7 Tips For Parents Dealing with Fussy Eaters

Steve here! I wanted to introduce Dan Schmidt, our newest contributor and wizard. Dan is a long-time Rebel and fatherhood specialist, and will be sharing his expertise in raising healthy and happy Rebels! Take it away Dan!

What have we always said is the most important thing? Breakfast. Family.

As parents who want the very best for our kids, we try to fuel their growing bodies with the best food possible. But as any parent of a toddler, pre-schooler, or even adolescent knows, our kids aren’t always on the same page.

The toddler years especially can be a challenging time for feeding. All of a sudden, a previously easy-going infant who ate anything, begins to reject the same foods being offered.

Don’t panic. This is a completely normal, albeit difficult, stage in your child’s development and we’re here to help you through it.

Let’s jump into looking at why children become fussy eaters, and examine some strategies you can implement today to lighten your load.

Why does this happen?

As a parenthood specialist, almost every parent I’ve met has asked me about issues in their child’s eating habits. The simple reason issues occur is that our toddlers are pulling a “power play.”

They’ve gained control!

todder control

Most things in their life are still controlled by their parents (what they wear, when they sleep, where they sit).

The one thing they have figured out, is that they can choose what to eat or spit out. (This change in behavior usually occurs between the ages of 12-18 months of development.)

Remember when you first discovered the Konami Code? You figured out a new way to beat the system, and likely tried it out whenever you could at first. That’s what our toddlers are doing – they’ve figured out something new, and by spitting out their vegetables, they’re telling their parents that they’ll do what they want.

If parents don’t manage this stage carefully (such as not always giving in to their child’s demands), these toddlers can grow up to become fussy eaters as older children.

So, what can I do about it?

Let’s put the master controller back in your hands with some simple strategies.

1) Eat together.

One of the simplest things you can do to encourage great eating habits in your child’s early years is to sit down together for family meals.

Studies and reports by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University show that kids who eat at with their family regularly are at lower risk of developing poor eating habits, weight problems and even drug addiction compared to children who eat alone more often. When your kids regularly have a positive role model who is eating healthy thrust upon them, along with getting the benefits of feelings like belonging, stability and well-being, they are more likely to follow your lead and enjoy healthy mealtimes.

Sitting down to dinner together isn’t just about nutrition; it’s about connecting and teaching children about becoming members of society and acting in a civilized way.

2) Get rid of any distractions!

gameboy eating

“Dad placed a great deal of importance on mealtime. He had a very strict rule. When the family starts to eat, the television is definitely turned down.”

(Super bonus points to anybody who knows where that quote is from without using Google or the Konami Code).

Seriously though, turn OFF the idiot box and put the handheld technology away (that means you too, mom and dad). Children get very easily distracted and overstimulated.

Practice “Mindful Eating.” By eliminating distractions, your child will be able to put more focus towards what’s on their plate. Studies have shown that practicing mindful eating helps keep people focused on their meal and listen to their body’s cues. However, feel free to play some light background music or light a candle at mealtime to promote a different, yet calm, environment.

3) Maintain consistent rules

It’s very important that parents of fussy eaters maintain clear and consistent food rules in the house at all times. Just like if Pac-Man touches a ghost without eating a power pellet, a life will be lost. Simple. And consistent (no exceptions!).

At mealtime, be sure to:

  • Be clear and simple
  • Encourage good behavior
  • Know when to call it quits
  • Be consistent
  • ‘The Art of Manliness’ has an excellent post on “Why You Should Parent Like A Video Game,” which has many points that can be adapted for your family.

So if your child refuses a particular food that they have previously enjoyed, don’t be fooled; IT’S A TRAP! They’re hoping you’ll offer up something sweet as an alternative. If you do fall for this, your child will quickly learn that refusing vegetables results in something else being offered. So consistency is the key.

However, if your child continues to reject the meal, it is probably because they are simply not hungry. Toddlers have small stomachs and grow at a slower rate than babies, so it is completely normal for them to eat a lot one day, and very little the next. That leads me to…

DON’T use the force, Luke parents!

