The 15 Best Ways for Parents to Handle Fussy Eaters

Don't panic and never force feed children

Don't try to force a fussy eater to eat.
PeopleImages.com / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Fussy eating is one of the most common food-related issue parents struggle to address. One day, your child’s favorite food in the world is peanut butter and jelly; the next, your child won’t touch any sandwich whatsoever. If you don’t address the issue, your child’s limited diet could lead to a lack of adequate nutrition.

Trying to get a child to eat a nutritious meal can be frustrating, and if you’re not careful, you could find yourself in serious power struggles and ongoing arguments that actually reinforce your child’s persnickety eating habits—especially if you’re raising a strong-willed child.

If you have a fussy eater on your hands, here are steps you can take to encourage your little one to become a healthy, happy eater.

How to Help a Fussy Eater

It’s relatively common for kids to be finicky eaters. A 2016 study found that just over 25 percent of children between 1.5 and 5 years old are picky eaters.

Children tend to be the pickiest between ages 2 and 4. If he doesn’t outgrow pickiness, talk to your pediatrician about whether he’s suffering from a sensory disorder that truly limits the number of foods he can tolerate.

Otherwise, use the strategies below to encourage your child to eat a varied, healthy diet.

Offer New Foods

The problem, you might say, isn’t offering new foods but actually getting the kids to try them. Some strategies to get your child to try a new food including limiting snacks. The hungrier children are, the more likely they are to eat whatever meal is put in front of them.

Offer one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon snack but skip any pre-dinner snacks.

Involve Your Child in Food-Buying and Prep 

A little one is often much more willing to try a food if he’s been involved in growing it, choosing it or preparing it. A child might particularly enjoy going to a farmers market, where the colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables look interesting.

Make Food Fun

A kid is more likely to eat a food that’s colorful, cut into fun shapes or paired with a dip. Of course, this often means more work for mom or dad, but if you’re desperate to get some variety into your little one, it might be worth it. Invest in cookie cutters that can create fun shapes out of sandwiches, create ants on a log with celery, peanut butter and raisins, or create a rainbow out of brightly colored fruits and vegetables.

Repeat Offerings

Even if your kiddo doesn’t accept the roasted rutabaga the first time you serve it for dinner, she might the next time. It might be that she’d prefer it steamed, or it might just be that she’s having a difficult day. The next time you serve it, she might be more willing to take a bite or two.

Save what your child didn’t eat. If your child doesn’t eat something at dinner, don’t let him enjoy a snack of popcorn or crackers later in the night. Instead, offer the dinner again. Eventually, he’ll get the idea that he can’t skip dinner and go for the delicious snacks.

Offer Condiments, Serve Small Portions and Practice Cooking

Sometimes, all your kid needs to eat broccoli is a little bit of ranch dressing or sweet potatoes with some ketchup. Don’t limit her use of condiments; eventually, she might opt for the items without them.

This serves a dual purpose: Firstly, children might be overwhelmed by a large portion of a food that’s unfamiliar or not their favorite. Secondly, you’ll waste less food. You never know what your children will or won’t eat, and there’s no point in giving them a pile of food just for the kids to reject it. 

If your child is eager to eat at restaurants or other people’s homes, it could be a sign he’s not a fan of your cooking. Consider adding or deleting spices, trying new recipes or changing things up a bit to see if he likes food cooked in a different manner.

What You Should Not Do

Although it may be tempting to try to force your child to eat something, or perhaps to become overly accommodating, those types of habits can ultimately reinforce your child’s fussy eating. Here are some strategies to avoid when addressing food-related issues.

Don’t Allow the Same Food at Meals

When you don’t want a battle, it’s easy to fall into the rut of peanut butter and jelly, chicken nuggets and mac-and-cheese for every meal. However, in doing that, you’re simply reinforcing the idea that your little one doesn’t need to try new foods—plus, he won’t get the variety of nutrients he really needs.

Don’t Force Your Child to Eat

There are many adults who have suffered long-lasting emotional and physical consequences as a result of being required to clean their plates, such as obesity, food addiction or anorexia or bulimia. Encourage your child to eat, but don’t require her to sit at the dinner table all night before she’s excused from the table.

Don’t Offer Major Alternatives

While you should include a food that you know your child will eat at each meal, don’t create an entirely separate meal just for her. To make things easier on yourself, try out meals that can be assembled differently. For example, a taco bar allows your fussy child to skip the tomatoes and sour cream and just eat ground beef, avocado and beans. You could separate out a portion of spaghetti before adding the sauce or the chili before the beans are included.

Don’t Offer Many New Foods at Once

This is a recipe for overwhelming the child. Serve one new food at a time, and serve it alongside a food that’s a familiar favorite. For example, if you’re introducing asparagus to your child, pair it with spaghetti and meatballs or grilled chicken—whatever his favorite dish is.

Don’t Expect Kids to Eat What You Won’t

Every person has certain food preferences. But, if you don’t like cauliflower and your child doesn’t like cauliflower, why would he even give it a bite if you’re not willing to do the same? Model the behavior you want to see from your child. If that means you have to suck down three to five bites of roasted cauliflower, be willing to do it.

Don’t Say Vegetables Are Healthy

Referring to cookies as ‘yummy,’ and carrots as ‘healthy’ sends the message that vegetables don’t taste very good. When you stop telling kids vegetables are healthy, they tend to show more interest in eating them.

Don’t Shower Fussy Eater With Attention

Constantly saying, “Eat your vegetables” or, “You’re such a finicky eater” may only reinforce your child’s choices. Giving too much attention, even if it's negative, can be a good motivator. 

Don’t Panic 

Even if your little one refuses to eat anything but grapes for a period of time, she most certainly won’t only eat grapes the rest of her life. If you’re concerned, talk to her doctor.

This is particularly advisable if children show extreme reactions to foods they don’t like or suddenly have an aversion to a food that they used to enjoy. The doctor is there to help you figure out these difficult issues and can refer to you a health care professional that specializes in eating issues, if necessary.

Sources:

Machado BC, Dias P, Lima VS, Campos J, Goncalves S. Prevalence and correlates of picky eating in preschool and children: A population-based study. Eating Behaviors. 2016;22:6-21. doi:10.016./jeatbeh.2016.03.035.

Cano SC, Hoek HW, Bryant-Waught R. Picky Eating. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 2015;28(6):448-454. doi:10.1087/yco.0000000000000194.

Continue Reading