Expert reveals the one common phrase to avoid if you have a ‘fussy eater’ - and shares what might work instead

Don't underestimate the power of number 1

Smiling child with a plate of food in front of him
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You're not alone if your household has a fussy eater, it's something many families will experience at some point. A paediatric feeding specialist shares four strategies to help a child reluctant to add variation to their diet.

Helping kids to have a healthier relationship with food can be a concern for some parents, especially for those raising fussy eaters. Being picky with food can present as a sudden unwillingness to eat foods the child usually likes, or a refusal to try anything new outside of the same limited meals or snacks. It could also be characterised by very strong preferences for certain foods, leading parents to worry about potential health consequences from little variety in a child's meals. 

From weaning worries to how to navigate packed lunches, the subject of food can sometimes dominate everyday life. We completely empathise with the frustration of agonising over tempting your little one to try something different, or carefully prepared lunchboxes arriving home at the end of the day barely touched. The shock at suddenly having their only go-to dinner rejected without a single mouthful ingested, means you might end up resorting to one phrase many will recall their own parents using.

There's a chance you remember being told "If you don’t eat all your dinner you can’t be in the clean plate club." other variations of this include being denied pudding, or not being able to leave the table until your plate was totally clean. Speaking to PureWow, experienced paediatric feeding specialist, Heidi Miller, highlights the counterproductive nature of coaxing children in this way - however tempting it feels.

She said "Asking your children to ‘eat all of the food on their plate’ is a common mistake. According to [feeding expert] Ellyn Satter’s division of mealtime responsibilities, parents are responsible for what food is offered, when it is offered and where the meal takes place. The child chooses what food and how much of it they send to their belly.” Parents will be relieved to hear therefore, that although their job is to provide the nutrition, what happens next might sometimes be out of their control. 

For parents who want to feel empowered to help their fussy eaters in any way they can, Miller offered four helpful strategies that might just encourage something a little different to be consumed.

4 ways to help a fussy eater

  1. Model good eating. This is a good way to start, although Heidi Miller does remind parents not to force it. She suggests that instead of telling your child what they should eat, share what you are do with your own food. You could say: "I’m going to eat my broccoli first. What food are you starting with?" This will help mealtimes feel relaxing, and a relaxed child might be more inclined to mimic a parent's eating behaviours.
  2. Don't pressure your child to eat anything. We understand - spending a long time making food for it not to be eaten, can feel like a waste of time - and food. While the food could be repurposed into something for another day, avoid bribing, praising or rewarding your child to eat more. When offering new foods, Miller says: "Allow your child to explore the food by touching it, cutting it, putting to their lips or even biting into it." This offers their senses an idea of what it could feel and taste like, reducing anxiety at the unfamiliar.
  3. You don't have to use words. Non verbal encouragement might be more effective than verbal. Miller suggests simply eating with them, saying "By mirror modelling the food and eating family style, we create a shared experience, which is beneficial." She added "Cooking, having your child help prepare some part of the meal, passing food to another family member: All of these things help. For younger feeders, trying finger food or fun shapes, turning foods into ‘pops’ and making feeding fun can be enticing too."
  4. Don't get angry. Feeling frustrated about fussy eating is normal, and if you feel yourself becoming angry about it, remember it's nobody's fault. The more relaxed you are, the more likely your picky eater will be to try what's in front of them.

Miller was also keen to express that as well as implementing her suggested strategies, they're implemented without the interruption of screens. She said "You want your child to be able to focus on them and not have their attention on the TV or iPad. Kids need to go through all the steps to eating. If feeding is a challenge for them, they really need to attend so they can learn to push through." 

Mum-of-two, Lucy, told us that she was fussy as a child. She said "I was a frustratingly fussy eater, but my mum never pushed me to eat anything. She just quietly kept putting different things on my plate until I started trying them. I took the same approach with my own two fussy eaters - they're now entering the tween stage and constantly ask to try new cuisines."

If you are really concerned about a fussy eater, the NHS has plenty of helpful resources and information that could ease any worries you have.

From baby weaning to best recipes for kids and packed lunch ideas your teen would approve of, we have something for all ages on the path to eat in a nutritious way.

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.