Whatever you do, don’t force them to eat, bribe them, or insist they finish everything on their plate. By doing this you’re risking creating a major issue around food, as well as generating a power struggle (spending willpower points) over something that’s really not worth it.

Remember, their stomachs are super small, so forcing overeating can cause detrimental physical and psychological effects regarding diet in their futures.

4) Presentation is everything.

pacman food

Toddlers and children are very observant. Before they even start eating, their eyes are observing what has just been put in front of them. If it looks gross, they’re going to think it tastes gross.

So keep it colorful, neat and interesting. It literally takes an extra minute to re-arrange their food into a smiley face, or make the Triforce out of veggie sticks.

Just a little variation can sometimes make a world of difference. If your child dislikes fruit for example, try a range of cut fruits on a skewer.

Also, try preparing foods a different way. If your child hates steamed cauliflower, try mashed or roasted cauliflower. Steve has covered how to prepare vegetables differently in his ‘How to Start Eating Vegetables’ post, so give it a read and see what works for your family.

5) Make them your kick-ass kitchen sidekick.

dad and kid

Batman has Robin, Sonic has Tails, Radioactive Man has Fallout Boy, and most importantly, Super-Parent has Wonder-Kid!

Getting your child to help with meal preparation, no matter how little, will lead to them being more likely to eat the food as they now have an ‘ownership’ of the meal and feel proud about helping out.

At the store or market, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. When you get back home, encourage your child to help you put the food away, arrange the fruit, or rinse the vegetables.

Be careful in what duty you assign your sidekicks though, once I put my daughter in charge of dispensing the soy sauce when I was making the Easiest Chicken Ever. As a result, it turned out to be the saltiest thing I had ever tasted (“and I once ate a big heaping bowl of salt!”).

Try to get everyone to help in some way before and after the meal. If the kids are not actually cooking, then there are other jobs the little tuckers can handle such as setting the table or getting everyone a drink.

6) Keep it fun and try a theme night!

green night

Everyone loves a themed party, so why not put a bit of festivity into a regular night?

Try silly hat night, superhero night (my favorite), princess night (my daughter’s favorite), or talk like a pirate night (my wife’s least favorite). These are some simple, fun, and often hilarious ways of injecting some magic into family meal time, me hearties!

You don’t have to go all out like it’s Festivus every night, but some variation and a little excitement can make dinners a pleasure. Plus, you’re making amazing memories that your children will look back on so fondly.

If you do want to go that extra mile in creativity, try a color theme night to carry through everything (from place settings, the food, and even your clothes). For example, Green Night (not to be confused with its ante meridiem punk rock counterpart) is an excellent way to make those healthy vegetables seem fun, and a brilliant excuse to dress up as the Green Lantern.

Bringing your child’s interests to the dinner table is a good way of getting ideas for themes. My four-year-old loves learning about the different cultures, so selecting a cuisine from a particular country is an easy way to bring about discussion and try new foods.

But remember to keep it child-friendly. India night is a great idea in theory, but Beef Vindaloo is certainly not fit for a toddler, and we could have done without my culturally insensitive Apu Nahasapeemapetilon impersonation.

7) Change your scene.

Nobody likes playing the same level, or racing the same track all the time (particularly if it’s Rainbow Road, boy do I hate Rainbow Road). So moving away from the dinner table is an excellent way to add some excitement and adventure into mealtime.

Venturing into the great outdoors is a nice move if you have a nearby park, beach, or even backyard. I once worked with a father of two older children who would take their lunch geocaching with them. I can’t wait to do this when my kids get older with Pokémon Go (seriously, how awesome does that look?).

But if you can’t get outside for whatever reason (weather, time constraints, zombies, Australian wildlife), having a ‘picnic’ on a blanket in the living room is great fun too. Plus eating picnic-style means you can serve several small choices, like frittata fingers or vegetables and dips to create interest and let your little ones make their own decisions.

It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.

Do it for her

I know that setting a theme, getting the kids outside, preparing a healthy meal with new foods all the time is simply not viable for everyone in today’s world.

My wife and I both work full time (and then some), so I’ll be the first to admit that some nights after a rough day, my kids have been served baked beans straight out of a can in front ‘The Wiggles’ on the TV.

