Fussy eaters - what it really means for your child and 9 expert tips to promote body autonomy

Fussy eaters are this way for a reason, here's how to work it out

Fussy eaters illustrated by child eating
(Image credit: Getty /Future)

Fussy eaters - a phrase when uttered that almost all parents can relate to - kids who only eat pasta, have to have ketchup with everything, or detest broccoli all fall under this category.

If your child is a 'fussy eater' - regardless of age - it can make meal times a challenge. From preparing and feeding to tidying up after, it can be frustrating and requires organization and patience. And, if you're at the weaning age know it's not forever and there are products out there to help. For instance, the right high chair is probably one of the key items that can make it all a bit easier. 

Founder of the Body Happy Organisation, Molly Forbes, tells us: “Children can be selective about the foods they want to eat for all sorts of reasons. But the term ‘fussy eater’ makes it sound like a kid choosing not to eat their peas is simply an act of wilful disobedience rather than a basic human right of body autonomy.”

Nutritionist and mother-of-two Charlotte Stirling-Reed agrees, “Fussy eating isn’t a one size fits all term, so many things can lead to little ones refusing food from the weather, to their teeth, to illness, to distractions and even what they ate and drank yesterday.” And of course, being picky about food isn’t something that is isolated to the weaning stage. Toddlers and teens are notorious for being strong-willed - about a lot of things - and this can extend to the food they will and won’t eat too. We spoke to the experts and got all the tips and advice to help you and your family navigate this stage... 

 Fussy eaters - what the experts say 

The most important thing to remember when it comes to food and your child is that it’s totally normal for them to refuse food. As nutritionist, Charlotte tells us above, there are many variables that can lead to fussy eating but she believes the term ‘fussy’ is a tricky term to use. She says: “It adds an unnecessary label to children and often is used when little ones are just expressing normal and day-to-day changes in appetites. I think ‘fussy eating’ is well understood by parents, but I think we need to watch our use of it and not use it in front of kids and really importantly don’t let them hear you telling them ‘you’re so fussy’.”

The NHS recommends parents start weaning their baby at around six months of age, although some parents may choose to do it slightly earlier than this. If your baby was born prematurely, it’s best to ask your GP about when to start introducing solids. Some children will take to food straight away and appear to have a big appetite, whereas others may prefer to play with their food rather than eat it. Try not to compare your child to your friends’ as every child is different. 

Founder of the Body Happy Organisation, Molly Forbes, tells us it’s important to think about the “long game” when feeding children. “For me, I want to raise children who have a long-term healthy relationship with food. This means, largely, taking nutrition off the table when we talk about food. Instead, if we talk about food at all, we talk about where it comes from, how food is more than just fuel, and how food is an important way to celebrate our various cultures and identities,” she says. 

Tips for creating a healthy relationship with food

If your child is refusing to eat the food you cook them, it can be easy for mealtimes to start to feel like a battleground. Coercing, bribing, and arguing over meals or trying new foods is not enjoyable, here our experts share ways to avoid this. 

1. Re-offering food

Dr Clare Holley, a senior lecturer in psychology at Loughborough University, says it’s normal for children to be fearful of new foods or to reject foods they used to enjoy. “Children go through a phase between the ages of 2-6 years old where they become particularly fussy with all kinds of foods, and unfortunately, vegetables are one of the foods they particularly start to reject,” she explains.

Dr Holley says it can take up to 10-20 times of trying a food for a child to learn they like the flavour. Instead of forcing them to eat it, she suggests re-offering the food on a regular basis. She also recommends presenting foods in different ways, such as roasting or steaming vegetables or leaving them raw, to see if there is a specific version your child prefers.

Stirling-Reed says: “Ideally don’t make a big deal of foods that are rejected, eat them yourselves where you can, keep offering without pressure to eat up. It’s so key to keep those mealtimes positive!”

2. Role-modelling

Dr Holley says role-modelling can also help with fussy eating. If your child isn’t looking too happy about what’s in front of them, she says it can help to eat it yourself, with them. “This can show them that it is safe and tasty to eat, as well as how to eat that certain food (if it takes some figuring out, like corn on the cob),” she says.

In the same way that watching you enjoy food can have a positive impact on your child’s relationship with food, watching what you don’t eat can have the opposite effect. Forbes says it’s natural for children to observe what their parents are doing. “There's research to show, for example, that if a parent diets and talks about dieting then their children are more likely to emulate these habits too. So if you have a difficult relationship with food it's worth exploring this if you can,” she explains.

