Here’s a little story about a family I am working with at the moment to turn around their 2 ½-year-old son’s fussy eating.
One day, the dad got up to give their son breakfast while the mum had a bit of a lie-in. As she listened to them go downstairs, she heard her son ask chirpily “What’s for breakfast today, daddy?” – and she smiled to herself and thought “That’s progress!”.
Huh? you may be wondering: How did this one little question represent ‘progress’?
Let me explain. When I first started working with this family, this little boy was a porridge fiend! He wanted porridge for breakfast almost every day – and another a big bowl before bed too. Now there’s nothing wrong with porridge – it’s pretty darn healthy – but any food that a child insists on over and over again, instead of eating a wider and varied diet, is a problem.
The first thing to do was for them to take back control of what he was served at breakfast (and lunch and dinner of course – but this is a breakfast story!). The Golden Rule of cracking fussy eating is:
You’re in charge of what to serve.
They’re in charge of whether to eat it.
I advised they stopped asking him what he wanted for breakfast and started serving him three cereals (porridge plus two others) on rotation. We began by adding in two cereals that he used to eat and was familiar with but had stopped eating (in this case Weetabix and mini Shredded Wheat). If he said, “I don’t want this” or “I don’t like this” or “But I want porridge” (or complained in any way), they were simply to say calmly and gently (but assertively): “That’s what we’re having today” and “It’s up to you if you eat it.” No pressure (at all!) was put on him to actually eat the new cereals.
Initially, during the first week, he did protest when it wasn’t porridge, but when his mum or dad responded as above, he ate the cereal anyway. By the second week, he wasn’t protesting, just eating. The next week, we added another cereal (cornflakes) into the rotation, which he accepted and ate readily. One morning he actually asked for cornflakes – but didn’t complain or make a fuss when he was given Weetabix instead.
Fruit (a different one on different days) and pieces of toast/bagel/crumpet (again, a different one on different days) were also offered on a sharing plate in the middle of the table for him to help himself to if he wanted to – which he started to do, sometimes copying his mum and putting blueberries on top of his cereal.
And the next thing you know, out comes the chirpy “What’s for breakfast, daddy?” question – showing that he had completely accepted that his parents were in control of what was for breakfast AND that he was quite happy with that!
I know it can feel scary to take back control of what your serve. It’s natural to worry that if you don’t give your child what they want or what you know they’ll reliably eat, they won’t eat anything. But it is amazing how quickly children accept the situation.
Children actually like it when you’re firmly but kindly in charge. They like boundaries to be in place. It makes them feel secure. So whilst it may seem that your child enjoys you serving them exactly what they want like an eager-to-please chef catering to a very demanding and important customer (!), deep down, they do actually prefer it when it feels like you’re the one in control.
And in the fight against fussy eating, it is crucial that you are. Otherwise, it will be impossible to increase the variety of foods you are offering and giving them the opportunity to eat. The number of foods and meals they eat will spiral downwards – and their palate will become narrower and narrower.
Remember, they can’t eat a food that isn’t there! 😉
If you would like individualized, step-by-step advice and support to undo your child’s fussy eating, please visit my consultancy page.
Here are ten top tips strong pieces of advice!
#1 Back right off
It may sound crazy and counter-intuitive, but the more you tell, encourage, pester and bribe your child to eat their vegetables, the worse it makes it. Yes, you may get a mouthful of peas or a few pieces of carrot into them – mealtime by painful mealtime! – but the overall effect is extremely detrimental. You have much less chance of them ever eating veg of their own accord. Why? 1. You are showing them you really, really want them to eat those darn vegetables which gives them something to fight against (inwardly, if not outwardly). 2. It gives them lots of attention for not eating them – and children crave their parents’ attention! 3. It gives them the message that vegetables must be unpleasant and a chore to eat (I mean, you wouldn’t tell, encourage, pester or bribe them to eat their sweets, would you?).
#2 Expose, expose, Expose
Children can’t come to like and eat a vegetable if it is never put in front of them! Don’t deprive them of the opportunity! Keep presenting them with a wide variety of vegetables over and over again, whether they eat them or not. Children absolutely need the chance to become familiar and comfortable with the sight, smell and feel of a vegetable before they can ever become receptive to the idea of eating it. So as pointless as it may seem, just keep on putting (a small amount) of courgette or swede or whatever other vegetable they turn their nose up at on their plate!