But if we act when we can, we create positive memories of family mealtime and encourage good eating habits.

By putting the effort in up front, you’re actually making your lives easier for those hard days – laying a solid foundation and setting yourself up for success.

Don’t sweat it if you go through stages where it seems like absolutely nothing is working. Each child is different, and what works for one may not work for another.

Your child’s eating habits won’t change overnight, but the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating.

So go ahead and have some fun with your very next family meal. Try taking turns telling a story at tonight’s dinner table, or put a little effort into presenting your child’s breakfast tomorrow morning.

In fact, why don’t we just make it the Nerd Fitness Family Feast Challenge?

For the next month, we want you to try a few approaches:

  • Set a goal on how many times you will all sit down together and stick to it. No excuses!
  • Each week all family members (that’s right mom and dad, you’re not getting away that easily) must try a food that they have never eaten before.
  • Each family member gets to suggest a theme night and all others must comply.

I’m in, my wife is in, my kids don’t know it yet, but they’re in too. Are you?

We’d love to hear from you:

What has worked for your fussy eaters in the past? Or, what has totally backfired?
What other questions do you have about your children’s eating habits?
What’s your little sidekick’s kitchen duty?

Leave a comment and let us know!

-Dan

About Dan: I’m Dan, a father of two amazing kids from Adelaide, South Australia. I am also a fatherhood specialist in a non profit organization, where I help other dads become the best they can be. I was introduced to Nerd Fitness five years ago by my brother-in-law when my wife was pregnant with our first child and I was really struggling with my weight. I knew I needed to get in shape so I could see my children grow up, and Nerd Fitness was exactly what I needed! Through diet and exercise, by the time my daughter had her first birthday I had lost 20 pounds.

I hope my articles can guide all Rebels, not just the parents, on your fitness quest. I’ll try to keep the dad jokes to a minimum (“Dead-lifts?” More like, “Dad-lifts!” Amirite?!)… I’ll show myself out.

Feel free to get in touch, either just to say G’day, or ask a question at any time.

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  • JR

    Love the “Do It For Her” Simpsons reference. In a New York Times article called “Six Food Mistakes Parents Make,” the author quotes a nutritionist as saying a kid may have to be exposed to a new food 10-15 times before knowing if they like it or not.

    TBH, I was never allowed to be a fussy eater. Dinner was what was on the table. I could choose to eat or not eat, but regardless, that was all the food I would see until the next meal.

  • Penny

    Great article! Penny from Perth Western Australia here, delighted to see a fellow Aussie not just following this blog but participating in it! Thank you!

  • TekkieChikk

    I don’t even have kids and I read this entire article… great writing and some great ideas (my husband is a finicky eater… I may have to super-stealth some of these ideas on him).

  • Adam

    My boys will “steal food” from me, it turns it into an engaging game. They know if broccoli is on the table then when dad has it on his fork he will slowly bring it in front of them they can steal it. they really enjoy that!

  • explosive_donut

    I’ve heard another good tip which is to give kids “choices that aren’t really choices.” You want your kid to eat veggies? Give them a choice “Ok, would you like to eat broccoli or carrots with dinner tonight?” It gives them the illusion of having more power. Now granted, I only have 1 child, and he is 6 weeks old, so take what I am saying with a grain of salt. But what do you guys think?

  • Danie

    In my experience watching my friends and family raise kids, this will work up to a certain point. Once they realize there’s a third option (I will do neither of those things), then it doesn’t really work anymore. But it’s a great tool until that happens, lol.

  • Danie

    I’m curious to know what Dan thinks about the “take three more bites and then you can go play” thing that I see many parents doing. My instinct is that it’s not the best option, because it’s similar to the “clean your plate” strategy. But I know some kids get so distracted at some meal times, especially while eating out, that they don’t eat anything and then want another meal a half-hour later.

