Dealing with a fussy eater can be a challenge. Poor eating habits in middle childhood and the tween years tend to be long-lasting. We need to take them seriously.
Dear Dr Justin
My beautiful 7 year old refuses to eat anything apart for a selected variety of high fat carbohydrates such as chips and chicken coated in breadcrumbs etc. She tries and throw up every time we feed her veges or fruit.
Any advice? We need some.
How to deal with a fussy eater
My advice on dealing with a fussy eater is pretty simple…
Model healthy eating
We get to do this several times each day by ensuring that the majority of our own food choices are good ones. Don’t be overly rigid around food. But at the same time, show and teach that a balanced diet means that junk is a rarity, rather than a daily habit. In simplest terms, there’s good food, and there’s ‘sometimes’ food. Eat lots of good food, and have ‘sometimes’ food… well, sometimes.
Discuss food rules
Have a conversation about food (but not at the dinner table while she’s refusing to eat). Ask your daughter why we eat, and talk to her about how ‘food is fuel’. When we put the wrong fuel into a car, it breaks down. The same principle applies with our bodies.
Ideally your daughter will actually have some reasonably good knowledge about the need for healthy food and you can gently fill in the gaps.
Invite her to develop solutions to the divide between her knowledge and her behaviour. Chances are that she knows what is good and healthy, but she simply doesn’t want to act on her knowledge. The more food rules your daughter can develop for herself, the more likely it is that she’ll be open to making good decisions.
Obviously you can have a much more detailed conversation with a 7 year-old than a preschooler, but remember not to go too deep.
Food is fuel
Don’t link food with your daughter’s behaviour. It shouldn’t be used as a reward or a punishment. When we use it as a reward, we encourage unhealthy eating (since unhealthy foods are usually offered as rewards), and when we remove food as a punishment (“no sweets for you tonight!”) we invite anger, resentment, and resistance. Oh, and we turn food into a power struggle.
If you want your daughter to eat good food, serve her good food.
Put simply, your daughter eats this food because it is what you serve her. At this age, she eats what is available at home. So it’s up to you to get your house in order. What are you doing diet-wise? Who buys her food? Who prepares her food? Who puts her food on her plate? In most cases, it will be you.
I suspect that you’ll experience the following: First, you’ll have tantrums and refusal. Your daughter will be upset and feel betrayed. She will insist on the type of food you have previously fed her. She will cry, shout, threaten, and tantrum. So long as you don’t offer her any alternative, she will likely go to bed hungry. This behaviour will continue for up to two or three weeks, depending on what food she is able to access from breakfast through until afternoon tea.
Eventually, so long as she is only offered healthy alternatives, your daughter will eat the food she is served because she will be hungry.
You also need to do the following:
- Provide choice – but make sure the choices are all healthy
- Don’t bribe. “I’ll give you your favourite after you have eaten the healthy stuff” only reinforces her hatred for healthy food and her love of junk
- Get rid of the junk in the house. “We don’t have any nuggets” (or spaghetti, etc) is lots easier to say than “No you can’t have any nuggets.”
- Stay calm – ALWAYS! Your daughter will feed off the emotional investment you have in this issue. If you get angry and upset, you will reinforce the fact that she has the power here. It isn’t about power. It’s about making good choices. So don’t make it about power.
- Remember that it takes at least a half-dozen goes at a certain food before kids become familiar enough with it to say they like it. So encourage your daughter to have several tries of something before she gives up. Her familiarity with it will eventually win out and she’ll begin to be comfortable with it.
- Offer your daughter healthy food at breakfast, morning tea/recess, lunch, and afternoon tea. No junk. No biscuits. No treats. Only healthy snacks. Be creative, but be firm.
- You may have tried this, but getting kids involved in shopping and preparation can often be a motivator for them to try new foods.
- Don’t force her to eat. That’s what provokes resistance, and is probably leading to the vomiting you’ve described in your email.
- Lastly, make sure she’s really hungry before you provide her with a meal. That means no snacks for at least two hours before dinner time.
Truth be told, I hate the idea of running with this strategy. But if your little girl is only eating rubbish, then it’s up to you to serve her good food consistently until she starts to eat it.
You are the gatekeeper.
We really do eat what is available, even if we don’t like it much. Eventually we’ll get used to it. And in this situation it seems that your daughter has trained you that if she has a dummy-spit, she can get what she wants from you. So think about what you’re offering, make good choices, talk about it (preferably before you make the changes), and then stay firm.
Note: This advice is general. Your email doesn’t contain enough information for me to provide specific advice for your individual circumstances. If your daughter experiences any significant weight loss or goes too long without eating, I recommend seeing a GP and/or a psychologist who can give you individualised counsel that will take into account circumstances not evident in your email.
Read more about dealing with a fussy eater in my ebook Eat Right Without the Fight: Raising Happy & Healthy Eaters