#3 Present vegetables boldly and proudly
If vegetables always come hidden in a sauce or out of a squeezy pouch, we can’t expect children to happily devour a portion of carrots or courgette when they come face to face with them ‘in the flesh’! They need to get used to seeing vegetables as they really are if they are going to get to the stage where they will actually eat them like that. By all means add vegetables to a pasta sauce, soup or smoothie for extra nutrition, but make sure your child always has a serving of raw or cooked vegetables with their meal too!
#4 Catch them when they’re hungry
Give your child a tiny starter of two or three raw veg in a ramekin or dipping sauce bowl just before dinner while you’re still cooking and they’re still playing or watching TV. Just say “Here’s a little starter just in case you fancy it – doesn’t matter if you don’t” (remember, no pressure!) and put it down next to them: cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, pepper sticks, celery sticks, carrot sticks, olives, gherkins, shredded lettuce, shredded cabbage (with soy sauce to dip it in), avocado pieces or even just a handful of still-frozen peas or sweetcorn. This often starts to work because 1. Your child is at their hungriest. 2. The veg isn’t competing with other foods they prefer on their plate. 3. There is minus-zero pressure because they’re not even sitting at the table, the place where there is an expectation to eat!
#5 Keep preferences preferences
If you notice your child wolfs down sweetcorn but eats peas less enthusiastically, or devours broccoli but leaves most of their cauliflower, it is tempting to stop giving them the less preferred one. Don’t! If you do, those preferences will soon solidify into Likes and Don’t Likes and before you know it, you’ll be able to count the veg they’ll eat on one finger. Two if you’re lucky!
#6 Don’t praise them
Every time you say “Well done for eating all your carrots!” or “Good boy for trying a piece of red pepper!” you give your child the message that eating vegetables must be difficult and unenjoyable. (Again, you wouldn’t praise them for eating their sweets, would you?!) Save praise for the things in their life that are tricky or unpleasant, like managing to get dressed all by themselves or learning their spellings! Praise is also just another – albeit more subtle – way of showing them how much you want them to eat their vegetables, which can backfire!
#7 Let them play
As infuriating as it can be, don’t tell your child off for squishing their peas into their mashed potato or building a little pillar with their carrot slices or trying to squeeze the juice out of their tomatoes. Playing with veg is a crucial step for children in learning to like and eat veg. Grin and bear it! It’s worth it.
#8 Don’t ‘big’ vegetables up
When you tell children that spinach will make them “big and strong” or that broccoli looks like “little trees” or that they’re “very brave” for trying an olive or even try to present vegetables as ‘fun’ by making them into a smiley face on top of a pizza, you may as well be screaming “Eat it, eat it, eat it – I just really want you to eat it!” It may work the first time, but beyond that, you’re just giving them something else to react against. By all means talk to them about healthy eating and the part vegetables play in this – but don’t do it at the table!
#9 Eat your own veg
It is important that children see you eating your vegetables. Your behaviour is contagious! Young children learn most of what they learn by watching you. No need to make a thing of it (“Yum, yum, mummy lurrrrvveees green beans” – children can see straight through that!). Just let it work gently by osmosis.
#10 Give it a chance
There are no magic tricks or tips that will turn your child into a veg-o-holic overnight. This advice is as good as it gets! So don’t expect instant results (though some parents do start to see a difference immediately). Just stick to the advice like glue and you will see progress, little by little, glimmer by glimmer. It really can make a big difference.
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Don’t follow the crowd!
Listen to parents with their children at mealtimes and 95 times out of a 100 you’ll hear things like this:
Come on, have another bite of your sandwich. It’s that type of ham you really like.
I asked you if you wanted peas or sweetcorn and you said peas, so eat them please.
I want you to have a few more mouthfuls at least….I made pasta and pesto because it’s your favourite.
Let’s think about what dynamic is in operation here:
1.The child controls what the parent serves.
2.The parent then tries to control what goes in the child’s mouth.
This is so the norm that it’s easy not to even question it. After all, it seems to make sense: If we give our child the foods they say they like and want, they’re more likely to eat in the first place. And if we then push and encourage them to eat, we’ll get more of the food into them, right?
