September 27, 2018

Help for Parents of Picky Eaters

Fussy eaters can drive parents crazy. Try these tips and maintain your sanity.

Mealtimes with a picky eater are not fun. Though kids usually grow out of the picky-eater phase, having a child who won't eat their food is stressful for parents, who often become desperate and resort to unhealthy tactics to try and get their children to eat well. How mothers and fathers handle these trying times can make a big difference, as an Australian study makes clear.

Over 200 mothers and fathers from a low-income community who had kids between two to five years old took part in the study. Parents filled out questionnaires about how they saw their responsibility for feeding their child and for their child’s temperament. They were asked how often their children exhibited fussy eating behaviors, and how they responded when kids refused to eat. For example, did they insist their child eat a food they had refused, or did they they offer a non-food reward if their child ate a food they initially refused? Parents were also asked how often they worried about their child’s eating behaviors and whether their child was getting a healthy diet.

Make eating fun: Offer dipping sauces; cut food into cute shapes; serve foods that are brightly colored. Don’t offer or withhold dessert as a bribe for eating.

Both mothers and fathers were consistent in their reports of their child’s fussy eating, but mothers were more likely to worry about their child’s health than fathers. Fathers were more likely to use persuasive feeding practices like bribes or rewards.

Traditionally, mothers bear the greater responsibility of feeding their children, and researchers, from the Centre for Children's Health Research, Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, found that mothers were more sensitive to their child’s tantrums and crying. When they bribed or rewarded their child, it was out of concern for their child’s wellbeing.

Fathers tended to rely on bribes or rewards to get their child to eat more as a practical strategy rather than because of concern. For example, they wanted to avoid conflict and finish dinner after a long day at work. When these bribery-based feeding practices are used consistently, they only serve to increase fussy eating behaviors. They also promote a child’s preference for unhealthy foods, possibly leading to excessive weight gain, researcher Holly Harris explained.

There are better ways to encourage kids to eat. And missing a meal, or most of one, is not going to hurt them. Try these tips for dealing with fussy eaters and maintaining your sanity until the phase passes:

  • Don’t force your child to eat or clean their plate or eat a food they don’t like.
  • Serve child-size portions of foods.
  • Allow children to touch or smell new foods. They may need to see them a few times before they decide to taste them.
  • Serve a new food alongside foods your child already likes.
  • Make eating fun: Offer dipping sauces; cut food into cute shapes; serve foods that are brightly colored.
  • Turn off the television and all other devices at mealtime to avoid distractions.
  • Don’t offer or withhold dessert as a bribe for eating.
  • The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
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