Friday 18 February 2022

Worries and anxieties of fussy eaters

Sarah Scotland writes:

In the early years, you are often in a position where you are feeding children. How do you cope when you have a fussy or anxious eater? 

At your setting, you may have fussy for anxious eaters and you may have children who find it difficult to sit at the table. You may get frustrated that they are not eating the food that you have provided. Encourage parents to talk to you about what happens at home, could you make a plan together?


Most importantly, think about what the child might be going through. Take a moment to understand from their point of view. Think what might be their reasons for not wanting to eat or sit at the table. Children don’t want  to be awkward and go hungry. Most likely, they want to please, but a mixture of fear, worry or a lack of trust may make mealtimes stressful places for them.

Enjoying a snack together

In order for children to be confident eaters they need to be able to understand the cues that make them want to eat. They need to have an appetite; they need to know that mealtimes will be enjoyable; and they need to have a good relationship with the person who is going to share a meal with them.


From an adult’s point of view it might seem crazy that a child will just not eat, that they need to be cajoled into eating, that they might have fears and worries that affect them.


Be aware of why a child might be worried, talk to parents about past experiences. Find out if they have suffered an allergic reaction or experienced traumatic gagging.


Getting the environment right will help children feel safe and enjoy being at the table.  Try to ensure that the seats that they sit in are suitable for their size. If there are only adult seats then think whether any changes could be made, such as booster seats or cushions.


Encouraging children to eat with cutlery can be a challenge so having the right size for little hands, along with the right sized bowls and cups will help.


Keeping meal times quiet and relaxed will help those children who find eating hard.  Learn to leave clearing any mess that gets made until after the meal is over. Try to make mealtimes calm times. This will help to make them enjoyable.


If it is possible, try to get children involved with meal times. Get them to help prepare the food or lay the table.


Ideally, mealtimes should be times when children and adults eat together sharing the same food. This might be a challenge, but if it is possible, children will benefit greatly. 


By getting the environment right and by making mealtimes fun, children will worry less and come to enjoy these occasions. Over time they will find the courage to try more.


Offer at least two foods in each meal that you know they will definitely eat. 


When the child is ready, allow time for ‘food rehearsal’. This is when a child is asked to put the food on another person’s plate.  Offer child-sized tongs or spoons so that they do not have to touch the food. 


There may be times when there is too much food on the table. This can be overwhelming. You will need to learn the cues to work out if this might be the case.


Children are good at determining their own energy intake. Let them decide how much food they want to eat. 


When they are old enough, allow children to feed themselves, touching and playing with food is a keystone in development.


Children often feel pressure at meal times, potentially caused by a range of factors.


They might be asked to “eat one more bite”, or “make sure you clean your plate”. 


They might be told they can’t have dessert unless they’ve eaten more. For this reason, always allow dessert, even if a child has not finished their main course.


Try not to compare a good eater to a poor one. This is peer pressure.


As childcare workers, be aware of cues that babies are toddlers are given you and talk to parents about how to recognise these.


Make sure non-verbal cues are read properly. These are so easy to ignore. Some examples are children turning their head away, or pushing food away.  When children want food they often move forward to accept the food, this is called the positive tilt.


It is always a positive step when a child is heard. This also means it is important that children appreciate when their “no” is heard. This will lead to their trust in the person feeding them.


Children need to trust the person who is feeding them. They need to know that the food they are being given is food they will want to eat. They need to be sure it has not been tampered with.  


The trust that a child has with their adult is huge and a major contributor to food confidence.


Children need to have strong relationships with adults. They need to feel safe and emotionally connected.


It is important that you, the staff, have positive relationships with the children you look after. They will look to you as role models and people they can trust.  


They need to know that any food offered is going what they expect and not tampered with. They need to feel free from pressure. They need to find mealtimes to be calm and enjoyable occasions.


Over time more foods can be introduced, but this may take time depending upon the child. It is important to work closely with parents, treating this as a joint area of responsibility.  


If difficulties persist, don’t be afraid to ask for help from other professionals such as speech therapists, occupational therapists.  It is never wrong to ask for extra help

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