If you have a fussy eater, you’re not alone. My own children are all fussy to some degree and have definite lists of things they do and do not like (or as I prefer to say, are still learning to like). As a paediatric dietitian I have a tool box of strategies that I can dip into to try and get them to include more new foods in their diet and help make eating a harmonious and pleasant opportunity for us all. Don’t get me wrong, feeding my family is still hard work, it requires a lot of planning, patience and perseverance. Fussy eating generally isn’t cured overnight, but with the right strategies it is something that will improve.
Here are some strategies that might help you pack a healthier lunchbox for your fussy eater….
Packing Map – In our introduction we talked about including foods from each of the “grow, glow and go” categories. Take this a step further and create a packing map or guide with your child. Explain to them that their lunch box needs to include at least one item from each of the following food groups: Fruit, Vegetables, Dairy (or dairy equivalent), Protein and Wholegrains. Get them to suggest fruits, vegetables etc that they are happy to have in their lunchboxes and write them down. Use this guide to help pack the lunchbox each day. For a fun and interactive way to create a packing list with your child take a look at the healthy lunch box builder by the Cancer Council.
You can also download our lunchbox planner here
Expose and Explore foods –
One thing we know about fussy eating is that children need to be exposed to new foods a LOT of times before they learn to eat it. If they’ve never seen a capsicum they simply can’t learn to ever eat it! A small token serving of food in the lunchbox is a great opportunity to expose your child to new foods. I packed cucumber as small stars or sticks for about 2 years in one of my child’s lunchboxes before it was eaten. The trick to this approach is to keep your serving size small enough that it won’t overwhelm your child and to make sure there are plenty of other foods in their lunchbox that are preferred items.
Stuck in a rut? –
Lots of parents tell me that they get stuck in a rut of the same old vegemite sandwich and a packet of 1 or 2 preferred items. These parents are often worried that their child will eat nothing if they change things up. The trick here is to make small but noticeable changes over a period of time.
Start by getting a new lunchbox (Bento boxes work well for this approach). Show your child their packet of preferred snack food (eg tiny teddies) and tip it out into one of the compartments. Next change the shape of their sandwich with a fancy sandwich cutter or just do triangles instead of squares. Along with this add a token new food from one of the food groups above (remember we’re exposing not expecting that they will eat it). After they’re accepting these small changes, take it a step further. Switch some or all of the biscuits for something similar (eg if they like tiny teddies try weet-bix mini bite multi packs). Once they’re accepting a rage of similar biscuits you could even try a home baked snack.
Exposure is again is the key for success here. Why not try a lunchbox day on the weekend? Put out an assortment of sandwiches, fruit, veggies and snacks at lunchtime and let every member of the family packs a lunchbox (you too Mum and Dad). Then sit down to lunch together or better yet make an occasion out of it and head out for a picnic. You could even have a lunchbox dinner one night!
Get Smart with Snacks –
If you’re really struggling to get your child to eat fruits or vegetables then you might need to make your snack choices work harder. Because young children need to eat regularly, snacks contribute a large amount of energy and nutrients into the diet. To help boost my children’s intake of vegetables, I’ll frequently bake cakes and alike that contain vegetables, fruits, seeds and wholegrains. Some of our favourites include moist zucchini chocolate cake, chocolate black bean cup cakes and you can even make sweet potato brownies! A quick google search will give you plenty of recipes to try!
Most parents (myself included) are pretty keen to take a look inside the lunchbox at the end of the day and see what has (or hasn’t!) been eaten. It’s pretty depressing when you go to all that hard work to have most of it come home again. But don’t despair there are many reasons why your child might be bringing foods back home. Children’s appetite’s can vary hugely from day to day, sometimes they simply won’t want to eat as much as you’ve packed. It’s preferable not to put pressure on your child to eat their entire lunchbox. Only they know how hungry they are and you need to trust that they can regulate their own appetite.
They want to play or talk too much. This is usually an issue with younger kids. Playing with their friends often takes priority to eating. These kids usually leave school ravenous and do with a gentle reminder to eat the remainder of their lunchbox on the way home. Difficulty opening foods is another big one. Check that your child can open various containers, packets etc before you send them. For some children the school environment can be a huge sensory challenge. So many people, so much noise, so many distractions. If this is your child an occupational or feeding therapist will be able to work with you and your child’s school to help manage some of these challenges.
Most kids will bring some food back home at least some of the time. If your child is bringing their entire lunch home most of the time it’s probably worth a chat to try and figure out what the problem is. Outside of that, quizzing children about why the celery sticks are coming home again generally doesn’t get them to eat or enjoy them, better to just serve them and let your child decide whether they want to eat them.