Hi Dr Justin,
I have a 3 1/2 year-old step-daughter we get every weekend. For the past 2 years she has been very fussy with food. At the moment she will only eat toast with peanut butter, dry bread and toddler tons of spaghetti (1-3yr).
We have tried to encourage her to eat literally everything but she refuses and would rather starve herself. She eats cooked chips and bananas but that’s it.
Her mother has given us a list of foods and all that seems to be on it is junk food: no vegetables, no meat, nothing. She doesn’t seem concerned even after we have voiced our concerns to her.
I have been to doctor after doctor and no help offered. I’m worried she is missing out on iron, vitamins, and things. She won’t even take a bite of anything we offer. It’s like she is scared of the food we put in front of her.
What do we do?
Dr Justin responds:
Fussy eating with toddlers and pre-schoolers is terribly difficult. It gets even harder when you are only spending two days each week with a child because it means your influence is diminished – and so are the opportunities to do anything with consistency. You are probably also feeling a lack of support coming from your step-daughter’s mum.
There are plenty of things I can tell you not to do: don’t force the child to eat, to make judgments about her eating behaviour, or use threats or fear to demand she eat, and don’t use food as a reward Here are a few thoughts:
Be gentle on mum
This might sound like strange advice. Chances are that she wishes her little girl would eat better too. She may not seem concerned when you approach her because she hates to feel judged by you when you only have her two days a week. She may be trying hard (or perhaps she was previously trying) and is simply giving up. Even if she’s not, it will be better for you, for your step-daughter, and for your relationship with your partner’s ex if you attribute to her the best possible motives.
Everyone’s carrying baggage. Be gentle and focus on what you can change.
Remember what YOU were like as a child
Research shows that a child’s willingness to try new foods, or lack thereof, is strongly hereditary. Children need at least a handful of exposures to a certain food before they become familiar with it, and there is some research to suggest that some children may need up to 50 or more exposures before they willingly pick up, taste, or eat new foods.
Be a good role model
The best thing we can do to encourage our children to eat well is to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods while demonstrating an enjoyment of pleasurable foods at appropriate times. I know what you’re thinking… my toddler doesn’t care if I’m having my wholegrains and green smoothies. She doesn’t want anything except sweets, hot chips, and pasta! But role-modelling will help. Just remember, it’s a long-game you’re playing. For something a little more immediate:
YOU are the captain of the cupboard
The one thing to remember is that you are in charge of WHAT is provided. It may be the case that your step-daughter will eat less of the food you wish, and more of the food you don’t for a short period of time but this is unlikely to last long. It’s important that you are able to tolerate some natural anxiety (on your part) that may arise through this process (this would be normal!) and aim to be consistent as much as possible.
Even though you have the power, remember:
Eating should not be about power
The more you put pressure on your step-daughter to eat, the more refusal you’ll get. I don’t suggest you let her starve, nor do I recommend that you get laissez-faire and let her decide for herself. And I don’t recommend that you shrug your shoulders and absolve yourself of all responsibility.
Instead, try the following tips:
- Stay calm (I appreciate this is really difficult and confess to having dropped my bundle on some nights, but it makes a big difference)
- Stay consistent. For example, aim to have the kids or family sit in the same location for most meals with the TV off.
- If your step-daughter is a picky eaters, serve a variety of foods on a regular (or weekly rotational basis) so that she is exposed to similar foods frequently and given opportunities to try those same foods.
- Encourage your child to sit down and eat at regular times without grazing too often. For most children, this means breakfast, lunch and dinner with healthy snacks in between.
- Let your kids serve themselves
- Be aligned with your partner as much as possible to avoid “good cop, bad cop”
Aim not to:
- Make a big deal out of eating and food
- Talk about food or nutrition excessively
- Pressure your child
- Praise your child with their eating habits
- Criticise your child regarding their eating habits
- Offer food around the clock or on demand
- Make your beliefs about your parenting skills to be contingent on your child’s eating habits.
Note: you are NOT a bad parent if your child only likes 1 vegetable! If you are offering your child regular exposures and aiming to create a positive environment for good eating habits then you are doing your best. Full stop.
Ultimately, however, your step-daughter is going to be fed by her mum, not you. This means letting go of what you can’t control, and focusing where you DO have influence. With practice, the ideas I’ve described here should help to make meal-times more enjoyable.
You’ll get lots more information to help in an ebook I wrote with dietician Fiona Sutherland, called “Eat Right Without a Fight”.