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The fuss-free guide to mealtimes


Yan and Lily

Yan and Lily

Yan and Lily

Everyone knows children that are fussy eaters - some more extreme than others. There are those who refuse to eat vegetables, others who only consume food of a certain colour and plenty with a sweet tooth that won't be satisfied unless there is some sugar included in their daily diet.

It can be a nightmare for parents who, for the most part, are doing the best they can to ensure their children get the best nutrition possible while developing a broad palate to help them enjoy food throughout their lives.

But with one in four girls, and one in five boys, being classed as overweight or obese in Ireland, the problem of getting children to eat properly is at crisis point. Meanwhile, childhood obesity is associated with increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke in later life.

During September, the Irish Heart Foundation launched a campaign entitled 'Stop the Drama', aimed at helping parents to introduce and sustain a healthy diet for their children, without tears and tantrums.

Janis Morrissey, dietician with the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF), says modern life may be at fault when it comes to children refusing to eat certain foods and ending up with weight problems.

"In a busy world, getting children to eat healthily isn't always easy," she says. "It is hard to find the time to cook something they'll actually eat and to cope with mealtime 'dramas'. That's why we're aiming to take the drama out of family meals by providing child-endorsed and parent-approved heart-healthy recipes with our new campaign.

"We've also gathered expert tips to resolve tricky mealtime situations, and offer healthy snack ideas. We hope this will provide easy and small changes everyone can make. Our 'Healthy Meals without the Drama' campaign is designed to make meals genuinely easier for parents and yummier for kids - as well as being healthier and more affordable."

The expert dietician says good nutrition isn't just about putting good food on the table; it's also a complex and emotional topic.

"Fussy or faddy eating usually appears in toddler years, but some of our kids will continue to pose challenges well beyond pre-school years," she says. As a parent, you can manage the situation by following a number of easy tips:

• Keep mealtimes as relaxed as possible and always eat at the table, away from TV and screens.

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• Praise your child when they eat healthy foods. If you start getting stressed, take a break from the table - even five seconds will help you to keep a calm and matter-of-fact tone. Once you start showing your frustrations, you're providing them with attention and this negative attention will make it more likely that they'll repeat the behaviour.

• While it's important that your child tries new foods, be very careful not to get too obsessed by this.

• List all the foods your child will eat, which is usually more than you think, and develop a menu plan around these as this will make life a lot easier.

Dr Aoife Brinkley, senior clinical psychologist at Temple Street Children's Hospital, says while children are naturally drawn to sweet foods, it is important not to use treats as a reward or bribe - particularly as they have a natural suspicion of trying anything new.

"As parents, we can unintentionally send the message that certain foods are nicer than others," she says. "Saying 'you can have an ice-cream if you eat your peas' not only gives the message that ice-cream is desirable, but associates it with a sense of reward and positive attention. And on top of this, children are surrounded by advertising and media messages that associate certain foods with happiness, popularity or other positive concepts.

"The other factor which can make children less open to 'healthy' foods is the fact that we are biologically primed to be wary of new foods, which once served a very adaptive function that helped primitive man avoid poisonous foods. What this means in modern society is that the vast majority of children will begin saying no to unfamiliar foods at around two years of age. So a child who once willingly opened their mouth to taste all sorts of vegetable concoctions, will suddenly start to act like their parent is trying to poison them with butternut squash or spinach."

Dr Brinkley says while there is no single factor to blame for childhood obesity, children are offered a lot of choice nowadays. But she is quick to reassure worried parents that a few simple changes can help make a difference to their child's health.

"What has become very evident from international research done into childhood obesity is that the increase in children's obesity is a problem caused by multiple factors, including societal and family issues, the availability of cheap high-fat, high-sugar foods and individual factors, such as how sensitive a child is to new tastes or textures," she says.

"Meanwhile, our approach to how we parent has become more lenient over the last generation and, in some families, this can mean that children have free access to treats. But it is very important not to view childhood obesity in a simplistic way or to blame parents as we are products of our own experiences of being parented as well as broader cultural or societal issues.

"One of the simplest yet most effective things a parent can do to change their child's diet is to introduce family rules or routines in relation to 'junk' food." These tips could make all the difference:

1. A simple, clear concept, such as no sweets or crisps during the week, is very easy for even young children to understand. If this is a family rule, it means you have a clear and easy response to those times when we might be weakest in the face of children's pester power.

2. A helpful tip when trying to encourage children to eat healthy foods like vegetables is to offer little and often. If you offer a new food multiple times, it gives the child a chance to get used to the look, smell and feel of the food. All of this helps to counteract their innate aversion to new or unfamiliar foods. Small amounts of the food, even a small broccoli floret, is less scary to a young child than half a plateful of green.

3. Parents can model good eating habits by eating a variety of healthy foods themselves and passing on messages that healthy foods can be yummy too.

For more information, see nodrama.ie and irishheart.ie

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