9 Practical Tips to Help You Improve Meal Times with Fussy Eaters

Deirdre Doyle, The Cool Food School

Deirdre Doyle

April 14, 2019

Practical tips for Dealing With Fussy Eaters - Mykidstime

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Are you beyond frustrated with your children at meal times? Honestly, I can hear your silent scream from here! First things first, you are not alone. Picky or fussy eaters are the norm, rather than the exception. You will be relieved to hear that ‘fussy eating’ is a normal developmental phase that most children go through. That said, you still want some answers and solutions, so here are 9 practical tips to deal with fussy eaters and make mealtimes easier.

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If you are dealing with fussy eaters, you’ll know that they each often have their own different picky habits. Billy wants his pasta plain, Jenny doesn’t like that type of pasta and Sean won’t eat pasta at all! But, remember when Billy ate everything you set in front of him, and that time Sean ate a whole avocado but won’t even touch it now?

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Why Are Fussy Eaters so Picky?

Practical tips for Dealing With Fussy Eaters - Mykidstime

Think back to when your child turned from “aren’t we doing such a great job, he eats everything” to “please please please just eat a slice of pizza or a bite of chicken”. I bet your child was about 18 months to 2 years? There are a few reasons why toddlers start refusing their food at this age:

  • their rate of growth begins to slow down so they don’t actually need as much food compared to the baby stage;
  • they are asserting their independence (don’t you just love that word…). Choosing what to put in their mouth is something they actually have control over so they go out of their way to control it;
  • toddlers have a very short attention span, so they are easily distracted by toys, people, the floor, the ceiling…anything really!
  • refusing to eat bitter vegetables may be a survival technique ingrained in us from caveman times. Toddlers gain more mobility, leave the cave and as we know, they like to put anything and everything in their mouths. To avoid getting poisoned, toddlers would have rejected all bitter foods (such as vegetables), not just the harmful ones.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to see how fussy eaters can come to be and that it’s not a result of your parenting – it is a relatively normal phase of development (unless your child is unwell or losing weight, in which case you need to contact a health professional).

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Fussy Eaters: Will My Child Grow Out Of It?

Practical tips for Dealing With Fussy Eaters - Mykidstime

In general, although not always, children will “grow out of it”. However, to ensure they do grow out of it and to save a lot of stress at the dinner table (and pasta on the floor!), here are some simple strategies to help:

#1. Offer a Variety

Continue to offer your child a wide variety of food at mealtimes, even if they refuse to eat them. Research has shown that children need to be offered a new food anything from 7-20 times before they accept it, while parents tend to give up after just three attempts.

#2. Set a Good Example

Model the behaviour you want your child to have. Don’t give them a plate of veggies and then join them at the table with a chip butty and a litre of Coke. All the family needs to model the same healthy eating habits to encourage fussy eaters to try something new.

#3. Speak Positively

Watch your language around food. Make sure you are talking about “healthy” food in a positive way, such as “oh, this pepper is delicious” and not “eat your healthy stuff first and then you can have the nice foods” or similar.

#4. Limit Snacking for Fussy Eaters

Allow plenty of time between snacks and meals. If your child has eaten a yoghurt and  toast 30 minutes before dinner, he is unlikely to have much of an appetite. The same goes for too many drinks between meals (other than water) which fill little tummies up.

#5. Make Food Fun

Allow your children to play with food, away from the table. Put a couple of extra carrots or cucumbers into your shopping basket and let them play shop or kitchen with real food. Let them blow peas, squirt tomatoes, paint with onion stamps, and generally have fun.

#6. Use All Your Senses

If your child won’t even put the food in their mouth, get them to smell it, feel it, look at it. For example, look at the different shapes of peppers in the supermarket, smell different fruits, or get them to guess what you’re making while you cook dinner. Spark their curiosity in food.

#7. Don’t Offer Alternatives

If they don’t like what’s on offer or are not hungry, that’s fine. But don’t make toast or offer alternatives.

#8. Be Creative

Offer your child veggies in lots of different formats. Try carrots roasted, pureed, raw or grated. They may like them roasted but hate them raw (my lot love them raw so I always have a load in the fridge). Experiment with different ways to serve a food they are struggling with, but always make sure it’s tasty – nobody likes over-cooked or tasteless anything!

#9. Try Food Chaining

This can help expand a child’s food choices. It involves a gradual linking of similar, but slightly different, foods until the child accepts a new food. Let’s say Billy will only eat chicken nuggets from McDonalds. One day you buy frozen chicken nuggets and offer them instead for a week or so until he is fully happy with them. Then try homemade nuggets and eventually end up with grilled chicken. It’s a slow, but effective strategy used by many feeding experts worldwide. The key to this is to be patient and don’t rush the process.

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The Pressure Point for Fussy Eaters

Child eating

Last but not least, and most important of all…DO NOT put pressure on your child to eat anything. Do not ask Billy to “eat one more bite” or promise him an ice cream if he eats his broccoli. This type of behaviour (and we’ve all done it, myself included) is counter-productive.

Research has shown that children who are pressured to eat their peas in return for a bowl of jelly, will like the jelly more and the peas less. So stop bribing, cajoling, forcing, threatening and praising your child at the dinner table.

Instead, follow Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility” rule. Ellyn is a feeding expert in the USA and has helped thousands of families with eating issues. Her rule is considered the gold standard for feeding children:

  • The parent is responsible for: choosing and preparing the foods.
  • The child is responsible for: eating the amount they need.

In my house, I cook what I want my children to eat and they eat it or sometimes they don’t. But I don’t get stressed about it. I just remind them there’s nothing else until breakfast.

If you follow these simple strategies with your fussy eaters, you are on the road to setting your child up for life with healthy eating habits.

You May Also Enjoy 13 Expert Tips to Help Your Picky Eaters

What are the hurdles you face with your fussy eaters? Leave a comment below and let us know – we’d love to hear from you!

9 Practical Tips for Mealtimes with Fussy Eaters - Mykidstime

Like this? Share it with your network!

Like this? Share it with your network!

Published On: April 14th, 2019 / Categories: Food and Recipes, For Parents / Last Updated: May 2nd, 2022 / Tags: , , /

About the Author: Deirdre Doyle

Deirdre Doyle, The Cool Food School
Mum-of-three Deirdre set up The Cool Food School to bring the joy of healthy eating to children by making food fun. She teaches interactive workshops in schools and at events like Taste of Dublin, WellFest and Airfield Estate. She also sells a small range of items designed to support parents in making food fun at home, including Kiddies Food Kutters, Safety Food Peelers and Taste N’Tell books.

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