Dear Dr Justin,
How do I get my children to eat healthy food without the yelling, screaming, fighting, and arguing that accompanies so many of our mealtimes? My children are 6 and 3, and I feel as though I am constantly harassing them to eat. They only want junk food. And it’s all the time. If I don’t give them chips or cheese or hot dogs or processed food, they won’t eat. I feel like I’m constantly bribing them. How can I stop negotiating and get them to eat?
Dr Justin responds:
With six of my own, I have heard every excuse for why my children won’t eat something. Here are some examples:
- Mum makes it taste better (I had cooked that night)
- I don’t like it
- It’s scary
- It’s too spicy (it was plain rice)
- I’m tired
- She looked at me
- It’s too cold
- It’s too hot
- These scrambled eggs aren’t like the ones you gave me yesterday.
- The other ones were yellower.
- She touched me
Because we are so motivated to make sure our children are eating ‘right’, we make some common meal-time mistakes. These include:
- applying pressure to our children at mealtime
- giving too much choice
- using shame and guilt to motivate healthy eating, and
- using food as reward or for calming.
Each of these responses to fussy eaters is potentially unhelpful. One suggestion: change how you see fussy eating. Do you see it as a “problem that needs to be fixed?” Or do you see it as a (usually) normal phase in most children’s development that you can help them through with consistency, support and encouragement?
We often believe that if we control our kids eating they will become less fussy. This is rarely true. Our children resist us when they feel controlled and usually become more fussy – and hard to handle!
What matters most at mealtime?
What we feed our children is less important than how we feed them. We want our children to eat healthy food, but it is more important that they have a healthy relationship with food. What we teach children about food from their earliest years can shape attitudes and behaviours for many years (even decades) to come.
A healthy relationship with food is less about “eating your vegetables”, “eating breakfast”, or “not eating too much junk food”. Instead it’s about “eating different foods”, “not cutting out any foods or groups of foods”, or “eating enough to not be hungry.”
Here are some simple suggestions to help get fussy eating off the table:
First, be a good role model. I know what you’re thinking… my children don’t care if I’m having my wholegrains and green smoothies. They don’t want anything except sweets, hot chips, and pasta! But just go with me on this for now. Being a good example is a solid first step. You’re playing a long game.
Second, stay calm and reduce pressure. I appreciate this is difficult and confess to having dropped my bundle on some nights, but it makes a big difference.
Third, speak positively about food and eating. Talk about foods that give us energy, foods that fill up our tummy, foods that taste delicious, foods that help us grow. And speak about them neutrally, without judgement. Food is just food. Some foods simply do these important things better than others.
Fourth, serve “healthy food” heaps, and “sometimes food” sometimes. Remember, YOU are the gatekeeper. YOU are the Captain of the Kitchen Cupboard! If you don’t like what the kids are eating, it is up to YOU to decide whether it needs to be in the house. What the family gets on their plates is up to you. YOUR CHILD decides how much, or whether they eat. If they choose not to eat, that’s fine. I’m not aware of any child who has starved themselves when parents provide good food consistently.
(Bonus tip here – always make sure there’s something nutritious they like at each meal.)
Fifth, variety! If your children are picky eaters, serve a variety of foods on a regular basis so that they are exposed to similar foods frequently.
A few years ago I wrote an e-book called “Eat Right Without a Fight” with dietician Fiona Sutherland from Bodywise Australia. It has helped an enormous number of families, it’s cheap and it’s available from the Happy Families bookshop. I’m sure it will help you.