  • Nicole Bell

    I use the ‘take three bites’ tactic with my kids, but it’s usually at the beginning of a meal when they’ve decided they don’t like what they see on the plate despite eating it withou fuss a dozen times before. Most of the time it gets the ball rolling and they finish the meal on their own. If, after three bites, they’re still not into it I don’t push. They don’t have to eat it but I won’t make anything else. I’ll save their plate in the fridge if they decide they’re hungry enough to eat it.
    This rule isn’t absolute, I use it depending on the food. My four year old doesn’t like pizza. She never has and I know it. I always give her a small slice to try, but will make a peanut butter sandwich for her whenever she’s done picking at her slice. We still get to enjoy a favorite and she’s not punished for refusing a good she genuinely doesn’t like. Win, win for us. 🙂

  • Dan Schmidt

    Hi mate, children certainly need to be exposed to a new food a whole lot of times before trying it, that’s for sure. A good way to go about this is letting them touch, lick, smell, and even play with the food for the first few times. Of course, like Tobias Funke, they’ll have somewhat of a mess on their hands, but this is how they learn to accept it.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Thank you so much Penny. It’s nice to be representing the Aussie nerds.

    P.S. Go the Crows.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Absolutely. First off, congratulations on your boy and welcome to the club.

    Choices are a great option if, like you mentioned, it’s between two good options. Be prepared to actually cook both though, as kids love to change their mind at the last minute. There’s nothing worse than them changing their mind, and realizing you haven’t actually cooked the other option.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Using it at the start of the meal (like Nicole has mentioned) is a great way to get started. But I’m not really for using it to ‘get a few more bites it’, they know when they’re full and their stomachs are tiny. I remember being told ‘3 more bites’ as a kid and I hated it, and the last thing you want is any negative feelings towards eating.

  • simon

    Hey Dan, Great post. My son sets the table and cleans up after. So far though vegeatbles have been a tough time. It can be so discouraging but i still make sure there are veges on the table every meal so he gets used to it. Btw there is a another group who could benefit a lot from your voice. Check out Becoming Dad group on Facebook from another Fatherhood expert in Byron. I think you guys could do a lot of good together.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Thanks mate, great to hear that you’re persisting and using some of the techniques already. I’ve actually used a lot of Darren’s stuff in my antenatal classes with expectant fathers, he’s a goldmine of info for new dads.

  • ChrisB73

    I think the thing is to “manage it carefully” (as you say) not the temptingly similar “see it as a power game” with the tempting but disastrous consequence, for an audience of nerds and gamers that you (the adult) *always* have to “win”. There’s a number of foods I really can’t eat to this day because 45 years ago or so I was made to eat them by school officials who had lived through food rationing & weren’t having any of this finicky eater nonsense. So they made me eat the food. Did me no good at all, as far as I can see: as soon as Nazi Dinner Ladies weren’t making me eat these foods, I stopped (but have retained a quite literal gag reflex for them). The adults back then completely saw it as a game and won the game: but they didn’t “manage the situation carefully” because they failed to be the compassionate adults in the situation: they were behaving like kids themselves.

    I know you weren’t condoning people behaving like jerks over this, but since people do, I’d like to emphasise that I think it’s important adults in these situations don’t behave like jerks. You have to use compassion and tailor what to do to what is working for the individual child – something nerds can find hard to do as we love to have theories and systems and points of principle, and can fail to see people as people.

    Some food issues that really freak one person out just aren’t a problem for another. Who’s seen the film “The Imitation Game”, with its scene where a young Alan Turing can’t bear his peas to be mixed with the carrots (because the colours don’t go together)? As portrayed in the film, he’s showing an autistic behaviour. He really just can’t bear that combination- its not that he’s deciding to be in control and doing something he can stop if it doesn’t give the desired result. Obviously not every kid who’s a fussy eater will turn out to be autistic, or turn out to have some other really-can’t -help-it reason for their refusing to behave conventionally at mealtimes. But some will, even if it’s as simple as not wanting to eat citrus because you have a mouth ulcer, or having trouble with some foods because of teething.

  • PositiveBlue

    ChrisB73 – You are right about the power struggle thing. I have found, with my son in particular, that just taking an extra minute or two and learning when to (or not to) push can make all the difference.
    He’s a picky eater too, and his idea of trying a new food…it comes out to less than a nibble sometimes. But I keep at it and slowly he’s getting better about trying things.
    I will say, one of his head shaking quirks is that he loves to cook but will seldom try anything he makes. That kid is all about the process.
    One the other hand, I have to fend off my daughter on a regular basis as she likes help herself to my plate.

