Coping with fussy eaters

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Exposing children to a range of foods early in life can have a major impact on their food preferences in adulthood. This is the reason why most parents get so stressed out when their toddlers show a marked preference to live on only milk and biscuits, or when they refuse to eat all vegetables.

It is important to bear in mind that trying new tastes may be as stressful for the child, as his refusal to do so can be for his parents. It is, thus of critical importance to parents to learn how to cope with fussy eaters.


Why should I be aware of it?

Parents of children who are fussy about food often worry a great deal about the long term implications of their children's poor eating habits. Often, this anxiety gets communicated to the child, who develops further fads that stay with him or her till adulthood. Parents tend to develop an erroneous conviction that in some way it is their fault their child is fussy. It causes untold tensions at dinner tables with efforts to force a child to eat what he doesn’t want to eat.

It is important to understand that it is perfectly normal for children to prefer only certain foods and reject other foods. It is equally important for parents of fussy eaters to learn and use behavioural strategies that help them cope and deal better with their fussy eater.

Fussy eating and health

Most of the times, if a child who is picky about food is growing reasonable well and has a normal weight, parents have no cause for health concern. Here are some points to bear in mind --

  • Most fussy eaters emerge from this stage at their own pace, particularly if their closest role models have healthy eating habits for them to emulate.
  • A child may be slim, healthy and growing well which is fine, another child may be overweight, appears to eat little and may need their diet and physical activity reviewed.
  • A healthy child will never starve himself to death by refusing to eat food.
  • Consult a health care professional if a child is underweight and doesn’t

appear to be growing well

What can I do about it?

Experts feel that if you sit across the table when a child is eating you look intimidating to him. It is suggested you sit next to him. The first time a child fusses about his food is understandably a confusing time for parents. Here are some more dos and don'ts for them to follow:

  • It is important to remain calm and comforting. Always keep in mind the fact that the child will not willingly starve, and when she is hungry, she will eat.
  • Never scold her for not eating. Instead, take her plate away as soon as she says she does not want to eat.
  • Often, children develop food fads when they are too young to indicate their preferences to parents. To find out what sort of tastes your child enjoys, offer him a variety of foods and observe what he picks up. Does he seem to like sweeter tastes? Offer different fruits, carrot and beetroot. Does he seem to prefer sour flavours? Give him lemonade, citrus fruits and yogurt.
  • Never force him to eat a specific food.

Enticing a fussy eater to the dinner table

It is the role of parents to ensure that the foods from which a child can choose are nutritious and appealing. Here are some tips which may entice your fussy eater to the table –

  • The first thing to remember is that you are your child’s most immediate role model. So if you have a couple of food fads yourself, your child will also be likely to develop some. Make healthy and nutritious food choices for yourself, and eat your own food with apparent enjoyment.
  • Create a mealtime that is pleasant and relaxed. It helps if the family eats together, so your child can see and emulate older people on the table. Give your child the same food you eat. Let there be conversation on the table, so the child begins to see dinnertime as fun, instead of a punishing routine.
  • Talk about food; this may encourage a child to eat. Tell him what you like to eat, and why. Encourage him to watch food being cooked, or vegetables being peeled. Let him help in an age-appropriate manner – for instance, he could help peel boiled potatoes or shell peas.
  • If possible, give your child a choice between a couple of dishes on the table (for example, let him choose to eat either carrots or peas, and decide whether he would like a slice of bread or a baked potato).

Coping with a fussy eater

Many parents of fussy eaters declare they have tried all the tricks in the book to get their children to eat, but they have all been to no avail. If the child is developing well otherwise, all they can really do is learn to cope with their child’s food fads. Here are some tried and tested strategies.

  • Recognize the fact that your child is not as enthusiastic about dinner as you would like him to be. Serve smaller portions of food – some children get put off if they see a mountain of food on their plates.
  • Always keep in mind the fact that children do not have control over many things in their lives – but what they eat is a notable exception. Often, a fight over a food is more likely due to the child exercising his little voice than an aversion to the food itself.
  • Limit snacks and drinks between meals. Drinking too much liquid can lessen your child's appetite. If your child wants a drink, offer them after a meal so that they don't ruin the appetite.
  • Make meal times, social occasions. One strategy that sometimes works well is to invite friends of your child who have better appetites. Invite a friend of the child who has a large appetite. Or else, you could invite an adult that the child likes for dinner (like an uncle or friend). Sometimes a child will eat for someone else without any fuss.
  • If your child is playing with his food, quietly remove the plate with no fuss.
  • Do not substitute milk for meals.
  • Every few days, try making menus that the rest of the family enjoys. Include one or two items that the fussy eater avoids, she may eat the items not knowing they are there. For instance, if she does not eat carrots, grate them into cutlets or salad, or if she does not eat eggs, stir them into a hot Chinese soup. Disguise foods she is averse to -- for example, bottle gourd and cauliflower impart little extra flavour to soups.
  • Never bribe your child to finish his food. Do not promise, for instance, a juice or a slice of cake or any treat to your child, as a reward for eating the food on his plate. This sets up an unhealthy association and relationship for children with their food.
  • Look for nutritious substitutes to foods he is averse to. If he does not like veggies, give fruits instead. If he eats only bread, try topping it with peanut butter or a tomato and cheese topping to make it more nutritious.

Introducing new foods to a fussy eater

One of the biggest challenges that parents of fussy eaters face is to try and introduce new foods into their children’s diets. Remember, statistics show that around half of all toddlers refuse to eat a new food at least half of the time. Here are some tips on how to introduce new foods to your child --

  • Offer new foods when you know he is hungry and more receptive to new tastes.
  • Only offer one new food at a time – sometimes children get overwhelmed if they see too many new foods on their plates.
  • Allow him a few days to adapt to a new taste before moving on to something else.
  • Another strategy to get your fussy eater to try something new to eat, is to let him taste it from your plate – it is less overwhelming than the sight of a strange food on their own plate. When it comes to introducing new foods, a ‘taste’ can be as small as half a teaspoon!
  • Try serving a small taste of a new food with larger helpings of other foods that the child has already accepted and enjoys.
  • Try getting him interested in the new food. For instance, if you are in a farm, point out vegetables he has never eaten to show him how they grow. He might be more willing to try them if he finds them interesting.
  • Sometimes, parents find their fussy eaters are more willing to try new foods when they are on holiday, or in someone else’s house. A change of scenery may encourage them to try new tastes, and even if it does not, at least you would have had a holiday whilst trying!
  • After attempting all these strategies if you find your child is still unreceptive to new tastes, do not worry. Just keep encouraging her to try new foods. All throughout, stay positive and remember -- this is just a phase that he will soon grow out of.

See also


  • Super Nanny on Fussy Eaters
  • Cadence Health
  • Coping With Fussy Eaters