Best practice principles for supporting fussy eating in early childhood
Amy Pratten, Lara Hernandez and Paul Gordon – Munch & Move State Team
NSW Office of Preventive Health
Whether food is brought in from home or prepared on the premises, the National Quality Framework encourages early childhood education and care (ECEC) services to consider food intake and the nutritional well-being of children in care.
Ensuring that every child in the room is eating well can be a daunting task. You may feel frustrated or even panicked when faced with a child who is refusing to eat or try a new food. Yet ‘fussy eating’ is a normal part of development. The way families and educators respond will influence how a child learns to eat in the long term.
If you’re on the front line of caring for ‘fussy eaters’, the NSW Health initiative Munch & Move offers some tips and best practice strategies to support you.
Keep calm and recognize fussy eating as the norm
In early childhood ‘fussiness’ around food is to be expected. As a child enters the toddler years growth slows, appetite decreases, nutritional needs change and a newfound independence emerges. This leads to changes in food intake, which at times includes food refusal and an unwillingness to try new foods. Keep in mind that children behaving this way are often still healthy, growing as expected and meeting their developmental milestones. It is also normal for different children to eat different amounts of food, as well as children eating different amounts day to day and meal to meal.
Provide a variety of nutritious food and give children the opportunity to decide what and how much to eat
In the early years, children intuitively know how to eat to their appetite. They can be supported to choose whether they are going to eat, how much to eat, and what foods to eat from the selection made available.
Services can support children to eat well by providing child-sized meals and snacks that align to the Australian Dietary Guidelines that include a variety of food types and textures. Staff can encourage children to regularly try new foods by consistently introducing small amounts of new food on the menu alongside familiar foods. Presenting new foods in different and creative ways can motivate them to have a try (e.g. as raw grated, whole, purple, or steamed carrot etc). If food is brought in from home, you can help families plan a healthy lunchbox by sharing resources like this Healthy Lunchbox factsheet and poster.
Create a positive mealtime environment
A happy, relaxed mealtime reduces stress levels and helps children to develop good eating habits. The eating environment needs to be comfortable and safe with limited distractions. Children should be seated and, when appropriate, given the opportunity to select for themselves which foods end up on their plate.
Educators should sit with children at mealtimes and encourage them to try new foods. If a child tries a new food and does not like it, praise them for trying it and reassure them that it is okay not to swallow it. If a child refuses to taste new foods, encourage them to touch or smell it instead and avoid offering alternatives for uneaten meals. It can also help to talk with children about these new foods. You can discuss and describe their colour, size, shape and feel. Just remember to use positive, engaging language.
The ‘Fuss-Free Mealtimes’ resources provide more tips and insights on how to promote a positive mealtime environment.
Provide opportunities for children to explore and become familiar with new foods
It can take 15 to 20 presentations or tries of a new food for a child to accept it. Educators can support children to explore the look, feel, smell and taste of new foods by incorporating intentional healthy eating learning experiences throughout the week. This could include involving children in meal preparation to increase their enjoyment and understanding of food, or introducing unfamiliar vegetables during crafts e.g. using broccoli florets to paint patterns. Linking themes during story time using books like Lauren Child’s ‘I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato’ is also a fun way to discuss food with children
Offer resources and support to families
Families look to educators for guidance on tricky issues like fussy eating. Munch & Move resources like the Managing Fussy Eaters factsheet can support educators when talking to families about their children’s fussy eating habits. However, we must keep in mind that there may be deeper issues underlying a child’s rejection of food. Educators know their children and families best and using this rapport to explore these issues will ensure you provide appropriate support.
Remember, some feeding problems are an indication of serious medical conditions such as reflux, difficulty swallowing, food allergies or additional needs such as autism spectrum disorders. If you suspect that there are other problems impacting a child’s food intake, it is important to discuss this with families and, if appropriate, encourage them to seek professional advice from their general practitioner.
Munch & Move’s entire suite of practical resources for educators and families is also available for free download here.