New research has found young fussy eaters are frustrating their parents by wasting huge amounts of food - but the best way to stop such poor eating is by parents not giving in to it, the British Dietetic Association tells Lisa Salmon.
By Lisa Salmon
With food prices sky-high, young fussy eaters are costing the nation's families a fortune.
New Mumsnet research shows that 86% of parents end up throwing away part of their children's main meal, even though nearly half (45%) of mums and dads spend more on food now than a year ago.
Separate research, from the European Toddler Nutrition Index (ETNI), shows that UK toddlers are the most likely in Europe to refuse food (69%), with 43% of UK mums letting their toddler get away with not eating certain foods, and 38% giving in to their child's food refusal within the first five minutes.
Not surprisingly, toddlers' fussy eating leaves half of mums frustrated, another 38% worried, and some even angry (12%).
The Mumsnet survey, which was commissioned to launch Food February, a month-long celebration of food and nutrition on the parents' networking site, found that only 12% of parents have a rule that their children eat everything on their plate, and two-thirds (66%) of mums and dads finish off their children's leftovers.
"Parents often go to huge lengths to lovingly cater for their family's food tastes but it doesn't seem to be stopping the waste," says Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts.
"Very few of us insist on our children finishing their meals and instead the majority of parents end up polishing off the leftovers."
For the sake of parents' waistlines, purses and peace of mind, they need to be stricter at the table, explains British Dietetic Association spokesperson Melissa Little.
"Pretty much every toddler will go through a fussy eating phase," she warns, "and it's how you deal with that phase that dictates how long it lasts.
"Parents need to be firm to help their children learn to eat properly."
The European Toddler Nutrition Index, which was commissioned by GrowingUpMilkInfo.com, found that nearly one in 10 (8%) UK toddlers frequently fling food they don't like at the wall or on the floor in protest.
But Little warns: "The really important thing is not to make a big deal out of fussy eating.
"Don't let your child see you getting worked up, because if they do, they'll get worked up too. They're looking for attention.
"Don't get angry, don't threaten, coerce, bribe or blackmail them to eat. Take a really relaxed approach, give them what you normally give them and let them take it or leave it."
But there lies the crux for many parents - if they allow their child to leave food and don't react, the child may end up going hungry.
Don't worry about it, says Little, who stresses that while children may go to bed hungry for one, two or even three nights, usually by the third night of going to bed hungry, they'll learn that they eat their dinner or they won't get anything else.
"They'll be fine eaters after that," she says.
Little explains that if parents constantly give in to kids and make them something else because they won't eat their dinner, they'll never learn to eat correctly.
"It's better to have a few days of them not eating properly to make sure they eat properly in the long-run than making them something different every time.
"Children are very stubborn and very smart, but they'll never starve themselves. If they know you're not going to give in, they will eventually eat what they're given."
Studies show that it can take up to 20 attempts at trying a food before a child will like/eat it - so parents shouldn't give up on a food the first time a child refuses it.
"You have to give them the opportunity to like it over time," Little stresses.
In a bid to encourage good eating and behaviour, many toddlers are rewarded with junk food, with the ETNI finding that four in 10 mums (39%) give their child sweets, biscuits, fizzy drinks and chocolate for eating or behaving well.
In addition, the Mumsnet survey found 48% of parents bribe their children to eat vegetables.
"We would recommend no bribery," says Little.
"If you're giving them a pudding it should be something healthy like a yoghurt or fruit, regardless of whether they eat their dinner or not, but it shouldn't be cakes or biscuits.
"If you really want to reward them, give them stickers or a trip to the park or something similar.
"If you give them a cake or biscuit for eating their dinner, it's like saying the treat is the best thing in the world and the dinner they've eaten was like a punishment to eat - it puts different weightings on foods."
Little warns that many of the foods children turn their noses up at are foods their parents don't like either - so to get the child to eat a particular food, it's helpful for mum or dad to eat the food themselves too, and eat it together as a family.
"You are your child's biggest role model, you're the person they learn their eating skills from and they have to see you cooking and eating at the table to learn the correct behaviour," says Little.
"Eating together as a family creates really good mealtime behaviour. Just say to them you'll have what the rest of the family have, and if you don't like it, tough."
Ask the expert Q: "My 10-year-old son keeps nagging me to let him use video games that are 12 certificate or older. I'm not sure how strict I need to be, and what the content is likely to be for each age rating. Is it best to stick strictly to the age ratings?"
A: Jo Twist, chief executive of UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) says: "While it can be hard as a parent to resist pester power, the PEGI age ratings are there to give a clear and simple guide to the minimum age someone should be to play a game: they work in the same way film ratings do, so it's important to understand them.
"Alongside the age ratings, there are content descriptors that give you extra guidance about why the game was given that rating. You can also get more of a sense of what the age ratings mean and the type of game you're buying by looking online, playing the free demos available on many games and reading the reviews.
"What's more, there's a huge variety of incredibly creative and fun games that would be perfect for your son at his age, and that you can also enjoy as a whole family. You can find out loads more details on this and what the different PEGI age ratings mean at www.askaboutgames.com "With the growing number of great online games available, Safer Internet Day (February 5) is also a helpful reminder of how parents can assist their children in gaming safely on the web.
"So, level up your games knowledge before you buy and remember - you're the one in control."
Little sweethearts Heart-Shaped Cupcake Moulds A set of six heart moulds, perfect for baking Valentine's treats with the kids. Always use under adult supervision, £3, available from www.wilko.com and Wilkinson stores nationwide.
Valentine's Collection Wuff You English Sheepdog An 11in cuddly sheepdog that says 'I Wuff You' on its plush red heart. Available from Amazon, www.amazon.co.uk, £14.99.
Smart Heart A child-friendly pulse monitor - just place the monitor over your heart, hold the button down and work out your pulse rate. Suitable for ages four to 10, available from www.sciencemuseumshop.co.uk, £15.