Serve it, Don't Swerve it: How to Address "Fussy Eating"

Getting children to eat the food you put in front of them can be a testing time and a source of much anxiety for parents keen to introduce new foods and encourage good eating habits. We consider an alternative way to think about that mealtime mayhem that may just help you solve the problem.

I'm not Dr Doolittle, but in the animal world I've never seen a Mummy Cat, or Daddy Dog have to argue with a little one about eating. So why is it that small children can be such fussy eaters? Are they objecting to the taste, or temperature, or texture of the food? Certainly, this could be a factor, but could their refusal of food on a regular basis perhaps an exercise in control as they practise bending the world to their will?

"But You Know How Much You Like This"

Which of these approaches have you tried in the past? Here's twelve for starters (no pun intended) that I have tried over the years.

Logical"You asked for sweetcorn, so I gave you sweetcorn, so please eat it."

Referral"But everyone likes carrots. Jamie likes them, Daddy likes them, I like them."

Reminder"But this is your favourite! You know how much you like this."

Surreal"What's that, Peter Potato? You want to be eaten? And you too Percy Peas?"

Conversion"Just try it. You'll like it. How can you say you don't like if you've not tried it?"

Comparison"But these sweet potatoes are just like normal potatoes. And you like those."

Train or plane"Here comes the food. It's on the way. One, two, three - open wide! No?"

Time not an issue"Makes no difference to me. I'll sit here as long as it takes until you eat it."

In this together"We'll eat it together. Oh, look, mmm, it's delicious. You try it now. No?"

The guilt-trip"I've made it just for you, I'll be very sad to have to put it in the bin."

Treats ahead"Just have three more mouthfuls and then you can have ice-cream."

Consequences"Unless you eat this right now, you can't watch any Peppa Pig tonight."

Most parents will have used a few - if not all of these - at some point. Maybe all of them in one sitting. There's a lot of different things happening in those approaches, isn't there? Promises, threats, bribes, desperation, exasperation, fun, games, anger, guilt. And often we zig-zag from one approach to another, wondering which approach will work this time.

It's Only Natural

As a parent - perhaps with a stack of foodie books and apps and a social media timeline full of friends' children all gleefully eating their kale and avocado risotto - it's only natural to want to try new foods and give your children the best and most varied diet you can. It's also easy to end up reverting to only serving those things that you know your child will eat. It certainly might solve one problem, but only for as long as your child continues to eat those things you were banking on them eating. All too often, they won't always even eat the absolute certainties, leading to some of the more exasperated approaches above.

The Path of Least Resistance

What can happen in situations like this is that eventually you stop serving certain food types, even though you would very much like them to try them and become part of their regular diet. Many parents hate the idea that this could happen, but the fact is that when we are pressed for time, or perhaps wish to avoid confrontation and tantrums (our child's), or don't care to waste time and money preparing food that may go to waste, it can be easy to take the path of least resistance and only serve what your child will eat.

A Better Approach

Instead of letting the child take control and choose not just what you serve but also how much they will eat, a better approach is for you to determine the menu and from there let your child have control over what they eat.

Got that? Just serve the different foods and the meals you want to, according to your wishes and plans. It's then up to your little one to decide if - and how much - they will eat of it. You may think this may lead to more tantrums and more wasted food and that on balance you'll just stick with the current plan, thank you very much; to feed what you know will be eaten and without too much fuss. 

Diffuse the Situation

This, however, is not a good long-term solution. As suggested at the top of this article, the first problem is that you are letting your child exercise their power over you. You are pressing them to eat a certain type of food and - rather than allowing them to be inquisitive and curious as they surely are in most other situations - they now sense there is more fun - attention and power - to be had by resisting you. You are presenting them with a far more interesting avenue to explore! If you can instead remove the pressure from your end, the force that they are reacting against, so that there is no tension, you will defuse the situation before it even begins. What's left for your child is for their natural curiosity about the food to take over and them to want to try it.

Repeated Exposure

It may not happen first time, and it may be that they don't immediately like what they are trying. Remember it's only by regular and repeated exposure to foods on a regular basis that we all become comfortable, familiar, and happy to eat them. So, the trick here is to ensure you regularly put the food in front of them that you want them to be eating. As before, put no pressure on them to eat it, and see how they get on. Remember to hold back from trying too hard to persuade or coerce or beg them to eat it. Remember, where there is no prospect of a battle of wills, your child is more likely to just follow the human instinct to be curious, to explore, and to eat!

Feeding without Pleading

It's worth noting that this approach is one that is counter-intuitive to many parents, and it can lead to much discussion and debate, particularly where there are two or more people involved in feeding meals to little ones, such as partners or other family members.. Try and agree a consistent approach, and to not talk about it too much at the dinner table if you disagree!

So, serve it and don't swerve it - because in the long run feeding without pleading will not only lead to your child eating a wider range of foods earlier than otherwise, your mealtimes should be a great deal more enjoyable and with less need to serve multiple menus for each member of the family!


Simon; father of three and a mostly happy eater himself, though still keen on beetroot or sardines.