Fussy eater in the family? Here are tips to make dinner stress-free

ADELAIDE, Australia — Children can be notoriously picky eaters, but new research out of Australia is offering some much needed help for frustrated parents the world over. Researchers from the University of South Australia and the University of Queensland analyzed 80 prior studies and identified various factors that may make a child more likely to develop fussy eating habits. Moreover, researchers also put forward a number of tips on how to discourage picky eating.

No pressure and no rewards

First and foremost, study authors stress that pressuring a child to eat certain foods, offering rewards in exchange for eating, and strict parenting in general can all make fussy eating even worse. Conversely, consistently eating as a family, a more relaxed parenting style, and allowing kids to be part of the cooking process can help stop fussy eating habits.

“For parents with a fussy eater, mealtimes can be especially stressful – juggling the family meal and a picky eater is no small feat. Some families have kids who turn their noses up at any vegetable. Others are dealing with kids who dislike certain textures or colors of food,” says lead researcher and USC PhD student Laine Chilman in a university release. “Some of these preferences relate to a child’s characteristics or personality, which are difficult to change, if at all. But others are external factors that could help reduce fussy eating in kids.”

Eating together as a family, with siblings, and having a single meal at a regular time all helped reduce food fussiness. As did getting the fussy child involved in the meal, either by helping to choose the menu, or helping to prepare the meal,” she continues. “Yet if fussy eaters were allowed to eat in front of the TV, or if they were rewarded for eating certain foods, these behaviors negatively influenced picky children.”

Make dinner a regular family event

Other tips suggested by study authors include eating dinner at the same time each night, turning the television off, and keeping mealtimes as calm and stress free as possible. The team adds these tips all have the goal of lowering stress levels for both the children and their parents. According to UniSA researcher Dr. Ann Kennedy-Behr, stress contributes mightily to picky eating.

“When you have a child who is a picky eater, it’s very stressful for a parent or carer – they’re forever questioning whether their child is getting enough nutrients, enough food, and often enough weight gain,” she explains. “Yet it’s important to understand that being overtly anxious or worried can actually contribute to increased picky eating.”

“Avoiding getting cross and limiting any negativity around mealtime will be benefit everyone,” Kennedy-Behr concludes. “Positive parenting, no matter how difficult it can be in certain situations, is the best step forward for fussy eaters.”

The study appears in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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