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Food Wars – 10 Tactics to Win Over Your Fussy Eater

Does your child’s meal-time always feel like war-time? Is your dinner table a battle ground strewn with headless boiled cauliflower amid the red run-off from steamed beets? Does your young one always emerge victorious? Do you suffer from PTSD?

Kids are notorious for becoming fussy eaters around the time of their second birthday. Every meal feels like a power struggle, causing anxiety and frustration for both you and your child.

Remember, you are not alone and are, in fact, just firing the latest salvos in this centuries old skirmish. Even Julius Caesar, Sun Tzu, and Saladin found it easier to fight with swords and halberds than getting a 2 year old to eat broccoli.

We have scoured the latest in military tactics from Sandhurst Military Academy and West Point, read the writings of the ancients, and learnt from the battle-hardened experiences of our own mothers to bring you the some successful tactics from the front lines of the Food Wars.


Tactic # 1. He who loses calm, loses fight: It is very important to avoid losing your cool when your child is acting out at mealtimes. That is easier said than done, especially as you stare at spaghetti sauce running down your new couch. But remember that we need our children to create a long-term positive association with food and losing your cool will do the exact opposite. If you feel like you are about to enter into a fierce battle with your child at mealtimes, breathe, go to a happy place, count to ten – do whatever it takes to calm down and then focus on calming your child down as well. You can do this by taking a short break and singing their favorite tune, reading them a story or talking to them about plans for the weekend. Once chances of escalation have ceased, resume feeding. And praise your child when they play along and start eating again.

Tactic # 2. Don’t use a catapult when a sling-shot is needed: Our little ones have tiny stomachs and therefore tiny appetites. If your little one is not reacting well to big portions, scale down the portions and serve them more frequently. As long as their weight gain is sufficient you don’t have anything to worry about. You can also try to supplement their main course with small portions of healthy sides/desserts (poached pears, yogurt, baked apples etc.) to add a little more diversity.

Tactic # 3.Together we stand, together we triumph: Try to introduce the concept of family meals at an early age and try to feed your child the same things that you eat (as soon as your pediatrician says it is okay to do so). Recent research has actually shown that children who eat with their families are more receptive to new foods and willing to experiment with new taste sensations. This in turn promotes less picky food habits in your child.

Tactic # 4.Develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): We are all creatures of habit. For a child consistency and routine is key to promoting good eating (and other) habits. Try to schedule mealtimes and snacks at the same time every day. Additionally, avoid giving them snacks, juice, milk or anything that might fill them up in between these scheduled meal/snack times.

Tactic # 5.Patience is half the battle won:Most children do not take to new food right off the bat. In fact, research suggests that the chances that a toddler accepts a new food increases after it have been offered to them more than eight times. Therefore, it is important to ease your child into a new food and persist after you have offered it to them. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Introduce new foods when you have ample time to deal with the fallout. Try giving them new foods on the weekends and early in the day as your schedule will tend to be a little more flexible at that time
  2. As mentioned above, repeated exposure to a new food might make your child more amenable to liking a new food. Expose your child to small portions of the new food on a repeated basis.
  3. Eat the same food in front of your child or tell them that daddy, their brother/sister, or whoever their favorite person is, really likes that food.

Tactic # 6.Lead by example: If your child is used to seeing you chow down on potato crisps, chocolate, ice cream, or other junk food, they too will want to eat the same things.  If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more likely to follow suit. Reduce temptation, for yourself and your child, by keeping healthy snacks around the house.

Tactic # 7.Chart a route far from Sirens: Our little ones are curious and interested in every and anything. A paper cup can keep them entranced for half an hour. While this is endearing for the most part, the ease with which they get distracted can be frustrating during meal times. Try to keep your child focused on their food. Turn off the television and any other media that will distract your child and prolong the mealtime process.

Tactic # 8.He who makes calculations before the battle, wins: The way to get children eating food more easily, especially new items, is to begin preparations far before meal time. Psychologists have found that children who are made to look at pictures of vegetables and fruit are more enthusiastic about eating them. You can also use this handy IPh0ne App – Toddler Teaser Foods to help them learn about different types of healthy foods.

Tactic # 9.Make use of illusions and deception:Let’s face it – healthy food can be quite boring. There’s only so much oatmeal that your child can have before throwing the bowl on the floor. This is where you need to master the art of deception. You can serve the exact same food item in a novel manner to keep interest alive. Some options you can explore are:

  1. Making  smoothies and let them drink it out of a straw
  2. Cutting their food into shapes with a cookie cutter
  3. Serving vegetables with a dip
  4. Adding some colorful toppings on their food (such as fruit to their cereal, etc)

Tactic # 10.Win without the opponent knowing: There is nothing better than getting your child to eat her food willingly. One easy way to do so is by making them think they are doing something else, something more fun, something more engaging to get them to eat carrots and peas. You could, for example, engage your daughter in a food-tasting competition and make them guess what they are eating. Or you could get your child involved in selecting vegetables from the store and help you cook vegetable lasagne for dinner. Look out for our article on Food Games for more details on fun activities to spark your child’s interest in new foods.

If you have additional tactics to help parents with fussy children, please leave a comment. We’d love to know what else can be done to get our little ones to eat their greens!

Note: No children or parents were injured during our research into Food Wars.


Photograph credit: Sean Dreilinger; Flickr

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Contributed by saimaismail

Saima is the Editor-in-Chief, and co-founder of Bright Babyhood. She is a management consultant and a Columbia University alumni. She currently spends her days managing and writing for Bright Babyhood, and brainstorming ways to convince her toddler to eat. You can find her writings at www.BrightBabyhood.com.

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