Quick tips for parents of “fussy eaters”

fussy eatingBy Deborah Etienne-Ward

Children experience distress over eating for numerous reasons. Some of these include: a lack of interest in eating or food; avoidance of eating due to the sensory qualities of food such as the texture, taste, or colour; or concerns about the potentially negative consequences of eating such as choking or vomiting.

Below are some skills that can be implemented to reduce child distress over eating and increase the likelihood of successful eating.

  • ‘Belly Breathing’ can be done prior to each meal. Belly breathing is a type of deep breathing which involves inhaling slowly through the nose and asking the child to try to make their belly become like a big balloon, before slowly exhaling through the mouth and letting the air out of the balloon. Doing this approximately ten times can help to relax the child before meal times.
  • Positive statements’ are important to counteract the negative thoughts that your child is thinking such as “I can’t do it”. This can be done by encouraging your child to think of some more positive things that they could tell themselves such as “I can do it” or “I can eat (insert difficult food) and I will be ok”.
  • Visualisation involves asking your child to try to imagine themselves successfully the eating food that causes distress with no adverse event occurring.
  • When trying to change behaviour around eating it is important to start small. You may need to start with requesting your child to eat one very small piece of food that usually causes distress. Thus, at the beginning, the majority of their meal will still be with food that they accept to eat. Starting small is important as we don’t want the meal to be too overwhelming. Over time the amount of ‘distressing food’ which is presented can be gradually increased over time.
  • Lastly, it is really important to reward children for their efforts. This can be through the use of verbal praise such as “I am so proud of you, you made a huge effort today with eating your piece of (distressing food e.g. steak)”. Other ways to reward children for their eating efforts can include providing a highly enjoyed food such as a jelly bean for each bite of ‘distressing food’. Alternatively, you may wish to use a token board of stickers whereby an agreement is made with the child that when they reach a certain number of tokens (e.g. 10) that they will receive a reward or be allowed to participate in an enjoyed activity. Rewards do not need to be expensive and often the best rewards are relational ones, particularly spending quality time with parents. Some other examples of rewards include: going to the park, having a friend over, ordering pizza, computer time. The reward that you choose will depend on your child’s interests, age, and what you see as appropriate.

BodyMatters do take on clients who are experiencing difficulties with their child’s eating, such as “fussy eaters”. Please contact us if you would like further information.


Fisher, A.J., Luiselli, J.K., & Dove, M.B. (2015). Effects of Clinic and In-Home Treatment on Consumption and Feeding-Associated Anxiety in an Adolescent With Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology. doi:10.1037/cpp0000090

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