Fussy eaters

Got a fussy eater?

Yep, me too.

My two older boys would eat anything. They would eat a cricket if you put chilli sauce on it. But the youngest one was sent to jolt me out of my complacent parenting bubble.

The very best way to deal with eating difficulties is not to stress about it. Look at the positive. Rather than focusing on what he doesn’t eat, focus on what he does eat, and expand his range and variety ever so slowly. Look upon it in the spirit of adventure rather than with fear and dread. The mirror neurons in your child’s brain will pick up on your attitude and feelings. If you have anxiety about mealtimes, your child will smell the fear and respond accordingly. If he gets a lot of attention for his fussy eating, he will do more of it.

My fussy eater, probably like your fussy eater, is extremely determined and persistent (some might say ‘stubborn’). We have only been able to succeed with him by using positive strategies and not stressing. We gave him lots of positive attention for the things he did well, because if we pay attention to positive behaviours children will do more of them.

My son was just a little fella when the fussy eating started. I used a strategy recommended by Dr Thomas Phelan – the back-up meal. I gave my son tiny proportions of the family meal. A teaspoon of everything, separated from each other (even  if the meal was a casserole or stir fry), on a small plate. The only stipulation was that he had to try what was on the plate. He could eat what he wanted to and leave what he wanted to, but he had to give it a bit of a go. If he liked some of it he could have more. We gave him lots of descriptive praise for what he tried and ate.

Everyone in our family has their own back-up meal if they don’t like the family meal. I don’t care how much you tell me that broccoli is good for me, I hate it and will choose not to eat it. If you gave me a plate full of broccoli I would want my back-up meal. The criteria for the back-up meal is that it is quick and simple to prepare, and somewhat nutritious. It could be as simple as a peanut butter sandwich. My young fella’s back-up meal was tinned spaghetti on toast.

Every night was the same. I presented a small amount of food on a small plate. If he tried it and didn’t like it, he could ask for his back-up meal, and I got it for him every time without complaint. It took two minutes to prepare. I did this for two years. But here’s the thing – over that two years he went from having his back-up meal every night to the stage where he hardly ever asked for his back-up meal. We never praised him for eating his back-up meal. If he sought praise for eating the back-up meal, I would just give a nod of my head with no eye contact.

Of course, he progressed to picking the bits out. It’s just part of the process. One day he spontaneously ate the red kidney beans and red capsicum in the nachos I made, instead of painstakingly picking the bits out. Woo Hoo! I enthusiastically told him how impressed I was with him. He is 8, he does very little picking now, and this has taken over 6 years. It’s been a slow process, but a relatively stress-free one. The range and variety of foods he eats is a whole lot better now than what it was.

These days he does a pretty good job of most things. He is still not great at eating vegies. Carrots, peas, corn, potato is just about the extent of his vegie eating capacity. If we are having salad for dinner, I cook up some diced vegies from those frozen vegie combos you can get in the supermarket for him. Does he get his five serves of vegies per day? No way. But that is a hard goal to achieve for even the most ardent vegie chompers. If tomato sauce was counted as a vegetable then he might scrape in there.

We talk a lot about where food comes from, the vitamins and minerals that the foods we eat give us, he helps me choose fruit and vegies at the farmer’s market, he helps me in the garden and he has his own plants, and we do the MasterChef game of guessing the ingredients in the meal. We have a take-away meal about once per month, and it is either Chinese food or fish and chips. The last time my kids had McDonalds was about three years ago when we were travelling. Junk food is not a food option in my house. Yes, my kid would easily eat a packet of crisps, but he gets plain corn chips and salsa instead. He would love to eat chocolate cake, but he gets home-made banana and apple muffins instead (I started making them with choc chips and slowly reduced the number I added, and now I don’t put any in).

There was a big turn-around last year, when he was up late with his Dad one night, getting some 1:1 time, and they stumbled upon a TV documentary called “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead” produced by an Aussie named Joe Cross (the full documentary is available on YouTube). In the show were cartoons of what processed and junk foods do to your body. Even though we had been talking about this for years, it was more believable coming from the television. My boy had greater motivation for eating better, and this aligns with the research – the more children know about foods and what their bodies need, the better they get at choosing healthy foods.

We also discovered last year that he has an intolerance to yeast (yeast is in a LOT of foods – bread, grapes, rockmelon, anything with added flavour). What the body sometimes does when it has an intolerance to a food is crave more of it – crazy eh? When we detoxed him from yeast, he made better food choices. And because he feels so much better, he avoids foods with yeast in them. Does your child have intolerances to foods that are either increasing the appetite for them or leading him to avoid them?

I tend not to hide vegies by food processing them. If I do add zucchini and carrot to the spaghetti bolognaise by food processing it, I tell the boy that is what I have done. I’d rather be honest with him. My kid is a negotiator by nature. He likes to do deals. He likes to see the value in all of his actions. He has been telling me lately that he is sick of eating peas every dinner. I say he needs to eat something green, so we negotiated a deal, and he sees the value in eating a few green beans or a piece of broccoli instead of having a plate full of peas. It’s a win for both of us.

