Whatever you do, don't use the f-word: tips for dealing with a fussy eater

"All my boy will eat is fish fingers," groans a parent I know.

"A number of smart people have told me that they only ate fish fingers the first 10 years of their life. They seemed to do all right ... But I'm looking for a recipe that disguises broccoli as fish fingers."

While this mum is able to joke about it, we share a common concern: we each have a child dubbed a "fussy eater".

So concerned was I about my little person's limited diet that I took myself off this summer to a government-run health session on fussy eaters.

Stories emerged from other mums about the horror of anything lumpy; the terror of juice still in its fruit; parents unable to sneak a banana into a milkshake; only custard for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or – as if straight out of Doctor Who – custard and fish fingers.

My little person really only likes things that are white, to the point of food racism: white pasta (no sauce, thank-you), mashed potato, white bread (with butter only) and only the whites of eggs.

I have always understood children as having agency. I will not threaten or bribe. I am responsible for providing a selection of foods and she is responsible for eating them, unforced. Children are in control, ultimately, as they learn self-regulation.

But my creative enterprise and attempt at persuasion brought little success. It should have been easy. The family eats most meals together to help socialise my daughter and encourage new culinary things. It's as if she has worked out what won't poison her and is sticking to it.

Frustrated, more so because I had no problems of this kind with the older kids, I was ready to give anything a try.

I can report having a little more hope after getting some helpful tips, including some old ones learnt afresh from a very helpful nutritionist:

1. Offer a small variety of what the rest of the family is eating with some modification (for example, a larger portion of what she likes for dinner, so she can still choose and feel good about eating what she typically likes).
2. In the same vein, expose her to new foods so they become less scary. If she doesn't like the pasta sauce, put it to the side, but don't exclude it, as exposure to disliked foods helps her overcome her dislikes.
3. Role model by showing and eating a variety of foods that are safe.
4. Offer wholemeal breads.
5. Offer a high-iron food at least once a day.
6. Try not to pigeonhole her as a "fussy eater", as children can wear that label with pride as a special badge (oops, seems too late for that one at my house).
7. Involve her in the making of the meal. Helping with the cooking can increase the likelihood of a child eating new things.
8. Use vegies as a vehicle to get in other good stuff, like hummus dip scooped up with sticks of carrot (a distant hope for us, but I have to be optimistic).

The tips have come just in time, ahead of the stresses of a year of school lunches. Ultimately, I have to respect a child's decisions to eat or not to eat. It's not a given that we'll get where we should in a hurry, but I was reassured that a child knows how much food she needs to survive.

First published in The Canberra Times, January 27, 2016.

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