Fussy eaters – how to take the stress out of meal times

Dr Andrew Leech, GP (FRACGP, MBBS, BSc, DCH)

Fussy eating is such a common problem families face.

It is almost expected that children will be fussy at some stage as their tastebuds develop. It is one of those behavioural challenges that parents face where it is sometimes easier to back away rather than push. I have found, the more you push, the more fussy they become! This is where the division of responsibility comes in. The division of responsibility is an evidence based approach from the Ellyn Satter institute.


The division of responsibility in feeding encourages you to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide.

Ellyn Satter

This clever technique is designed to make mealtimes less stressful. Presenting your child with a few options including food you are keen for them to explore, along with a favourite food of theirs, should expose them and enable them to explore new foods independently. Then the responsibility falls to them. They decide how much they eat and what they eat. The hardest part of this is minimal reactiveness of the parent – trying not to provide negative emotion to a child that isn’t eating the foods you need them to, but also no positive reactions, this way the child is truly able to decide for themselves what is good and what they don’t like.

This technique doesn’t work for everyone however and it is important there are other methods that may help other children. It is important that children have routine. Setting up 3 meals a day at set times with two snacks (morning tea and afternoon tea) creates this structure. Not buying into the ‘hunger cries’ from children in between these times may help them to actually become hungry. It is so tempting to offer children snacks through the day whenever they demand them, which never really helps them to define set meals and helps them to always remain full.


Other mealtime options

The Raising Children Network has a useful page on fussy eating. It also discusses taking the stress out of mealtimes but not ‘sweating over spilt milk’! If your child makes a mess, celebrate it. This is their way of exploring food. I wouldn’t say I’m celebrating every mess that is made in reality as clean-up can be a nightmare.


Some other tips coming from this page are never forcing your child to eat food and making mealtimes fun. Using distraction works well too. We make jokes about the food at home, pretending a bean can talk whilst it dances on the fork, or turning other foods into characters that want to be eaten and suddenly become happy when they are eaten. It depends how much energy and time you have though.

Ultimately fussy eating reduces with time, as your child grows older their tastebuds will also develop and as a result fussiness is less of a problem.

Celebrate small wins, if they smell or lick a new food, this is a massive adjustment for them. For more information check out the podcast with Dr Kyla Smith who has spent many years working in this field.