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Fussy eating for school age children

School age is an exciting time for children. It's a time when your child makes new friends, meets new people and becomes more independent. They also come across new rules, routines and experiences - so do you! But sometimes this new world takes getting used to. Worrying about this can affect your child's behaviour and wellbeing.

If your child, and you, are finding these changes difficult, that's OK. There is plenty of help, advice and guidance to support you and your child through this time.

Picky eaters

Read time: 2 minutes

Most parents deal with the challenge of getting their children to eat their greens. But what if your child's picky eating habits are a bit more extreme?

As well as refusing to eat vegetables, picky eating habits can include:

  • Having strong food likes and dislikes
  • Refusing a wide range of unfamiliar foods
  • Turning down foods with a specific texture

Others might show odd habits. These can include:

  • Arranging their food
  • Not letting different foods touch
  • Only eating certain coloured food

Picky eating is something that can begin in early years. But it can often carry on into a child's school years. Some people even remain picky as adults, but not in quite the same way!

Helping your child to enjoy a balanced and healthy diet is really important. It helps their body and brain to grow properly! But that doesn't make it any less challenging! If you're struggling to win them over, don't worry. There are plenty of useful tips you can try to get your child eating healthily.

What causes picky eating?

Genes, parenting style and copying friends can all make a child a picky eater. Picky eaters often have taste buds that are easily upset. Especially bitter tastes and certain food textures. This can make them avoid certain foods.

Children learn from the examples other people set. Friends with picky eating habits can easily rub off on your child. It's also important to stop picky eating habits when they first arise. If you don't, this might worsen as your child gets older.

Should I be worried?

Has your child's picky eating caused significant weight loss? Or failure to gain much weight as they grow older? If so, you should get in touch with their GP. This can be a scary situation. Fortunately, it's very rare. You can help prevent turning picky eating into a problem by following the top tips below.

Top tips on how to handle your child's picky eating habits

Read time: 2 minutes

The NHS shares plenty of helpful tips for parents to help picky eaters get a balanced, healthy diet. These include:

  • Try to eat with your child as often as you can. Most of the time, they learn to eat new foods by copying you.
  • Add new foods in small portions and praise your child for eating, even if they only eat a little bit.
  • Don't force your child to eat anything. If they reject a certain food, take the food away without saying anything.
  • Try the food again another time. Children's tastes change, so if you don't succeed the first time, the second time might be a different story.
  • Don't leave meals until your child is too hungry or tired to eat.
  • Be patient. Your child may be a slow eater.
  • Don't give your child too many snacks between meals – two healthy snacks a day is plenty.
  • Try not to use food as a reward. Your child may start to think of sweets as nice and vegetables as nasty. Instead, reward them with a trip to the park or promise to play a game with them.
  • Make mealtimes enjoyable and not just about eating. Sit down and chat about other things.
  • If any of your child's friends are good eaters, invite them round for tea. Your child may learn from them. But don't talk too much about how good the other children are.
  • Ask an adult that your child is fond of to eat with you. Sometimes a child will eat for someone else, such as a grandparent, without any fuss.
  • Changing how you serve a food may make it more appealing. For example, your child might refuse cooked carrots but enjoy raw carrot sticks.

Help yourself!

Trying to get your child to curb their picky eating habits can be hard work. Most parents have to go through this, but that doesn't make it any easier! Especially if you are worried that your child's diet is harming their health.

If dealing with this leaves you tired and stressed, speak to someone. Don't feel silly for telling people how you feel. Your fellow parents will be able to support you too. They may even have some useful advice. Otherwise, check out the available helplines and support groups designed for parents just like you!

Information from external websites

Action for Children offer top tips for encouraging your child to have a healthy relationship with food.

Family Lives has an article on getting children cooking, which can help picky eaters.

Young Minds have a helpful parents survival guide and a fantastic A-Z of information and advice.

Barnardo's Family Space has a useful section on healthy lifestyles for 4-8 year olds and another on healthy lifestyles for 8-12 year olds. they also share useful ideas for understanding and responding to behaviour in 4-8 year olds and also for routines and behaviour for 8-12 year olds.

Be Your Best Surrey's resources for parents includes information on food and diet.

Safe Space Health UK is a website for young people aged 11 - 14 in Surrey. It offers helpful information about emotional health, lifestyle choices, relationships, keeping safe, growing up and being okay with being different.

Struggling and need to talk?

For you

Action for Children offer 1:1 chat with a parenting coach (Mon - Fri). If they are closed you can leave a message and a parenting coach will get back to you within 3 working days.

Family Lives has a free, confidential helpline, offering emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life. Call the Family Lives helpline on 0808 800 2222 (Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm and on weekends from 10am to 3pm).

The Surrey Children and Family Health Advice Line is available from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). They can provide support on all aspects of child health, development and parenting for families with children from birth to 19 years old. Call the Surrey-wide 0-19 Advice Line on 01883 340 922

Young Minds has a free parents helpline. For detailed advice, emotional support and signposting about your child call 0808 802 5544 (9:30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday)

For your child

Childline have a free and confidential helpline for children. You could encourage your child to call 0800 1111 if they need to speak to someone - open 7 days a week from 7.30am - 3.30am. Childline also have a 1-2-1 counsellor chat for children who don't want to speak on the phone.

If your child is 11 or older you might want to tell them about the Child and Family Health Surrey text service called ChatHealth. It's a confidential school nurse messaging service for young people aged 11-19. Young people can contact their school nurse in confidence by text. The Chat Health text number is: 07507 329 951 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm). All of the issues discussed are confidential unless a child's safety, or that of others, is at risk. The school nurses will always encourage young people to discuss issues with their parents or guardians.

Useful videos on picky eaters

Family Lives share an informative video on fussy eaters.

View on YouTube

Family Lives has a video on healthy eating for 5-9 year olds and another on healthy eating for 9-14 year olds. They also have a video for if your child decides to become a vegetarian.

The Families Under Pressure video collection offers a great series of short top tips videos on managing behaviour and help with negative emotions. Perfect for when your family leave you feeling frazzled!

Helpful tools and apps

Action for Children offers top tips for supporting your child's body image.

The NHS has a handy webinar on fussy eating in school age children.

The NSPCC has a great guide on positive parenting with a helpful section on setting boundaries.

Surrey's Early Support team suggest keeping a food diary. It's a handy resource for you to learn about your child's eating habits. You might want to see if anything they are eating triggers sleep issues or behaviour issues too. It is really helpful to take this to the GP if you have concerns about your child's eating (or sleep and behaviour if you think food or drinks may be having an impact).

Surrey's Family Learning and Adult Learning teams have developed a family wellbeing resource, with lots of tips on looking after yourself and your family during these challenging times.

Online parenting guides

Surrey residents get free access to an online guide that include top tips from childcare, education and NHS health experts

How to register

Registration is quick and easy. Go to the OurPlace website and use the access code 'ACORN' to get your free guide.

Access to the guide is unlimited with no expiry date, so you can return as and when you need and want to. Why not watch the Child and Family Health video to find out more.

Community support, courses and local help

Choose the area you live in for local services. Please note that due to coronavirus (Covid-19) very few community services are currently running.

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Date published: 22 Apr 2021