  • http://www.untilextinction.com Satan’s Undershorts

    This has always worked well for me. Sometimes kids just aren’t in the mood for certain things even if they usually like them. Letting them pick their own veggies ensures they get whatever sounds best to them at the time.

  • http://www.daddynutrition.com/ Dade Dyana

    Hi Dan,
    These are some really helpful tips. I’m an adult and I definitely like to eat things that are presented in a fun way. But, what do you do when the food just looks gross to begin with?

  • Dan Schmidt

    Thanks for the kind words and getting in touch. You’re right, sometimes no matter what you do, the food is just going to look gross (everyone looks at pumpkin soup differently once they become a parent).

    In this situation, I wouldn’t recommend mindful eating (focusing on what you’re eating), but rather making the experience of eating the meal fun and lighthearted in order to distract everyone from what looks like a pile of garbage on their plate.

    One technique I love using with my daughter here is taking turns in creating a story full of twists and turns, where one must finish eating a piece of food before speaking. For example:

    Dad eats: “Once there was an Italian plumber who had to save a princess…”

    Mum eats: “The beautiful princess was trapped in a castle far, far away by a giant turtle….”

    Child eats: “…AND THE TURTLE DID BIG SMELLY POOS!”

    Yes, the stories will usually end like this (quite often by dad), but that’s all part of the fun. The child is so engrossed by the funny story that they’ve forgotten what’s on their plate, plus they can’t wait to contribute so they’ll (hopefully) take a mouthful.

    Channeling your inner child can go a long way in getting your own children excited about eating. Admitting that the mashed sweet potato looks like zombie brains or the pea soup looks like radioactive waste may be off-putting to adults, but kids love this kind of stuff, and will see how many ‘brains’ they can eat for dinner.

    I hope this helps in some way, give it a try and let me know how it goes.

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  • SuperMedusa

    I’m glad you included not forcing kids to eat. When my parents divorced, the rules on force-feeding changed suddenly, because my new step-mother made her kids eat their vegetables and she and my dad decided it would only be fair to start forcing me and my sister to eat vegetables too (no disrespect to the step-mom though; she’s really great and they meant well). This led to my sister having a psychological aversion to green beans – she will get nauseous around them.
    I also know two separate people who have an aversion to certain foods that are directly linked to how their personal taste buds work – in both cases, certain foods taste rotten to them. and in both cases, they grew up with a lot of pressure to eat things that tasted disgusting to them. Imagine being forced to eat something that tastes like rotten garbage to you! So while it’s true that kids do make power plays sometimes, it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes, they may genuinely dislike a food, and force feeding them now is just going to lead to them being picky adults later.

  • JR

    I’m thinking that we in the West, as usual, have made the practice of feeding children more complicated than it needs to be.

    Let’s get Paleo for a second and think about traditional societies. Since most hunter-gather societies treat children as relatively autonomous beings, I can’t imagine those parents cajoling, bribing, or otherwise imposing their will on children’s eating habits. The meal is simply there, and you eat as much or as little as you want. This isn’t a problem since hunter-gatherer mealtime means an array of inherently healthful, in-season, nutrient-dense foods. It’s not like there are pop-tarts stashed in your hut if you don’t like the stew.

    In addition, our modern mealtime struggles arise because we in the West cater to childhood as a life stage where we either actively encourage young people’s uninformed tastes and preferences, or else we see childhood as a time of inherent idiocy that requires constant adult guidance and outside limitations if we want kids not to become unemployed serial killers later in life. Look no further than the nearest “Children’s Menu” to see what I mean. It encourages a lowest-common-denominator palate while simultaneously reinforcing the idea that children are incapable of better choices. But did you know that most restaurants in countries outside the USA don’t offer children’s menus with different fare? Children other places in the world simply eat smaller, and perhaps less-spicy, portions of what the adults eat, and seem to do just fine.