Your fussy eating journey will be different to mine. You are free to do whatever positive strategies work for you and your child. When I tell people the above story, they are concerned about my child “winning”.

I don’t understand. Is parenting a battle or a race? Are our children our enemies or adversaries? What is the most positive way to approach the situation?

I ask them to think again about who has ‘won’. I have a kid who is a bit quirky, but who eats most things now. He can see the logic and reason in eating well, he has some flexibility in his thinking and approach, and he responds very well to limits. He is certainly a robust and active kid, who coincidentally rarely gets sick. I have worked with him in kind, gentle, and positive ways, at his pace, to improve his eating. The slow and steady approach has been triumphant. These days he rarely eats spaghetti on toast. I have learnt patience. I didn’t know it at the time but I was doing what all of the research says we should do with our fussy eaters – keep mealtimes positive and relaxed, eat without distractions as a family, be persistent, be a good role model, promote eating competence, offer dips and cheese with vegetables, guide and educate my child, allow my child to have some control, and get him involved.

I always say that it’s better to catch flies with honey than with vinegar. Force, yelling, and manipulation will only work for a short time and the effects on your child are not that great. I advise parents to never start a war with their child over food – you will not win. I’ve worked with kids with eating disorders and kids who self-medicate their emotional problems with food, and you really don’t want to go down that path. These disorders have life-long effects on physical, emotional, and mental health.


Narelle Smith


For more information…

I have put lots of links to science-based articles about fussy eaters on the Pinterest site https://www.pinterest.com/handsheartmind/parenting-eat-it-to-beat-it/.

Here is a link to a brilliant article written by a paediatrician who has her own children  http://twopedsinapod.com/2009/07/24/picky-eaters.aspx.

Ellyn Satter is considered an expert on the subject of feeding children. Her website is ellynsatterinstitute.org/htf/thepickyeater.php. She talks about which responsibilities the parent and child have, according to the age of the child ellynsatterinstitute.org/dor/divisionofresponsibilityinfeeding.php. You can sign up for monthly newsletters and view previous newsletters at http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/fmf/familymealsfocus.php.  Well worth reading!




Categories: Encouraging Desirable Behaviour


9 replies

  1. My children will often tell me they’ve eaten something at someone else’s house they’ve previously refused to even try at home – lettuce, granary bread, rice and chilli con carne being particular examples. They are then converts to it, sometimes it even becomes a favourite.

    • Hi Alicia

      That’s so true! My boys did the same in long daycare.

      I love it when my kids get to spend the day with other families. They get to experience different rules, foods, and ways of being. It’s nice to shake things up a bit.

      Thank you for your comment.

  2. Very nice post!! I have a problem that my oldest son is multi allergic to many grouceries since he was one year old. So he has a limited menu and today when he is 17 – he still refuses to eat fruit and most vegetables, because during the years of strict diet – he becamed unused to the consistency of different foods and maybe deep inside there is a fear. I try to introduce new things, but it’s very difficult.

  3. After I spoke with Narelle about my 6 years old who is a fussy, moody and picky eater, we went straight to supermarket and he could choose all the veggies that he wants including green ones,
    At home we are making funny faces from the veggies (earrings from snow peas, curly hair from lettuce, a dress from broccoli, eyes from cherry tomatoes,…) and he is eating it happily sharing with us, still he doesn’t want to eat any cooked veggies except potatoes, I explained to him about the back up meal and it s rules, being a very negotiable child he agreed, so he has to try 1 spoon of everything I cook, if he doesn’t like it he can stop and have his vegemite sandwich with no praise at all but if he eats it, we praise him so much, he even praises himself and I explaine to him what are the ingredient in the meal so if next time he will tell me I don’t like capsicum I tell him you liked it last time.
    I am a lot calmer now when it comes to his food as I used to loose my temper quite a bit, and he is getting a lot better.
    Thanks Narelle for all the advises, I am so lucky to meet u and have all my strategies changed,

  4. Wow..very nice one. I will defiantly try it with my 4 and half year old. As she only loves sweets food. jam, nutella or cheese sandwiches or potatoes for lunch and dinner. But no cooked veges, loves raw carrot though. And don’t want to eat indian family food apart from dal and rice. I will give it a go to the small portion and picked her own veggies from super market.

    I feel very positive now after joining parenting program and all this strategies. Thank you Narelle 🙂

    • Thanks Komal

      Often it is what we pay attention to that guides our child’s behaviour.

      There was a couple I worked with a while ago, whose child would take hours to eat the evening meal. They were giving her positive attention when she did well, but they were also giving lots of negative attention for the slow eating. They insisted that ‘nothing’ would fix the problem. I suggested ‘planned ignoring’ for the slow eating. They reluctantly agreed, but said it wouldn’t work. When they returned a week later, they reported that planned ignoring fixed the problem within one day. The child was eating within a reasonable timeframe and the parents were less frustrated.

      Also check out the link at the end of the article for Dr Ellyn Satter’s work.

      Best wishes for your positive parenting success.

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