Strategies to curb fussy eating may be doing harm
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > Strategies to curb fussy eating may be doing harm

Strategies to curb fussy eating may be doing harm

by Freya Lucas

June 21, 2023

New research has shown that existing strategies designed to lessen fussy eating in children may actually be creating even fussier eaters, interrupting their ability to regulate their own appetite. 


Coming from Deakin University’s Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), the research found that parents (and potentially also educators) with very fussy children often used pressure and persuasion to encourage children to eat, and these strategies have been shown to be least effective in developing healthy eating habits and behaviours.


Lead researcher Dr Alissa Burnett said strategies such as involving children in meal preparation and not forcing children to eat were more likely to be successful.


“The findings tell us that we need to be doing more to help parents of fussy eaters because the strategies they are instinctively using, while well intentioned, are not helping their children develop lifelong healthy eating behaviours,” Dr Burnett said.


“It can be very frustrating when children refuse to eat or refuse to eat certain foods and we start to worry the child will be hungry or is not getting adequate nutrition, so providing well-targeted advice is important.”


The qualitative comparison of mothers’ feeding strategies involved a survey of more than 1,500 mothers of children aged between two and five years of age and assessed child fussiness levels using the Children’s Eating Behaviour Questionnaire. The mothers were also asked the open-ended question “What are the strategies you use when your child is being fussy or refusing to eat?”


The responses, Dr Burnett said, described strategies that may inadvertently reinforce fussiness, promote poor appetite self-regulation or poor dietary intake including:


  • I tell them they only have to eat, for example, five mouthfuls of their meal
  • I tell them that is what’s for dinner; if they don’t eat it, they will go to bed hungry
  • I tell him, if he eats his dinner he can have dessert, or do an activity he likes.


Parents whose children were less fussy tended to involve their children in meal preparation, let their child decide when they were full, and serve certain foods repeatedly to encourage their children to try foods they thought they wouldn’t like. Responses from these parents included:


  • I involve him in the shopping for food and in the preparation of meals
  • I don’t force her to eat if she doesn’t want to. I let her decide how much and how often she would like to eat
  • I always provide some options that I know they will like, combined with some other things that I want to expose them to.


Dr Burnett said parents of very fussy children were more likely to deconstruct meals, serving pasta and sauce separately, or hide vegetables in meals to get their children to eat more healthy foods.


“Presenting foods in unusual forms or hiding certain ingredients, such as vegetables, might improve dietary intake in the short-term but doesn’t teach children to accept a variety of foods in the longer term,” Dr Burnett said.


To access the research in full, please see here

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