The secret to stopping fussy eating is to do the very opposite.
Yep, completely flip things around. Reverse the dynamic:
1.The parent controls what they serve the child.
2.The child then controls what goes in their mouth.
Or in other words, serve whatever meals and foods you want to. Then leave it entirely up to them to decide whether and how much of it they eat.
This can sound really scary – and irrational – at first! They’ll eat next to nothing if I do that! you might think. What’s the point in serving them something I know they don’t like? And why would they eat any of it if I don’t encourage or persuade them to? But it really does make a huge difference. Here’s why.
Firstly, it’s about EXPOSURE. A child needs to be exposed to a food on a regular basis to become comfortable and familiar with it – a precursor to actually eating it. When you stay in control of what you serve, you can expose them to a wide variety of meals and foods. If, on the other hand, you let them pick and choose what you serve, they will go for their preferences and favourites and those foods will quickly become their only ‘safe’ foods. Before you know it, you’ll soon be able to count the number of meals they’ll eat on one hand – and still have fingers left over!
Secondly, it’s about POWER AND ATTENTION. If you completely stop pushing them to eat what’s on their plate, they have nothing to react against and no attention to gain by not eating something. And if there’s no power or attention available in this way, the most enjoyment to be had is from the food itself. Once the pressure to eat is taken away, their natural curiosity about food and their own desire to eat can emerge. Food is, after all, a pleasure. Humans – even little ones – naturally want to explore and eat food. It’s a basic human instinct that we shouldn’t mess with!
So don’t follow the crowd. Put the food you want to serve in front of them and then say nothing more about it. Or as I like to say: Dish up, shut up! Then watch your child gradually become less and less fussy. ☺
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The short answer is: No!
Sticker charts can seem like a really good idea. You see them everywhere in the shops, after all. They’re colourful, fun, visual…they make things concrete. And children like stickers!
So why shouldn’t you use them? Here’s the long(er!) answer…
They don’t work.
Short-term, you may get five slices of carrot or all of your home-made cottage pie inside them during the period of time you use the sticker chart for. But can you imagine a child thinking Hey, I only ate that kale to get a sticker, but you know what, I flippin loved it and I’m going to eat it forever from now on! Fat chance. Once the sticker chart is over, it’s back to square one. In fact, it will have done more harm than good because…
They’re a bribe.
A sticker chart says: If you do that, you’ll get this. The child isn’t eating the food because they choose or want to. They’re eating it because they’ll get a sticker. The motivation is all external. If we want a child who is truly a happy, healthy eater, we have to create the conditions that tap into and build their own internal motivation to eat the food.
They give your child the message that eating is a chore.
Having a sticker chart for doing something tedious or tricky – like learning your times tables – would make sense. But eating food is – or should be – a pleasure! A sticker chart teaches your child that eating is just something you have to endure to get something good.
They’re just another way of putting pressure on your child to eat.
…which, if you’ve read Getting the Little Blighters to Eat, you’ll know means you’re in for trouble! A sticker chart tells your child loud and clear that you really care what they do and don’t eat, simply giving them more to resist and react against in the long term.
Sticker charts for eating…stick em’ in the bin!
Note: A paediatric dietitian will sometimes use a sticker chart in a very specialised way with a child around eating behaviour, rather than directly for eating. This is different to the general use of sticker charts by parents for eating, which is the focus of this article.
Quite a lot of parents tell me that their child eats meals and foods happily at nursery that they won’t touch at home. They are puzzled – and frustrated! What’s the reason?
It’s all about the dynamic between adult and child.Whilst the nursery staff want the children to eat well, there isn’t that same intense parent-child dynamic at the table where your child can tell that you really (really!) care what and how much they eat. Also, there are a lot more children per adult at nursery, so inevitably less focus and pressure on each individual child to eat their food.
This means that at nursery, your child has a lot less attention and power to gain by NOT eating something. So those raw carrot sticks that they ignore at home, or that cottage pie that they push away sulkily when they’re with you, suddenly become rather appealing when they’re hungry anyway.
