Fussy eating can be ‘in the mind.’

At a birthday party my son, then aged four, asked for jam sandwiches. The Dad put a plate of jam sandwiches in front of my son and said. ‘There you are, there are your tuna sandwiches!’ My son froze. I said ‘It’s OK, it’s jam really’ and showed him the jam inside. My son still refused to eat them. The Dad, realising we had reached a stale-mate, removed the sandwiches, fiddled around at the counter, and returned with the same sandwiches saying, ‘There you go, your jam sandwiches!’. Only then did my son take a bite.

Challenges with a picky eater

For many years afterwards, my son had to eat just a spoonful of carrots or peas before he started on the rest of his meal. He just hated vegetables. But once he knew we were serious, he put a little tomato ketchup on his vegetables, gulped it down with water and the rest of the meal could be eaten in peace. At one point I realised that there were only 10 foods that were healthy that my son would eat. I wrote them down and most of his meals were a combination of these 10 healthy foods. I had just decided that as long as he ate these he would hopefully go on to be healthy and strong.

Fussy eating can be hereditary

It is interesting that nature blessed me with two children who would eat anything and two children who were born fussy! I have it on good authority that my husband was a very fussy eater when he was young. So what can you do when a child just won’t eat the food you put down in front of them?

14 top tips when dealing with a fussy eater

Have a look at the following tips and see if any of these will work on your fussy eater. (If you try one and it doesn’t work, see if a different one does the trick).

  1. Make a list of all the nutritious foods your child will eat.  Either give only these nutritious foods at mealtimes or decide to offer well-balanced family meals and ignore the protests.
  2. Stop buying all crisps, chocolate biscuits, sweets, or snack food that your child uses to fill up.
  3. Give vitamin supplements and/or insist on a teaspoon of vegetables with each meal.
  4. Stop milk drinks if your child uses these to fill up.
  5. Start a star chart to reward good eating.  Just trying a new food should earn a star. Eating everything on their plate should earn stars too. Make sure that your child knows how many stickers they need to earn a reward that will really please them.
  6. Make it a habit to praise your child when they are eating well, and ignore it when they are fussy. Use comments to describe the specific behaviour you like: ‘You tried a carrot –that was very brave’ or ‘two children sitting nicely at the table and eating everything up –I’m really enjoying eating with you guys’.
  7. Do not allow your child’s food intake to dominate meal times.  Sit down and eat with your children. Help them to enjoy family meals. DO NOT COMMENT on what your child is eating at any time. Chat with your children happily and animatedly, and make sure that the atmosphere is calm and friendly. At the end of the meal just announce that the meal is over. There should be no food until the next meal.
  8. Set a timer. If you have a painfully slow eater, give your child 20 to 30 minutes to eat their meal. Set a timer if you like. When the timer goes off take this child’s plate and clear it INTO THE BIN without any comment and make sure there are NO snacks between meals. It’s amazing how many children hate to see their food go in the bin.
  9. Have a rule that dessert is for children who finish their meals. An stick to it. Always.
  10. Give your young child picture books with pictures of fruit and vegetables. They will be far more likely to try foods they have seen in a book. The Charlie and Lola book ‘I will never not ever eat a tomato’ can also introduce a sense of humour into the difficult subject of trying new foods.
  11. Look at websites of healthy foods or ideas for healthy lunchboxes and get your child to pick out what they would like to try.
  12. Have a micro-starter. I heard of this technique proposed by Noel Janis-Norton. Before EVERY meal give each child four or five microscopic (no bigger than a pea) amounts of foods you want them to try as a ‘starter’. Each child has to eat all the new foods before they can eat their main course. It is a great way of introducing children to new tastes.
  13. Cook meals with your children. Get them to wash and prepare vegetables and really involve them in every aspect of food preparation. Once again they will be much more likely to try foods that they have prepared themselves.
  14. Have fun with food. Make a picture of a face or a boat out of the food on their plate. Play blow football with a pea, make carrot cake, have ‘make-your-own-pizza’ parties, get ‘dinosaur’ cutters for sandwiches, make fruit kebabs –anything to put the fun back into eating.

Good luck!

child behavioural expert
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

Need help now? Ready to explore whether investing in some tailor-made parenting sessions would be right for you and your family? Book your FREE 20-minute call with Elizabeth here