Fussy eating in children and how to avoid it

By Michelle Fisher · 3 November, 2017

Is your child is a fussy eater?

Is your child is a fussy eater? Would you like to help them change their eating habits and eat a variety of healthy, nutritious food? Do you want to make sure your children don’t develop into fussy eaters in the future? Then this blog is for you.

Years ago when my children were small I, like most parents, was desperate for them to eat healthily. In my desperation I used strategies such as begging, pleading, forcing and rewarding, thinking that it would help them to eat well. But it actually did the complete opposite and encouraged them to be fussy eaters. Years later, whilst working as a parenting coach, I have researched and used simple strategies that set up positive eating habits for kids. Oh how I wish someone had shared these tips with me when my daughters were small. It would have made life so much easier and saved a lot of short and long term worry and issues for us all. I have put these tips on ‘fussy eating and how to change your child’s eating habits’ together because I want to help parents like me to avoid making the mistakes I made. I have seen them work brilliantly with children and hope you find them really helpful.

How to avoid fussy eating habits

When I began my research I found the following bit of information liberating:

Parents are in charge of what food is offered and when it is offered. The parents job is to provide a wide variety of healthy meals and snacks

Children are in charge of how much they eat of each meal or snack that is offered

So all that cajoling and bargaining wasn’t necessary! Infact that was the thing that I did that probably started the fussy eating issues in my children……‘If you eat one piece of broccoli then you can have your pudding’, ‘If you finish your dinner then you can have some cake’ And what happens if they don’t eat one more piece of broccoli or finish their dinner? Do they have a tantrum when they can’t have pudding? Or do we give it to them anyway? And then what do they learn? And how does this stress affect the way they feel around meal times?

When I did this my kids actually ate less and meal times were fraught and stressful. What actually happens when you bribe and bargain with your child is you let them know how important it is to you that they do eat. Trying to force children to eat will mean mealtimes become a power struggle. When we think about the developmental stage of a two year old for example, who is beginning to exert their need for independence and power, knowing how much you would like them to eat, and then refusing to eat or being fussy about what they eat, is a sure-fire way of them gaining leverage and power. The more you try and force a child to eat, and this includes bribing, pleading, begging etc, the less they will want to eat because they will learn that there is a lot of power in not eating or only agreeing to eat certain foods. You will start to hear them say things like ‘I don’t like carrots’ or ‘I only like fish fingers for dinner’

Another reason that all this discussion and pleading with our child about food doesn’t help them to develop positive eating habits, is that we are paying lots of attention to the fussy eating behaviour . As I spoke about in my blog ‘positive attention and changing behaviours’, when we give our children lots of attention for a certain behaviour, and that can be positive or negative attention, we will encourage more of that behaviour.

So the rule above, ‘Children are in charge of how much they eat of each meal or snack that is offered’ must mean exactly that. No encouraging or offering rewards for eating. Let your child be in charge of what they choose to eat so that they are not gaining power for not eating. Offer food and let it be their choice. You will see that when you pay no attention to their ‘I don’t like pasta with sauce’’ or ‘I’m not eating those peas’ comments and ignore them pulling faces of disgust when you put something on the table, that they will actually begin to try more and more things. And by ‘pay no attention and ignore’ I mean don’t look at them, don’t comment on any negative response to food they are giving, say absolutely nothing!

If when our children say they don’t like what we have made we run off to the kitchen and cook them one of the few things they say they do like, we are teaching them that all they have to do is refuse and we will serve whatever they want. This increases fussy eating because your child never gets the opportunity to try different foods. We will also be teaching their siblings the same lesson. It takes at least sixteen times of trying a food for a child to get used to it. Only after this amount of time will you know if they really don’t like something.

So what else can we do to avoid fussy eating?

By getting children involved in the whole process of buying, making and serving food you will help them develop an interest in healthy eating. This involvement will also increase their enjoyment of food because it appeals to their desire for autonomy and they will feel in control of what they eat and when and how they eat it.

  1. Help your child to develop an interest in where food comes from and how it grows: visit a farm, go vegetable picking, grow vegetables at home (in a container on a window sill if space is limited)
  2. Ask them to contribute to the list of meals your family are going to have that week and value their ideas
  3. Make a shopping list together (draw pictures of some of the items you need to buy for children that can’t read yet)
  4. Go to the supermarket together and ask them to help you choose the food, or find the food on their shopping list, and load the trolley
  5. Talk about nutrients and how they help the body
  6. Encourage your children to help with preparing, cooking and serving food
  7. Model healthy eating. If this is tough try really hard not to comment on not liking healthy food in front of your children. Remember children learn most from what they watch us do
  8. Ask your child to help lay the table or create a picnic rug on the floor if you don’t have a table
  9. Have family meals at the table or on a picnic rug and model how you would like your child to eat by the way that you sit and use your cutlery
  10. Let children use their own cutlery and feed themselves
  11. Put vegetables on and in EVERYTHING! e.g: in scrambled eggs, on pizzas, in smoothies, in sauces and offer in their natural state. It’s very important to give fruit and vegetables in their natural state sometimes so that your child realises they are eating them. Blending them is still great because even though your child won’t realise they are getting them they will still be developing a taste for them. If your child picks the vegetables out of their food that’s fine, the more they are exposed to them the more likely they are to stop picking them out and start eating them. Research shows that the more fruit and vegetables are available to children in early childhood the more interest they have in them and the more likely they are to eat them
  12. Make snacks fun with face plates

What to do if your child refuses to eat anything

Parents often say to me ‘But what if they won’t eat anything at all, will they starve?’ The answer is no. It is extremely rare that children refuse to eat anything for a long period of time. By taking away the pressure, setting the expectation that they will try new things before deciding whether they like it or not and letting them take control of what they eat, you are setting up positive eating habits. When you do this you will see that their fussy eating habits reduce and they begin to eat a wider variety of food and increase the amount they eat too! Remember that when we implement changes that marked improvements in a behaviour can take up to six weeks to be seen.

Provide regular meals and snacks for your children so they know when to expect food. With this mealtime routine in place you can be clear what the rule is in your home about eating. If your child chooses not to eat at mealtimes they need to understand when they will next be able to eat. It is not going to encourage them to eat the next healthy meal you provide if they have eaten lots of unhealthy, filling snacks in between, they will just wait for the next snack.

So make snacks healthy, for example vegetable and fruit kebabs with delicious dips or spiced apple crisps. Make them fun and interesting. If your child decides not to eat at meal time tell them ‘That’s ok but remember that the next time you will be able to eat is at snack time (or meal time)’, whichever you decide the rule is in your home. This may be tough to begin with but stick with it, reminding yourself of the rule that parents are in charge of providing healthy food and children are in charge of how much they eat. I am confident that you will soon see them start to try a wide variety of foods and eat what you provide at meal and snack times.

If you would like to chat about how we could support you to help encourage positive eating habits in your children or any with other parenting matters, please get in contact with us for a free consultation or call us on 01622 792804.