Which just goes to show that the DISH UP, SHUT UP! approach is definitely the way forward at home. 😉
If you’ve got a fussy eater, eating out at a restaurant or café can be something you dread or avoid. “What’s the point?” you might think. “It’s easier to stay at home and feed them something I know they’ll eat.” Here are some good habits to get into that will help make eating out as a family a more positive experience for everyone!
1. Don’t issue any warnings before you go.
Avoid saying things like “I want you to be good at the restaurant today” or “Promise me you’ll eat your meal this time”. Kids live up to expectations. If you show them you expect trouble, you’re more likely to get it!
2. Let them have their own menu to look at.
It makes them feel grown-up and involved, whether they can read yet or not. Also, encourage them to tell the waiter or waitress their order themselves once they can talk!
3. Don’t order tiny ones their own meal.
With under-twos (or up to four years old, depending on the appetite of your child!), the best thing to do is ask for an extra plate and give them bits and pieces from your own meals. This introduces them to a wide variety of food – and saves money and waste! It may mean they end up with half roast dinner, half mushroom risotto and a bit of cucumber and tomato, but little children don’t know or care about the ‘rules’ of what is and isn’t normally served together.
4. Ask the restaurant if they will do half portions of the adult meals.
Many restaurants and cafes will, even if they don’t say so on their menu. This opens out the choice a whole lot further than the (often very limited and ‘beige’) children’s menu – and doesn’t put the idea in their head that children can’t or shouldn’t eat the same food as adults!
5. Let them choose freely.
Don’t deliberately steer them towards a ‘safe bet’ like chicken nuggets or spag bol – or whatever you think they’re most likely to eat. If we want them to be adventurous and open-minded about food, we mustn’t impose limits! This may sound scary (“There’s no way they’re going to eat prawn linguine in a garlic and white wine sauce!” you might think) but when you give them the freedom and responsibility to choose what they fancy, it creates a kind of unspoken contract: I chose it, so I’m going to eat it.
6. Don’t make any judgement about what they choose.
Don’t undo the effect of letting them choose freely by saying things like “Fish and chips – are you sure? You don’t really like fish” or “But you didn’t eat the lasagne last time”. Keep those thoughts to yourself! Again, if you give them negative expectations to live up to, they’re likely to prove you right! Show trust in their choice instead.
7. Make it as much about togetherness as eating.
Talk together or play speaking games (“Guess which starter/dessert I’d choose off the menu” is a good one for older children!). If you are meeting friends and you know there’s going to be lots of adult chat, then take along pens and paper or activities to occupy them. If the food takes an unexpectedly long time to arrive, don’t expect them to have the patience of an adult. Find a way to engage them.
8. Don’t overly worry about what other people think.
Cut them a little slack when it comes to table manners. Let them enjoy their food in their own way. The customers at the other tables would rather see happy children with food on their face and bits falling on the floor than hear them being nagged to eat like an adult.
9. Remember that children’s meal portions vary hugely.
I’ve seen kids’ meals that would have left a mouse hungry – and kids’ meals that would have satisfied Henry VIII! Don’t judge how much they’ve eaten by the amount left on their plate. Let their appetite dictate how much they eat.
10. Don’t order dessert until after the main course is over.
If you tell the waiter what desserts you want at the start, your child may focus on and hanker after that throughout the main course. “This food is alright…” they might think. “But hey, I’ve got a chocolate ice-cream sundae with sprinkles and sauce coming next!”
NOTE: Of course, the usual Getting the Little Blighters to Eat approach applies in a restaurant or cafe as much as it does at home: No encouraging, pestering, coercing or bribing them to eat. When their food arrives at the table, say nothing more about it! If necessary, you could always ask the waiter to tie a tea towel round your mouth. 😉
Oh no! Am I going to suggest you get your child to dip a spider in chocolate and eat it? No, nothing like that! (Though they are full of protein 😉 )
Let me explain with a little analogy…
Ms. A. Raknofobia is terrified of spiders. She does everything she can to avoid them. She won’t go in the garden shed. She won’t go for a walk in the woods in case there are webs stretched between the trees. She asks her partner to check the bathroom every single morning before she takes a shower. If she does come across a spider, she runs away screaming…
Eventually, she decides to seek therapy. The therapist takes her through a step by step process:
Step 1: She looks at pictures of spiders.
Step 2: She watches videos of spiders scuttling along.