    Finally, we encounter difficulties because of the pervasiveness of fake food that caters to our brains’ reward system. Children, in particular, are drawn toward energy-dense food, even if the food is a processed facsimile of the real thing. This means mealtime can become a struggle between healthful and not-so-healthful foods; i.e. “Eat three bites of your just-harvested salad and then you can have your fried chicken fingers with ranch dressing.” This simply reinforces the idea of natural food as something to be endured until the fake but high-value food can be inhaled in a frenzy of caloric consumption.

  • Buildingox

    As the father to a 13 month old, this is both timely, accurate, and a great read. We have certainly had our trials and tribulations (what one year old of mine won’t even try cake?!?!?). It seems that eating dinner a little earlier and making sure to avoid the late afternoon snack (even a small one) means she is more likely to eat foods that are new to her. She or the dogs may still end up wearing dinner, but she is more likely to try new things.

  • https://twitter.com/CoffeeAddikshun CoffeeAddikshun

    Great post… The only other thing I wish could have been mentioned is what to do if all of this doesn’t work. 10 years ago, I found myself struggling to get my daughter to eat, and we saw feeding therapists, physicians, and dietitians and my daughter was still not eating. We tried everything!!! CPS was even called by a doctor at one of the hospitals we visited to get help, and we were immediately dismissed for any suspicious wrong-doing (after CPS made a surprise visit to our house, of course). At age 4 my daughter was 21 lbs, and we eventually took her to an out-of-state specialist, taking a loan out to cover the cost. Several thousand dollars and months later, we learned there was an underlying metabolic condition that affected her appetite, and our team of doctors in my own state didn’t think about testing for. My daughter is thriving well with treatment and dietary adjustments today, but for a small percentage of people, the regular advice simply does not apply.

    TLDR: If you’re trying all of these great tips and it’s still not working, seek medical advice, and even second/third opinions if needed! Your child could have an undiagnosed medical condition.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Thanks for getting in touch. Glad this piece came just in time for you. It’s funny that you mention your girl won’t even try cake, for my boy’s first birthday he had a slice of watermelon with a candle in it because he wouldn’t try cake too.

    Great tip on avoiding the late afternoon snack, something I’ve found that works really well too. All the best, mate.

  • Dan Schmidt

    Excellent point, thanks for bringing that up. Glad to hear your daughter is doing well now, all the best.

  • Abhay Mishra

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  • http://www.daddynutrition.com/ Dade Dyana

    Thank you for your suggestions, Dan! I really do love the story idea because who is going to pay attention to what’s on their plate when engrossed in a story? (Kind of how I don’t pay attention to how much I’ve ate if I eat in front of the TV – bad, I know).

  • ibtisam

    my 2 and a half year old used to eat everything and now refuses to eat even the tiniest vegetable. he loves fruit though. I have tried shapes, loading cheese on them, you name it. he simply refuses and says he wants a peanut butter sandwich. even breakfast he refuses oats that he used to eat every day, same with egg or French toast for lunch. the only thing that will tempt him to eat his egg for lunch is if it is loaded with tomato ketchup. im at my wits end as supper is a problem. My husband gets home late so I try and eat with him alone when I get home from work. my parents live with us and sometimes my family are in and out visiting so the distractions also play a part. he ‘shows off’ around them. funny thing though he enjoys breyani and spicy food. I cant cook spicy all the time but my dishes are definitely flavoursome as I use healthy spices in all my cooking. it seems my son enjoys the hot spices. if only I could get him to eat the vegetables….. any ideas I could try with that? he just refuses it straight out, no time to even negotiate. I even battle trying to keep him at the table, he just runs out of the kitchen.
    I definitely think his poor eating habits are the cause of his hyper activeness at night. it is even a struggle making him sleep. he now only goes to sleep when I go sleep, nomatter what the time. I obviously have things to do at night and also take care of his younger sister so I end up going to bed around 10 and my little boy would be racing about at night until that time. once I get into bed with him he bobs up and down and would take sometimes and hour to just fall asleep.
    im sure if I can change his eating habits it would improve the sleep too.
    Any advice would be appreciated.

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