10 Tips for coping with fussy eaters

If meals with your children are ruled by what they refuse to eat, consider a dietitian’s advice on how to tackle fussy eating and win mealtime back.

Dr Cohen’s tips to prevent fussy eating

While fussy eating is part of normal childhood development, there are some suggestions parents can try to ensure it does not become a habit.

  1. Pureed food is optional: Introduce textured and finger foods to children when they start eating solids – for example, bite-size pieces of soft fruit and vegetables. Or, skip pureed food altogether – omitting or quickly moving on from it will help a child’s development.
  2. Never mask flavours: Introduce your child to a good variety of flavours and don’t combine flavours. For example, avoid making a savoury, spicy or aromatic food more appealing by adding sweetness because then a child will prefer sweet flavours. So, ensure your child is eating similar flavours to the rest of the family.
  3. Avoid negativity: Never force your child to eat food they reject because negative reinforcement and “just take one more bite” messaging about food could potentially lead to food aversion. The same tip applies to describing food as “healthy/unhealthy” or “good/bad” and using food as a reward – for example, saying: “if you eat your vegetables you can have dessert” – because this demonises one food while it puts another food on a pedestal. Placing too much value in food can be problematic.
  4. New experiences are key: Regularly introduce your child to new foods, flavours and textures – even if they refuse to eat their portion – and they might eventually decide to try those new foods.
  5. Intervene early: Never assume your child will grow out of fussy eating. If it’s clearly a problem as soon as they start solid foods, consult a professional to assess for sensory or swallowing issues.

Dr Cohen’s tips for dealing with fussy eaters

If your child has already developed into a fussy eater and is consuming fewer and fewer different foods, below are some ideas for parents to try in order to break the cycle.

  1. Practice the division of responsibility: Your job at mealtimes is to provide the food you want your child to eat and when and where the meal is. It is the child’s job to decide whether they eat or not.
  2. Eat together as a family: Study after study shows that when parents eat food in front of their children, their child is more likely to want to eat that food. Eating together as a family is a great way to model good eating habits to fussy eaters. If you are eating, it will be easier to ignore your fussy eater when they refuse to eat the meal. Eating together also gives you a chance to be a role model for good eating habits.
  3. Considered not catered meals: Never cook separate meals to cater for your fussy eater and never assume your fussy eater “can just starve” if they refuse food – eating that food might be stressful and they might be physically unable to eat it. So, ensure each meal has some foods your fussy eater will eat, as well as new foods in order to regularly expose your child to something different. The same tip applies to lunchboxes.
  4. Family-style meals: New foods on a plate in front of a fussy eater can be stressful to them. Instead, place food in the centre of the table and let your child choose their own food. This is less stressful because it exposes the child to new foods without forcing them to eat those foods.
  5. Playing with food: Having your fussy eater take a bite of food is the last step in helping them. Allowing them to play with food lets your fussy eater feel comfortable with new foods and takes the stress away. They might even lick their fingers afterwards.

Be patient – you’re in it for the long haul

Dr Cohen said it was also important for parents to remember that fussy eating was not something which could be dealt with overnight.

“Reversing fussy eating takes a lot of time and a lot of patience; there’s no quick fix. There are many, many steps to take to get your child to eat a vegetable they don’t like; aim for the small wins,” she said.

“Also consider the attitudes you want your child to have about food as they get older. Provide constant positive reinforcement around food – but they shouldn’t see it as a ‘reward’ because that can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food as they get older.

“I like to say to my kids that food is about helping our bodies grow and be strong, or to help them at school or play sport. And it’s okay if they don’t eat because they’re full or are not hungry – teaching your child how to listen to their body’s cues is so important.”

Dr Jennifer Cohen (a mother of a six-year-old and eight-year-old ) of UNSW Medicine has been working in childhood nutrition for more than 15 years, specialising in paediatric oncology nutrition – children’s diets during cancer treatment.

Also see:
Navigating the Challenges of Picky Eaters