Mealtime tips for parents of picky eaters

By Sarah Chesher

Dietitian

Mealtimes can be challenging! The following are our top tips for parents who need to pick their battles at mealtimes to tackle fussy eating.

Eat together

Children learn through role modelling. Seeing trusted caregivers eat a wide variety of foods will encourage children to eat those foods as well. Eating just one meal a day together can make a difference.

Build structure into every mealtime

Creating routines can help support children – especially autistic children – as they usually like to know what is expected of them and what is coming next. Many children have trouble transitioning from one task to another. When a child is expected to suddenly move from an activity they enjoy doing to a meal it can be really difficult for them, and can result in meltdowns and refusal behaviour. Having structured mealtime routines helps build the expectation around what is required, making the transition easier.

Regular meals also help regulate appetite so children come to meals prepared to eat without filling up on snack foods beforehand.

Offer at least one preferred food 

Children need to feel safe and confident that there is something that they can eat at mealtimes. Sometimes when there is not a preferred food, or a food that matches a child’s skill level or sensory preferences, it can cause stress and anxiety. Increased stress and anxiety mean a decreased appetite, so they will often refuse to eat at all.

A boy at the dinner table with his family

Expose your child to a range of foods

Once you find yourself catering to your child’s specific food preferences, you might find that you get to a point where you can’t offer any other foods without a meltdown. Sometimes new foods need to be offered in a very gradual way to help your child slowly increase their tolerance.

A great way to offer exposure to a wide range of foods is through grocery shopping with your child or involving them in meal preparation. Offering foods in a buffet style at mealtimes can support your child to explore new foods (look at, interact with, smell, touch and maybe even taste) in a non-pressured way. Start with small amounts (e.g. 1 teaspoon) of non-preferred foods on a plate and build from there. Our Accredited Practising Dietitians can support you to put this into practice in a step-by-step approach that is individual to your child’s needs.

Watch your language

Try to avoid using negative language such as “disgusting”, “slimy”, “gross”, and “yucky” when talking about food. Use positive or neutral describing words like “slippery”, “wet”, and “bitter” to talk about the sensory properties of the food. For example, “this capsicum is very crunchy”. You can describe your own interactions with food such as “I can put sauce on my meat to make it easier to chew.” Aim to also comment on the positives of mealtime no matter how small they are, rather than the negative. You could say, “You were so helpful at dinner – thank you for putting your fork and placemat on the table.”

Positive language can help create a calm and enjoyable meal, which reduces a child’s stress and anxiety at this time. This helps to promote their appetite to enjoy the food they currently eat and increases the likelihood of experimenting with new food.

Seek support as fussy eating can be tricky to manage

If you’re struggling with mealtime battles, we recommend getting a thorough assessment of your child’s eating and drinking skills. Often fussy or picky eating is more than the usual phase many children experience as part of typical development.

Book an appointment with one of our Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) for support with mealtimes and to assess any nutritional gaps in your child’s diet. Nutritional gaps may be impacting the range of foods they’re eating, their food/mealtime behaviours, and their growth and development.

An assessment can include a review of chewing and swallowing skills, self-feeding skills, identifying nutritional deficiencies, seating and positioning, and continence. All these things can have a significant impact on a child’s diet, appetite and behavior at mealtimes. Our mealtime management service provides a multidisciplinary approach by considering all these factors.

Making mealtimes manageable

For more information about our dietetics and mealtime management services, or to book an appointment, please contact our friendly team.