the life and times of a fussy eater

January 9, 2014


Got a fussy eater?

Yep, me too.

My two older boys would eat anything. They would eat a cricket if you put chilli sauce on it. But the youngest one was sent to jolt me out of my complacent parenting bubble.

My eldest boy survived his first two years on little more than formula, bananas, and custard. We introduced him to solids too soon. I wasn’t keen, but my husband thought the baby might sleep better if he had something solid in his tummy. The rice cereal bound him up. He choked a little on the solids and refused to eat anything solid for the next 18 months. I understood, and patiently waited until he became interested in eating ‘real’ food. Once he figured out that he was no longer going to choke, he didn’t look back.

I didn’t make the same mistakes with the other two boys. I waited until they were ready for solids. I started them off on mashed pumpkin, and slowly introduced them to other mashed vegies. The second boy thrived. The third boy became a fussy eater as a toddler. I thought he would grow out of it but he didn’t. His fussy eating persisted.

My fussy eater, probably like your fussy eater, is extremely determined and persistent (some might say ‘stubborn’). We have only been able to succeed with him by using positive strategies and not stressing. We give him lots of positive attention for the things he does well. Rather than focusing on what he doesn’t eat, we focus on what he does eat, and expand his range and variety ever so slowly. We look upon it in the spirit of adventure rather than with fear and dread. The mirror neurones in your child’s brain will pick up on your attitude and feelings. If you have anxiety about mealtimes, your child will smell the fear and respond accordingly. If he gets a lot of attention for his fussy eating, he will do more of it.

I used a strategy recommended by Dr Thomas Phelan – the back-up meal. I gave my son tiny proportions of the family meal. A teaspoon of everything, separated from each other (even  if the meal was a casserole or stir fry), on a small plate. The only stipulation was that he had to try what was on the plate. He could eat what he wanted to and leave what he wanted to, but he had to give it a bit of a go. If he liked some of it he could have more. We gave him lots of descriptive praise for what he tried and ate.

Everyone in our family has their own back-up meal if they don’t like the family meal. I don’t care how much you tell me that broccoli is good for me, I hate it and will choose not to eat it. If you gave me a plate full of broccoli I would want my back-up meal. The criteria for the back-up meal is that it is quick and simple to prepare, and somewhat nutritious. It could be as simple as a peanut butter sandwich. My young fella’s back-up meal was tinned spaghetti on toast.

Every night was the same. I presented a small amount of food on a small plate. If he tried it and didn’t like it, he could ask for his back-up meal, and I got it for him every time without complaint. It took two minutes to prepare. I did this for two years. But here’s the thing – over that two years he went from having his back-up meal every night, to the stage where he hardly ever asked for his back-up meal. We never praised him for eating his back-up meal. If he sought praise for eating the back-up meal, I would just give a nod of my head with no eye contact.

Of course, he progressed to picking the bits out. It’s just part of the process. One day he spontaneously ate the red kidney beans and red capsicum in the nachos I made, instead of painstakingly picking the bits out. Woo Hoo! I enthusiastically told him how impressed I was with him. He is 8, there is very little picking now, and this process has taken over 6 years. It’s been a slow process, but a relatively stress-free one. The range and variety of foods he eats is a whole lot better now than what it was.

These days he does a pretty good job of most things. He is still not great at eating vegies. Carrots, peas, corn, potato is just about the extent of his vegie eating capacity. If we are having salad for dinner, I cook him up some of the vegies from those frozen diced vegie combos you can get in the supermarket. Does he get his five serves of vegies per day? No way. But that is a hard goal to achieve for even the most ardent vegie chompers. If tomato sauce was counted as a vegetable then he might scrape in there.

We also talk a lot about where food comes from, the vitamins and minerals that the foods we eat give us, he helps me choose fruit and vegies at the farmer’s market, he helps me in the garden and he has his own plants, and we do the MasterChef game of guessing the ingredients in the meal. We have a take-away meal about once per month, and it is either Chinese food or fish and chips. The last time my kids had McDonalds was about three years ago when we were travelling. Junk food is not a food option in my house. Yes, my kid would easily eat a packet of crisps, but he gets plain corn chips and salsa instead. He would love to eat chocolate cake, but he gets home-made banana and apple muffins instead (I started making them with choc chips and slowly reduced the number I added, and now I don’t put any in).

