Fussy eaters are more likely to tuck in to a healthy meal when surrounded by others doing the same, said a Massey University nutrition scientist who wants to help frustrated parents of picky feeders.

The role of family meals is one of the topics of an upcoming workshop that aims to relieve tensions surrounding fraught feeding times when youngsters want burgers or biscuits, not broccoli.

Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health lecturer Dr Cathryn Conlon said most young children go through a phase of being picky about food, but setting up good habits from an early age will help parents to tackle this difficult patch.

The first step for parents is to realise that food fussiness around the age of 18 months and lasting up to a year is a normal part of development when children start to assert their independence.

Encouraging good eating habits through family meals is a powerful way for a young child to develop a positive attitude, Dr Conlon said. While this may not always be practical if a toddler eats earlier than the rest of the family, just having one other person sit and eat with them, or occasionally having family meals earlier to include the toddler, can help.

Dr Conlon said teaching children about new foods is another key.

“When you’re presenting a young child with a new food, it can be frightening for them,” she said. “It’s something unknown, not just a food that we take for granted. Talk to them about what it is, and what it tastes like. We take time teaching children to walk, talk and read, but we forget to take the time to teach them about eating.”

She said some children reject certain foods because they don’t like the texture, but refusing mashed potato doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy baked, roasted or sautéed spuds. While most children are not fond of vegetables that can have a bitter taste, such as brussel sprouts and cabbage, taste sensations evolve over time as children grow and the range of foods they like will also expand.

Rewarding vegetable eating with a bowl of ice cream, and other forms of food bribery is not a tactic she endorses. “It teaches children to ignore their body cues around hunger, and also you might end up having to give them ice cream after every meal when that’s not necessarily ideal,” she said.

Eating while watching television is also not recommended because it distracts the child from normal hunger cues, which can result in overeating. The types of food we eat in front of the television are also often less healthy, she added.

Offering youngsters a variety of foods and not giving up if they refuse the first time are all par for the course in encouraging a child to be an epicurean adventurer. Fussy eating only becomes a more serious problem if a child is failing to grow, Dr Conlon said.

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