Step 3: She goes into a room with a spider on the far side of it.
Step 4: She inches closer and closer to the spider.
Step 5: She reaches out and touches the spider wearing a glove.
Step 6: Finally, she holds the spider in her bare hands – without feeling any fear at all!
She is cured! What was the secret? EXPOSURE! She needed to be put in closer and closer proximity with the very thing she didn’t want to go anywhere near.
A huge part of turning a fussy eater into a non-fussy eater is also about exposure.
It’s not that the fussy child is scared of the foods they won’t eat (though some children can develop a phobia or have an instinctive aversion to certain foods) but they are likely to have built up lots of negative associations with those foods through being repeatedly pressurised to eat them.
On top of this, when a child becomes fussy, we often stop giving them the foods they don’t eat – or any new foods – because we think it’s a waste of time and effort and they’ll end up in the bin anyway. Those foods then become alien and unfamiliar to them.
The first step is to re-expose them to those foods so they can become familiar and feel comfortable around them. They need to be put into close proximity with them! And just like the spider therapy, I often advise parents – especially those with extremely fussy eaters – to do this gradually over a few weeks.
Step 1: Present a tiny amount of the food they stopped eating – or a new food you’d like to introduce them to – in a ramekin or dipping-sauce bowl to the side of their meal.
Step 2: Put the food into a section of a divided plate with the rest of the meal in the other sections.
Step 3: Put the food onto a normal plate with the rest of the meal.
Initially, your child may ask for the food to be taken away, push it away or throw it on the floor, but if you calmly say, “It’s okay, it’s up to you if you eat it or not” they will soon allow it to ‘to exist’ in their presence. If they throw the food on the floor, don’t tell them off. In fact, ignore that behaviour completely and wait until mealtime is over to clear it up so it seems as if you’re really not bothered. It’ll soon stop if they get no attention for it whatsoever.
There should never be any pressure at all to actually eat the foods (Remember the golden rule: DISH UP, SHUT UP!). And once a food has been introduced, make sure it makes a regular appearance from then on to keep it familiar.
‘But how does this exposure lead to them actually eating the food?’ you may be wondering. Read this real life success story Lessons from a stick of celery to find out!
Exposure, exposure, exposure really is key to turning a fussy eater into a happy, healthy eater. Before you know it, they’ll be eating spiders dipped in chocolate! Okay, maybe not… 😉
If I could hand out magic wands that parents could wave to instantly transform their child from fussy to unfussy eater, I would – and probably be exceedingly rich from it!
But the Getting the Little Blighters to Eat approach is about as close to a magic wand as you’re going to get. It just takes a bit longer (though plenty of parents do report a change from the very first meal!).
“But I just don’t think I’ve got the patience to wait the three or four months for it to work,” said one parent recently.
My response is:
“Have you got the patience to encourage, pester, nag or bribe your child to eat what you want them to eat every single day – possibly for years?!”
The Getting the Little Blighters to Eat approach makes every single meal less painful and painstaking. It requires less, not more effort from you. You simply ‘Dish up, Shut up!’ and let the approach slowly but surely take effect.
To help you stay motivated through the process and not fall back into old habits at mealtimes, my advice is to focus fully on any positive changes you notice in your child’s eating – however tiny! Even to note them down in a diary every day so that you have a more tangible record of the progress you are making.
Here’s a brilliant ‘real life’ example from a family I am currently working with. For clarity’s sake, I am going to focus on the child’s gradual change in attitude towards just one vegetable: a stick of celery!
Starting point: The only vegetable this almost three-year-old child will eat is the odd bit of cucumber.
Week 1: Mother completely stops putting any pressure on child to eat any of the foods on her plate from now on.
Week 2: She presents child with a stick of celery in a ramekin to the side of her lunch (celery is going to make a regular appearance from now on, about once a week). Child looks at the celery and says, “Take it away mummy, take it away!” and gets upset. Mother says, “It’s okay, you don’t have to eat it.” Child calms down and allows it to be there.
Week 3: Child looks at the stick of celery and says “What’s that?” Mother replies simply “It’s celery”. Child doesn’t comment.
Week 4: Child picks up the stick of celery and puts it in her mouth and says, “Look mummy, look. I’m playing the trumpet! You do it too!” Mother does it too with her own celery.
