Fussy Eaters: How Can I Get My Child to Eat?

If your child is particular about what they eat – or a ‘fussy eater’ – you’ll know that getting from breakfast through to dinner can be a challenge. Emma Sheppard speaks to parents and experts about fussy eating and how to overcome it…

Emma and her son Jack have had a break through. Her “extremely fussy” three-year-old ate his first sandwich ever last month. And by sandwich she means bread and butter. Even so, she’s thrilled.

“I was really struggling,” she says. “Then one day, I put this sandwich down again (after him not touching it) and he said ‘is this toast mummy?’ and I said, ‘oh… it’s soft toast’.

“He ate the whole thing. You could’ve knocked me down with a feather. After that, I gave him a sandwich every day for four days because I wanted to see if it was a fluke or not.”

Fussy eating is worse in the UK

Emma’s pain is not uncommon. Research carried out in 2013 found that UK toddlers are the fussiest in Europe, when compared to children in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands.

The study found that 69% of children under five years old have refused to eat at one time or another, and 26% throw a tantrum over food every day.

For such a prolific issue, it’s perhaps a surprise that the guidance on how to deal with it is mixed, and at times contradictory.

Sticking to a daily routine, with meals at set times, is widely agreed upon. But some promote eating together as a family and others, such as Dr Gillian Harris (a child psychologist at Birmingham Children’s Hospital), found that children ate more after parents left the room.

Harris explains: “It’s very inhibiting having a parent telling them to taste. ‘You must try this’ is the last thing children want to hear.”

If your child does take the leap and try something, many paediatricians promote giving praise so that children don’t equate not eating with receiving attention, albeit negative. Others advise against saying anything at all. Blogger and author of ‘Getting the Little Blighters to Eat‘, Claire Potter, says “don’t praise them for eating. Eating isn’t hard. It’s our most basic instinct and a pleasure… Say nothing. Ever.”

How to deal with fussy eaters

So who is right? Many mums point towards paediatrician Carlos Gonzalez. His book ‘My Child Won’t Eat!: How to Enjoy Mealtimes Without Worry’ was published in 2002. It was a worldwide bestseller, and turned the idea that ‘mum knows best’ on its head.

Gonzalez argues that children know how much they need to eat. The parent’s role in all of this is just to provide healthy food choices, and then leave the child to it.

“Never try to force a child to eat. Neither by force, not by persuasion, coaching, bribing, distraction, or any other method,” he says.

“Fussy eating is not a child problem. It’s a parent problem.”

This approach aims to take the pressure off all involved at meal times. Gonzalez argues that it is this that stops children eating. It can be a difficult concept to embrace. For many mums, the worry that their child is not eating properly gives rise to all kinds of guilt about their abilities as a parent.

“The mother tends to believe (or is made to believe) that the problem is her fault”, Gonzalez says. “She has not prepared the food appropriately, does not know how to feed the baby, or has not taught the child how to eat… mothers tend to take this personally.

“Instead of raising the simple question, ‘are you hungry or not?’ the battle over food can become a question of ‘do you love me or not?'”

Emma is remarkably upbeat about Jack’s fussiness, which she says is not just about fruit and vegetables, but towards less healthy food like cake and chocolate as well. She is doubtful though that Gonzalez’s approach would work with her son because he is so stubborn.

“Lots of people say, leave it and he’ll have it if he’s hungry,” she says. “He definitely wouldn’t. He’s so strong willed; he just wouldn’t care.

“It’s the texture he doesn’t like. If I give him a plate of food and want him to feed himself, he won’t do it unless it’s really dry and bland… he’ll eat fish fingers, for example. But he won’t eat sausages, he won’t eat pasta, he won’t eat fruit.”

Late weaning can cause fussiness

There is an argument that late weaning can cause issues with textures. The NHS advises introducing solid food at six months. It was at this stage that Emma found Jack wouldn’t touch anything that was cold, wet or squishy. She continued to puree a lot of vegetables, fruit, and food, which he would eat with help: “as a spoon-fed little one, he was no problem at all”, she says.

