Top tips on how to deal with a fussy eater

If family meals resemble a battlefield, it might be time to rethink your strategies for picky-eating kids with the help of this expert advice.

For many families, mealtimes are not a picture-perfect scene of smiling faces and children tucking into the food on their plates that the advertising world might have you believe.

They can actually be genuinely stressful events.

Many young children are fussy eaters, and parents, worried about their child’s nutrition and health, can cycle through the emotions of frustration, guilt and anger as they try different recipes, bribes and even punishments to convince their young charge to take even a few bites.

Fussy eating is a very common scenario

If your child is a picky eater, be assured: you’re not alone.

Studies show fussy eating is very common in childhood.

Georgie Russell, a senior lecturer at Deakin University and fussy-eating researcher, says some research shows up to 50 per cent of children, depending on their age, can be considered fussy eaters.

“It’s not something that parents should feel guilty about or blame themselves for,” Dr Russell says.

She adds many children follow a typical fussy-eating path.

“As a baby, they’ll eat anything,” she says.

“Then they become fussy in toddlerhood.

“Then they go back to being more willing to eat.

“But some children do remain fussy throughout childhood.”

What causes fussy eating?

It’s believed fussy eating is due to genetics, developmental age and other factors.

New research, led by the University of the Sunshine Coast, has found the most common “external” factors that seem to increase the chances of picky eating in children aged under 10 are authoritarian parenting, rewards for eating and pressuring the child to eat.

It found the most common “internal” factors of a fussy eater were the child’s personality and increased sensitivity, particularly to taste and smell.

But now for some good news – while you’re unlikely to change your child’s personality and sensitivities, you can change external factors.

The research found the most commonly reported factors that reduced the likelihood of picky eating were having family meals, and being responsive parents and involving the child in preparing food.

Expert tips on dealing with fussy eaters

Marie-France Leval, of Fussy Eater Solutions, is a nutritionist, dietitian and social worker who specialises in helping Australian parents with fussy eaters.

“Parents get anxious about what their child is not eating,” Marie-France notes.

“A child who doesn’t eat their vegies is a big deal for parents – are they going to be healthy?

“Many parents run around with the spoon, trying to get the spoon in.”

Marie-France has these tips to turn the situation around:

  1. Stop all-day grazing: “If kids graze all day, they won’t be hungry at mealtimes.”
  2. Give them appropriate seating: “They need a comfortable chair that is the right size or they won’t want to sit down.”
  3. Rethink your authoritarian approach to feeding: “If a parent is authoritarian, it’s not pleasant for the child to sit at the table because they know it’s going to be hell. Build empathy, instead.”
  4. Place food in the middle of the table: “Children can serve themselves, which is empowering.”
  5. Sit down together to eat at least weekly: “This models conviviality and sharing in the moment.”
  6. Turn a blind eye to what is and isn’t eaten: “This reduces stress for everyone.”
  7. Cook family food: “Don’t serve complicated adult food. Children tend to prefer simple meals.”
  8. Don’t give up and resort to chicken nuggets every night: “The minute you start reducing the food you expose your child to, is the minute you create more problems for yourself.”

Written by Joanne Trzcinski.