Week 5: Child picks up the stick of celery and takes a bite and completely finishes that bite (it takes a while – celery is quite hard work! – but the child persists happily). Child then takes a second bite of their own accord, but decides to spit this bit out. Mother makes no comment of course.
Week 6: ??? We shall see…but it’s looking good, right?!
You can so clearly see the process and progress in action here:
1. Rejection and assertion of power (“Take it away, mummy!”)
2. Acceptance (The child allows the food to ‘be there’ because they know there is no pressure to actually eat it).
3. Curiosity (“What is it?”. The child’s natural curiosity about food can emerge now that there is no pressure to eat anything.)
4. Touching and playing with the food (“I’m playing the trumpet!”. The child is becoming familiar and comfortable with the food.)
5. Eating the food (of their own accord, because they want to. Even spitting out the second bite is progress – they chose to take that second bite, remember!)
Now imagine this progress with a wide variety of foods all going on at the same time, and bingo! You’re well on the way to undoing fussy eating!
MYTH #1: CHILDREN ARE NATURALLY FUSSY. WE JUST HAVE TO GRIN AND BEAR IT.
Children can have an innate preference for and wariness of certain foods – but it is our behaviour and reaction to our children’s eating that has the most powerful impact of all! That is what determines whether they become a fussy eater or not.
MYTH #2: IT’S JUST A PHASE. THEY’LL GROW OUT OF IT.
Many children do grow out of fussy eating – but often not until they’re in double figures. That’s thousands of stressy mealtimes to get through before then.
MYTH #3: I NEED TO FIND SOME GOOD RECIPES THAT THEY’LL EAT.
Trying new recipes and offering your child different meals is great, but it’s not a case of finding the ‘right’ food. Fussy eating doesn’t start because they don’t like the food. It starts when they realise it gets them huge amounts of power and attention!
MYTH #4: IT’S OKAY TO DO WHATEVER WORKS TO GET THEM TO EAT SOMETHING.
Encouraging, pestering, nagging, praising or bribing your child may get a few more peas or spoonfuls of rice into them – one slow, painful meal at at time – but you’re simply inviting them to an ongoing power battle. One they can win more easily than you!
MYTH #5: I NEED TO BUY CHILD-FRIENDLY FOOD.
Your child may enjoy carrot from a squeezy pouch or be enticed by Peppa Pig pasta, but these type of foods give them the message that children don’t – or can’t – eat the same food as adults. So they encourage, not discourage fussy eating.
MYTH #6: I NEED TO CUT OUT SNACKS SO THEY’RE HUNGRIER AT MEALTIMES.
This can make for one miserable, difficult-to-manage child in the lead-up to lunch or dinner – and therefore make mealtimes worse, not better.
MYTH #7: I NEED TO MAKE FOOD FUN.
A good dose of fun around food is a positive thing but making smiley faces with veg on top of a pizza or shaping mashed potato into a hedgehog won’t solve fussy eating. Kids soon twig that it’s just another way of trying to get them to eat something!
MYTH #8: THERE’S NO POINT IN GIVING MY CHILD A FOOD I KNOW THEY WON’T EAT. IT JUST GETS WASTED.
Quite the contrary. If they don’t even see a food, they can’t become familiar and comfortable with it – which is a vital step towards them actually eating it. The key is exposure, exposure, exposure. Keep giving them a tiny bit of a food whether they eat it or not. (Remember, they can’t eat a food that isn’t even there!)
MYTH #9: HIDING VEG IN A PASTA SAUCE OR SOUP IS THE ONLY WAY FORWARD.
If we don’t give our children the opportunity to see and get used to vegetables ‘in the flesh’, we have no hope of them eating them. Adding veg to recipes for extra goodness is fine, but don’t do it as alternative to presenting vegetables boldly and proudly.
MYTH #10: I JUST NEED SOME REALLY GOOD TIPS.
There is no magic wand you can wave to stop fussy eating overnight. But ‘starting again’ with a fresh new approach at mealtimes, if put into practice with a 100% consistency and commitment, will work – and with a typical fussy eater usually only takes a few months. What’s that in the timescale of a whole childhood?!
Find out how to do it at stopfussyeating.com