“I probably ended up giving him pureed food for too long because he was fussy. He can eat, he doesn’t have a problem with eating. But he still has the same problem with touching food and with texture.”

Food writer Anna’s two girls, Maia (now aged seven) and Zara (now five) were weaned at around five months. They are both very adventurous when it comes to food – sashimi, oysters and “anything pickled” are among their favourite foods.

“I think introducing more texture at a young age may have helped them get used to variety. Same goes for spices and flavour,” Anna says. “I am often surprised by how many foods their friends or my friend’s children simply refuse to eat or even try.

“At around five months, Maia started knocking plates off the table trying to reach for my food while sitting on my lap. From six months, she loved to suck on a chunk of steak or a chicken drumstick bone, a chunk of watermelon or broccoli florets (while I watched carefully).”

While both are great eaters, they both have very different approaches to food, which Anna has had to support. “Maia will happily eat a meal and even have seconds, while Zara is a grazer who picks at food and needs a constant supply of it.

“I’ve never really tried to force her to finish a plate because I have a feeling that could cause bigger issues. She just drip feeds herself, and that’s fine with me.”

Photo credit: Vincent Sheed

Fussy eating is a developmental stage

Judy More, a registered dietician and child nutritionist calls fussy eating “a normal developmental stage”, which usually sets in some time in the second year and “isn’t always noticeable in all children”.

More explains that it’s at this time in a child’s life that he/she “starts to pay a lot of visual attention to food. If they recognise it, it goes into their mouths. If they don’t, it won’t.”

She agrees with Gonzalez that parents need to trust their children to satisfy their own hunger. One of the biggest challenges she experiences, particularly with new mums who are going through this for the first time, is that parents don’t know what the correct portion size should be.

“Generally, mums want their child to eat more than they need”, she says. “Sometimes children eat well and will have a largish portion, and other times they won’t. But mums will think that they should be eating that large portion all the time. And they don’t need that.”

The Infant and Toddler Forum has published a table on its website to show the suitable portion size ranges for children aged one to four. It’s categorised into five food groups: bread, cereal, potatoes and starchy food; fruit and vegetables; milk, cheese and yoghurt; meat, fish, eggs, nuts and pulses; and food high in fat and sugar.

An example is a half to one slice of bread or toast, a quarter to a half of a medium size apple, or one mini Babybel cheese. If your child eats within these ranges at most meals, More explains, then they will be getting the nutrients they need.

Supplements are good for fussy eaters

Supplements can also be a helpful tool if a child is not eating a balanced diet. Per government guidelines, all children under the age of five should be taking a Vitamin D supplement, and Vitamin A is recommended if they’re not eating enough vegetables or fruit.

“Often, you can cover what they’re missing with a supplement while they go through this phase,” More says. “Usually, it’s resolved by aged three. Although it’s not unheard of for six- to nine-year-olds to still be showing signs of fussiness when it comes to food.”

Kera’s six-year-old daughter Mia has always had trouble eating. Even as a baby, she was tricky to feed.

“Her eating is awful,” Kera says. “You’ll have days when you cannot fill her, and then days when she won’t sit down and eat breakfast. No matter what you do, you cannot pin her down to eat food. You just try anything and everything.”

Mia has very complex needs and has recently been diagnosed as deaf. Her diet has gone through phases of being gluten- or lactose-free for medical reasons, which poses another challenge for her mum.

“You have to keep coming up with ways to captivate her imagination”, she says. “Just to get her to eat. She’s a very odd eater.”

Thankfully, through trial and error, Kera has found tricks that do work. Mia is particularly fond of themed tea parties, making pizzas with her friends and helping with the cooking. Cutting food in certain ways – such as heart shapes and triangles – has also increased the rate of a successful mealtime. And she responds well to having lots of options and different things to try, rather than having to finish a whole meal on the plate.

“If you do it in the way that it’s fun, she’s more inclined to try new food”, Kera says. “The other thing we let her do is be tactile with it, and getting more involved in making it.

“She’s much better now. She enjoys it more and actually looks forward to eating. You want them to like it, not for them to be scared of it.”

Main photo credit: Emily Gray Photography