Seven Suggestions for Parents of Fussy Eaters

by Cynthia Lair

There are some very simple steps that parents can take to assure their child of a healthy diet. Much of what we want for our children -- healthy bodies with less illness, the ability to concentrate, better study skills, adept physical ability -- can be aided with a wholesome menu. The first step is to remind ourselves that we are role models. If we are eating vital, wholesome foods -- whole grains, beans, fresh vegetables and fruit, healthy animal products -- our children will be more likely to follow suit. Sometimes, this requires parents to negotiate a united front. If one parent offers celery stalks for snacks and the other scoots out to the ice cream store, the children get mixed messages and will lean toward the more stimulating food.

Parents not only need to be in sync, they have to be willing to set boundaries around food and eating habits. Just as you would not let a 5-year-old choose when to go to bed, it is inappropriate to expect a young child to make a nutritious decision about what to eat for lunch.

Children are affected by happy-looking packaging, entertaining advertisements and even addictive ingredients in commercial foods. They do not have the knowledge or wisdom to overcome marketing ploys and make healthful choices. So parents need to make the decisions or offer simple, limited choices. For snack, offer an apple or orange rather than asking, "What would you like?"

More ideas on paving the path to good eating habits:

  1. Honor mealtimes
    Studies show that children who sit down to regular shared family meals have more emotional stability, do better in school and eat a wider variety of foods than those who don't. With busy schedules, you may not be able to get everyone together more than once a day, or even twice a week. Whatever you can manage, find times that work and keep them sacred.

  2. Provide excellent choices
    Remember that you pay for the groceries. They'll eat what you buy. If you don't want your child to eat something, don't buy it. Keep the cupboards and refrigerator stocked with things you can feel good about your child eating.

  3. Announce that what's served is served
    Make only one meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Don't fall into being a short-order cook. If every dish of the meal you've prepared is rejected, allow the child to be excused from the table until the next meal.

  4. Include a winner with every meal
    Most kids like foods such as fresh fruit, applesauce, bread and butter, or potatoes. Whatever you choose for the meal, try to make sure there is something on the table that your child will like, even if it is just a side dish.

  5. Refrain from bribing, rewarding or punishing with food
    This sets up hard-to-reverse messages, like desserts and sweets are something you get if you've been good or if you have cooperated. Messages like this can lead to eating disorders.

  6. Set clear rules about special treats and favorite "less-nutritious" meals
    For example, if you have a child who will only eat macaroni and cheese, don't deny total access, just set up when and how often you think it's healthy and reasonable to have it. After a while, the standard will be set and the pleading will stop.

  7. Create appealing presentations
    Some kids don't like their food mixed up or touching; They might try a sauce if it is on the side to dip into rather than smothering the dish. Salad might get an "ugh" but a few cut up carrots, cucumbers and radishes may get eaten. Simple presentations on the plate are usually best.

McLaughlin, A. T. "Family Dinners Provide Food for Thought as Well," The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 1996.
Pope, Sharon. "Good Nutrition for the Very Young." PCC (Puget Consumer's Co-op) Sound Consumer 181, April 1988.
Smith, Lendon, MD. Feed Your Kids Right. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Cynthia Lair teaches for the nutrition department at Bastyr University (Seattle, WA) and is the author of the cookbook, Feeding the Whole Family: Whole Foods Recipes for Babies, Young Children & Their Parents (Moon Smile Press, 1998). Visit the web site,

Copyright © Cynthia Lair. Permission to republish granted to, LLC.