Most of us as parents will likely deal with some level of selective eating at some point. If you bring the subject up at a toddler group, at least someone will relate to the challenge and have some advice from experience. There are lots of opinions and ideas around on the subject from ‘just put it on the plate and say eat it or starve’ to preparing a tailored meal for each family member. I don’t want to undermine what works for anyone here, but just to share a little of my parenting experience of baby to toddler led weaning and some ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which have suited that approach. I’ve also included some more general tried and tested strategies from my experience working in CAMHS. My hope is to take some of the stress out of the process if you’re a parent tearing your hair out because your little one won’t eat any vegetables other than the tomato sauce on their Peppa pig pasta shaprs.
Baby led weaning
If you’re not familiar with the idea of baby led weaning and want to know more, I’d recommend Gill Rapley’s book “Baby led weaning: helping your baby to love good food”. What attracted me to the approach was the idea of building a positive relationship with healthy food, babies learning to eat to appetite rather than to please parents, trusting that the research says children do tend to balance their intake when they are left to do so and can usually be trusted not to starve themselves and generally dropping the battleground that family mealtimes can become. I also liked the simplicity of it – just keep serving ordinary healthy family foods that we eat ourselves at mealtimes minus the added salt and sugar, cutting food into finger shapes to reduce choking risk. I also valued the chance to attend a free baby first aid course at my local library and would not advise anyone to start baby led weaning without doing one first – I’ve noticed baby first aid classes are available on Zoom in case anyone reading this is looking to attend one during covid-19. The gains for my children so far include that their height and weight are both roughly in balance and within the average range for their age (both are within the 50th to 75th percentiles). They both enjoy healthy food – albeit their preferences are very different. My 10 month old son loves steak pie, carrots and sweet potatoes, while my daughter prefers gnocchi in a blended sauce of tomotoes, kale, carrots and courgettes with salmon on the side. Both can become annoyed if anyone dares interfere with their food, but otherwise are happy eaters. My son is an efficient eating machine who could already get away without the bib, my daughter loves playing with her food. They both have fine motor skills ahead of their chronological ages which I attribute to baby led weaning. I’ll admit my sons excellent pincer grip does have its downside when he picks up specks of fluff from the carpet to eat and my daughter’s hand strength is an issue when she points out gleefully she has just learned to undo her car seat on the M90. Overall though, I’ve been happy with the approach. And yet? My daughter has still recently passed through the selective eating phase common to lots of other children her age – during that phase she announced she does not like meat, but I’m happy to accept that so haven’t labelled it as an issue – nor have I suggested she label herself as vegetarian as she enjoys fish and does occasionally like a sausage or two. She also went off traditionally served boiled vegetables like broccoli and carrots – but she continued to eat just about any vegetable blended in sauce, smoothie or soup. We even had hidden veg in breakfast cereal (Thanks Kelloggs, other brands are available..). So having watched my daughter come in and out of relatively more selective eating phases I can understand how parents might become trapped in a conflict zone, and thought some ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy might help if that’s you. There’s more general information on each of the ACT processes on the homepage if you need more resources to help you.
Is it time to drop the mealtime struggle?
Visualise yourself and your child at opposite sides of the dinner table. Imagine they are refusing to eat a food on their plate that you value them eating. Why is it important to you that they eat it? What tactics have you tried or are you tempted to try – pleading, begging, insisting, bribing? Have any of these tactics worked? Are there any costs of trying these tactics – to you, to your child, to your relationship? How do you think the battle to get your child to eat what you want them to will affect your child’s longer term relationship with food? Did you have any selective eating challenges yourself as a child? How did your parents respond? How did that affect you with food as a child? and as an adult?
It might be helpful to first generally review your parenting values – what sort of parent do you want to be? Where are you at now – how closely do your parenting actions match up to your ideal? When you consider your child’s selective eating and your parenting values together, how could you respond to your child’s selective eating in a way that fits with your parenting values?
If you want to take the pressure off food, mindful eating with your child could be worth a try – you might want to let them choose which food to eat mindfully to reduce the chance they feel pressured. To illustrate though, I’ll talk about mindful strawberry eating. So, first you could go out in the garden to pick some, or to a fruit farm, or just to a shop. When choosing which fruit to pick, you could notice the colours, shapes, sizes and textures and which you are both drawn to choose. When you’re ready to eat, first notice the colours and patterns on the outside of the fruit and the leaves. Notice how heavy or light it feels in your hand, and whether it feels rough or smooth to the touch. Smell the strawberry and notice the delicate scent. Take a small bite and notice whether it tastes sweet or tart. Notice whether it feels squishy or moist in your mouth as you eat the rest. A variation could be to buy strawberries from different countries at the supermarket and do a blind taste test to each take a turn at guessing where the strawberries came from.
