Fussy eaters: Tips to encourage your child to eat that actually work!

If you’ve got a fussy eater on your hands, then you’ll understand how much of a battlefield mealtimes can be!

From strange textures to new tastes, particularly whilst your child is a toddler, it’s understandable that some children can develop aversions to new foods.

But if they struggle to get past that initial ‘trying new things’ stage it can make ensuring your family have a healthy, balanced diet just a tad tricky – not to mention the added stress that food fights can bring!

The NHS advises parents to try not to worry about the daily diet of your child, think longer term about what they are eating over the course of the week and measure this up with if they are leading an active lifestyle and gaining weight steadily and healthily.

If your child does not appear ill, but goes through stages of what foods they seem interested in eating, this is normal – just try and make sure they are getting some sustenance from the main food groups: dairy, starchy foods, fruit and vegetables and protein.

Our guide addresses some of the do’s and don’ts around encouraging your fussy eater to eat, including some helpful tips to get them excited about the suspicious looking grub on their plate…

Why is my child a fussy eater?

It’s actually pretty normal for children to go through a stage where they become fussy with food as new things are introduced to their diet. This usually happens in their second year as they are introduced to solid foods.

You might notice that your child seems to like a particular food one week but then will very quickly go off it the next. This is because our taste buds continue to develop and change, especially at this age.

Another theory is that as babies turn into toddlers they begin experimenting with testing your authority and exerting some control over their actions. This can lead to a power play with food as they see how far they can push disobeying you. It is generally considered that forcing or fighting with your little one about food antagonises this and it’s better to let them eat what they want and leave the rest, they’ll soon get hungry and be more cooperative!

What should I avoid doing when encouraging my child to eat?

It can be tempting when you’re desperate for your child to have a healthy diet to try anything to get them to try the food you’ve made for them.

But it’s important not to create negative emotional connections with food, that could create deeper issues. For example, try not to force spoon feed your toddler or push food on them. This could end up giving them an anxious attitude towards eating or teach them to eat more food than they actually need if they were feeling full.

It’s also best not to use sweet things like dessert as a reward as this teaches your little one that sugary foods are something to seek comfort or happiness in and may discourage them from enjoying healthier foods as they grow.

How do I know when my toddler is full?

We all have different appetites and sometimes it could be the case that your toddler is genuinely full. Watch out for these signs when trying to feed your child and if they are displaying this behaviour, especially with foods they usually like, it really could be that they have had enough.

  • Spitting out the food you have just fed them
  • Leaning to the side and trying to move out of their highchair
  • Keeping their mouth closed as you approach them with food
  • Moving their head to the side or out of the way when you try and feed them
  • Tips for feeding a fussy eater (that actually work!)

    1. Eat the same food as your toddler
    Make meal times a fun get together by trying to eat as a family and all enjoying the same food. Your child will look to you as an example so if they see you trying the same food as them, and happily munching away, it’s easier to encourage them.

    2. Give them small portions
    Sometimes just the very sight of a big plate filled with unfamiliar things is enough to put a slightly nervous child off their dinner. Try serving them little portions that look easier to manage and look like less of an ask from you.

    3. Keep dinner time consistent
    Young children thrive off routine and it can help if they know to expect that their meal time is approaching and therefore what that will involve.

    4. Get creative with presentation
    Something as simple as arranging their food into a fun shape, or getting experimental with some food art to resemble their favourite cartoon character can be all it takes to get your child excited about dinner.

    5. Try a theme night
    It takes a little bit of effort but try making meal times something to look forward to by creating theme nights like ‘super hero night’ or ‘princess night’ and dressing up or putting on a mask/tiara/appropriate fancy dress.

    6. Invite other children that are good eaters round for tea
    A lot of the time fussy eating comes down to mind over matter and a way of changing a child’s mind set can sometimes be to show them a friend or someone they like in their peer group eating all the foods they refuse to. Invite a cousin or family friend the same age as your child round for tea and heavily praise them when they eat all of their dinner. Be careful not to make your child feel like a failure, but try and use this as encouragement.

    7. Let them get hungry
    Simple but very effective – just let your child eat what they want without giving them the option of more food. If you consistently reiterate that this is the only food they will be getting, they will learn to try new things or stop being fussy over food that they’ve previously eaten. If they do try something new and genuinely don’t like it, don’t force them to eat it though.

    8. Add some personality to their food
    It may sound a little silly, but some mums find that having fun with the way they feed their children can help change their attitude to food. Try giving different foods fun names like ‘silly sausages’ or ‘kicking carrots’. Team this with some funny voices and experiment with making your little one laugh whilst feeding them.

    9. Hide nourishment in sauce
    This top tip won’t help you deal with your child’s fussy eating habits as such, but it will help you deal with the difficulties you’re experiencing in getting nourishment into their diet. Try making sauces from scratch and chopping up vegetables finely to add into them. Only the most dedicated kids will pick out the vegetables and you’ll likely get them to eat lots of goodness without them realising.

    10. Record success in a wall chart
    Although it’s not encouraged to bribe children to eat healthily with sugary foods, setting a long term goal with a wholesome reward for their achievement could be the positive encouragement they need. Try creating a sticker wall chart and setting them a small challenge every day for a week such as ‘eat three carrots at dinner’.

    Record their success with attractive looking stickers and if they succeed all week allow them to pick a special day out at the weekend or take them to their favourite park. It’s important that the treat still reflects a healthy lifestyle so that they don’t learn to eat healthy foods to gain sugary ones as a reward.