There was a big turn-around last year, when he was up late with his Dad one night, getting some 1:1 time, and they stumbled upon a TV documentary called “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead” produced by an Aussie named Joe Cross (the full documentary is available on YouTube). In the show were cartoons of what processed and junk foods do to your body. Even though we had been talking about this for years, it was more believable coming from the television. My boy had greater motivation for eating better, and this aligns with the research – the more children know about foods and what their bodies need, the better they get at choosing healthy foods.

We also discovered last year that he has an intolerance to yeast (yeast is in a LOT of foods – bread, grapes, rockmelon, anything with added flavour). What the body sometimes does when it has an intolerance to a food is crave more of it – crazy eh? When we detoxed him from yeast, he made better food choices. And because he feels so much better, he avoids foods with yeast in them.

I tend not to hide vegies by food processing them. If I do add zucchini and carrot to the spaghetti bolognaise by food processing it, I tell the boy that is what I have done. I’d rather be honest with him. My kid is a negotiator by nature. He likes to do deals. He likes to see the value in all of his actions. He has been telling me lately that he is sick of eating peas every dinner. I say he needs to eat something green, so we negotiated a deal, and he sees the value in eating a few green beans or a piece of broccoli instead of having a plate full of peas. It’s a win for both of us.

Your fussy eating journey will be different to mine. You are free to do whatever positive strategies work for you and your child. When I tell people the above story, they are concerned about my child “winning”.

I don’t understand. Is parenting a battle or a race? Are our children our enemies or adversaries? What is the most positive way to approach the situation?

I ask them to think again about who has ‘won’. I have a kid who is a bit quirky, but who eats most things now. He can see the logic and reason in eating well, he has some flexibility in his thinking and approach, and he responds very well to limits. He is certainly a robust and active kid, who coincidentally rarely gets sick. I have worked with him in kind, gentle, and positive ways, at his pace, to improve his eating. The slow and steady approach has been triumphant. I have learnt patience. I didn’t know it at the time but I was doing what all of the research says we should do with our fussy eaters – keep mealtimes positive and relaxed, eat without distractions as a family, be persistent, be a good role model, promote eating competence, offer dips and cheese with vegetables, guide and educate my child, allow my child to have some control, and get him involved. These days he rarely eats spaghetti on toast.

I always say that it’s better to catch flies with honey than with vinegar. Force, yelling, and manipulation will only work for a short time and the effects on your child are not that great. I advise parents to never start a war with their child over food – you will not win. I’ve worked with kids with eating disorders and kids who self-medicate their emotional problems with food, and you really don’t want to go down that path. These disorders have life-long effects on physical, emotional, and mental health.


For more information…

Ellyn Satter is considered an expert on the subject of feeding children. Her website is She talks about which responsibilities the parent and child have, according to the age of the child You can sign up for monthly newsletters and view previous newsletters at  Well worth reading!


About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

View all posts by hakea


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4 Comments on “the life and times of a fussy eater”

  1. hazelmwheeler Says:

    Interesting– when I was a nanny, one of the mothers suggested this exact Ellen Satter book– I loved it.

    Our son has some strong preferences, and I’ve chosen — much like you– to let him mature in that way at his own pace. It’s nothing for me to give him some raw veggie strips of the veggies I’m going to cook that night. His backup dinner is a ploughman’s plate, which is relatively easy for me to put together.

    I agree that some parents see this as a battle instead of a journey of growth. I know, for myself, that my palate became more cultivated as I grew older. I have faith that his will, as well, and we certainly do give him plenty of ‘wow, I’m so impressed that you tried….’ when it happens. Our skinny little guy certainly isn’t at any risk for being unhealthy, we don’t rely much on processed foods for him,and aside from macaroni and cheese from a box (he may have one box per week and stretch it out as long as he likes– and he does get bored with it from time to time), everything else is healthy.


  2. Geoff Ferguson Says:

    That’s a great description of how you helped your son to gradually expand his choice of foods. Especially the way that you were able to avoid turning a meal into a battle. You’re so right, no one wins that way.

    Giving and receiving food is so tied up with giving and receiving love. I know as a parent that having the food I’d prepared rejected could feel like a rejection of me. That can lead to a desire to retaliate and to power struggled. Once I went there I’d lost, no matter what the outcome. In your post you showed how to respect your child as an individual. ‘Winning’ doesn’t come into it.


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