Avoid forcing or coaxing a child into eating, as this can further establish a negative relationship with food. If a child doesn’t eat, they will simply be hungrier for the next meal and more likely to eat it. Whatever you do, avoid allowing mealtimes to become a battle. If they’re healthy and growing normally, they’ll eat the amount of food they need over a day.

  • Offer healthy snacks between meals so that children won’t ever have to go too long without some fuel. However, avoid replacing meals or snacks with milk. If children are filling up on milk they are not going to be hungry for meals and solid foods, which is what should make up the majority of their calories by the age of one.

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