She says a parent who has a disordered relationship with food won’t automatically raise a child who has one too, but believes it’s worth being cautious about patterns and habits being replicated through generations.

3. Keep your child comfy

A parent might think their child is fussy about food, when in fact it could be that they’re not comfortable with where they’re sitting. Stirling-Reed, who runs a Fussy Eating course, believes a high chair with a footrest such as the Stokke Tripp Trapp is essential for allowing little ones to focus on feeding themselves. “It’s not comfortable to have dangling legs and can be a distraction from food,” she says. She also recommends a high chair with a removable tray because this brings the child to the table with everyone else where they can enjoy mealtimes properly and feel included.

Fussy eaters illustrated by baby in high chair

(Image credit: Getty images)

4. Help your child listen to their body’s cues

Forbes says children are “born with the ability to tune into their body and know when it's hungry and when it's full”. She believes it’s important that children learn to listen to their body’s cues for how hungry or full they are. Forcing a child to finish their plate of food is not going to create a healthy relationship with food.

Dr Holley says children should only be rewarded for trying food, not for how much of it they eat. And she believes rewards should never be alternative foods such as chocolate or ice cream, as this only encourages them to enjoy the reward food and not the main event. Instead, reward them by perhaps playing a game with them or taking them to the park.

5. Be patient

It can be soul-destroying when you take time to make a delicious, nutritious meal and then your child refuses to even sniff it. The food waste can also be very frustrating, especially at the start of the weaning process. This might be easier said than done, but try not to focus on what they have or haven’t eaten that day, but what they’ve had over the course of a week and what they do like. So much of childhood is phases which can stop as suddenly as they start. Your child may be going through a “fussy” phase, but it’s unlikely to go on forever and things will get better. If the food has been rejected, take it away without saying anything and try not to get angry, which can sometimes be difficult. Offer it again a few days later and see what the reaction is.

Fussy eaers illustrated by child cooking

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6. Think about the feeding environment

Television or other sounds can be a real distraction for children at mealtimes and this can affect what, and how much, they eat. Try to eat every meal at the table and, as we said above, eating with your children also sets a healthy example. Forbes says a child might be labelled as fussy, when in fact they may have sensory issues and the texture, smell or taste of a food might make them uncomfortable. “School lunch halls can be particularly jarring environments for some children, coupled with the anxiety some kids feel settling into a new environment or socialising in a busy space. We can't underestimate the impact of the feeding environment and how this informs some children's food preferences on any given day,” she says.

Also, try to maintain a routine of three meals a day, served at similar times of the day and perhaps two healthy snacks a day too. Maintaining a good daily routine will help a child to develop regular patterns of appetite and give them structure to their day

7. Allow them to help with meal preparation

Getting your child involved in food preparation and cooking can create a healthy relationship and familiarity with food. Stirling-Reed says anything from playing shops, getting them to serve the food, chop or even write a shopping list can be beneficial. Forbes says her family often has meals where they serve themselves so everyone can take what they want and have autonomy over what, and how much, is on their plate.

8. Make mealtimes positive

In the first stage of weaning, the main aim is the introduction of food textures and flavours and this includes allowing infants to explore and play with their food. And, while it goes against what many of us feel is normal, try to embrace a bit of mess. Forbes says: “Evidence shows that when kids are given the opportunity to explore food and be exposed to foods in all sorts of different ways, they'll be more likely to be relaxed around it - and maybe even consider trying it.”

She says: “For me, it's about raising children who are relaxed about food, who enjoy it, who aren't obsessed or fixated on it, and who have the brain space to think about way more interesting things than whether they are ‘allowed’ to eat something or not.”

9. Listen when they say they don’t like it

Just like adults, children will have favorite foods and those they don’t like so much. If you keep pushing food onto them, this is only going to add to the mealtime stress. Dr Holley says: “It is also important to remember that children are entitled to not enjoy certain flavors, and it may be necessary to accept that a certain food just isn’t to their liking.” Stirling-Reed says it’s important to offer children a wide variety of foods but that it’s also helpful to give them some autonomy over whether they choose to eat the food or not.

Forbes sums up dealing with fussy eating well when she says: “I mean this in the nicest possible way, sometimes ignoring your children and focusing on your own plate is the best thing you can do!”

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Kat Storr
Freelance Writer

Kat has been a digital journalist for over 15 years after starting her career at Sky News where she covered everything from terror attacks to royal babies and celebrity deaths. She has been working freelance for the last five years and regularly contributes to UK publications including Stylist, ES Best, Woman&Home, Metro and more.