Are you happy with your child’s height and weight? If they are growing consistently along their percentile line or you otherwise have no cause for concern with their growth, are you willing to accept that your child eats a smaller range of foods than you’d ideally like but is still likely getting enough of what they need? Are there any other concerns as a result of selective eating such as constipation which might come up if they don’t eat vegetables? (Note – if there are concerns about your child’s growth or about constipation, you might want to ask your GP or Health Visitor for advice).
It’s helpful to separate out what you can and can’t change sometimes – for example, you can do something about constipation by using hidden veg strategies – whereas force feeding your child chunks of carrots is likely to backfire in future refusal to eat other vegetables too.
Some “work around” strategies I’ve found to balance out my children’s diets without adding conflict to mealtimes.
Use a nutribullet to blend vegetables into smoothies, soups and sauces. You can also add almond or pea powder for protein if that’s a concern.
Use a plate with compartments to keep food separate if that’s a source of angst.
Consider a vitamin supplement to plug any temporary gaps.
Some people like the idea of divided responsibility – you decide what, where and when while they decide whether to eat the food you serve and how much.
Experiment to find out whether they prefer fruit and vegetables raw vs cooked and hot vs cold. For example, my 3 year old would happily munch on raw carrot sticks at a time when she wouldn’t eat cooked carrot slices on a plate.
Messy play – any messy play really, but especially with food. For example, make Oobleck or strawberry scented playdough, or just splash around some spaghetti hoops or custard. My 3 year old had a breakthrough moment after painting broccoli with gravy and decided to try eating it, and remembered then that she actually quite liked it really.
Logic and education
I’ve found this has been my best kept secret weapon. My 3 year old has been very interested recently in learning about all things science. Conveniently she has also been interested in learning which foods have protein, energy, fibre and vitamins and interested too in why her body needs those nutrients. In turn, she has then been more motivated to eat non-preferred foods that have nutrients she needs. Any parent who has a veg-avoiding toddler may have also encountered constipation and also perhaps tears in the bathroom. If that sounds familiar, it may help to ask your child whether they dislike eating the vegetable in question or dislike the toilet trouble more – if the toilet trouble is worse, would they be willing to try the vegetable? For us, education and logic has been our game changer – we now have a broccoli, squash, sweet potato, sweetcorn, carrot, courgette and pepper chunk eater once again, with less need for the trusty nutribullet.
Use their interests as motivation
This may mean using a reward chart with Hey Duggee, Bing or Peppa Pig, getting them a plate with Elsa and Anna on it, or making an Olaf face with mashed potato and adding pea eyes and a carrot nose. Or, it may be tracking down episodes or books to read of the favourite character trying new foods (Peppa Pig’s brother George and Bing are both obliging here).
Gentle ways to desensitise a selective eater
These are probably only needed if a health professional like your GP or Health Visitor is also concerned about your child’s selective eating. Ideas include –
Try graded exposure – e.g. step 1. they see you eat it without comment (i.e. no “yum yum”, step 2. you serve it in a bowl on the table with no pressure for them to have any, step 3. you encourage them to put a little of the new food on their plate with no pressure to try, 4. Encourage them to sniff the new food, 5. Encourage them to lick it, 6. Encourage them to bite into it, 7. Encourage them to chew it. Every time they agree to try a new step, give them loads of praise for bravery and some form of reward like a sticker. It is important to avoid pressure at any stage and to accept they are not ready if you want to avoid anxiety on their part or risk this backfiring as an approach and adding stress to you. Depending on the age and stage of your toddler, a reward chart might be a bit too complicated, but with a pre-schooler this might be worth a try as a place to collect the stickers.
Strategies to deal with slow eating
- Acceptance The first option is just to decide not to label slow eating as a problem and embrace the upside – plenty time for adult conversation over mealtimes, plenty time to enjoy your own food peacefully if you also like to take your time. You might also choose to accept slow eating for now as some other aspect of eating is a bigger priority for you to change – for example, you might choose to let them eat at their own pace if you are more keen that they broaden or generally increase their food intake.
2. If it is a problem for you or your family though – perhaps because you find your other children won’t wait and get restless, your child gets upset if they are left behind at the table, or you have scheduled activities to get to like nursery, school or work then-a reward chart for eating meals at the same time as the rest of the family might help motivate a pre-schooler. My 3 year old loves simple sticker reward charts – Twinkl has some good free ones you can download for age 3-5. If you do use a reward chart, aim to only pick one behaviour to reward at a time and stay positive when you talk about it (e.g. they still get the sticker for eating at the same time as everyone else even if they don’t finish all the food on their plate/ only eat the bread/ throw food on the floor/ happen to copy Daddy swearing during lunch).
https://www.twinkl.co.uk/resources/curriculum-for-excellence (for age 3-5 reward chart templates)