The Seven Emotional Stages of Dealing With Fussy Eaters

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This article is also being featured over at Mamamia.

One of my kids is a fussy eater. Meal times at my house are emotionally-charged events with striking similarities to the narrative arc of Ancient Greek tragedies, with melodrama, conflict, miscommunication and unhappy endings all round.

Dealing with fussy eaters requires an entirely different skill-set to parenting kids who will eat mostly anything you put in front of them (I have one of those too, so don’t even start with the “Make them go hungry” bullshit). The entire process is fraught with difficulty and meal times can be broken down into seven distinct stages:

Stage One: Preparation

Parents of fussy eaters spend lots of time trying to manipulate foodstuffs into appealing forms that might encourage their kids to eat something healthy.

Let’s debunk some common strategies:

Stick things on a skewer: The most stubborn fussy eaters are quick to realise that it’s just the same old food they already hate on a pointy bamboo stick.

Make a bento box: Fussy eaters will sneer at your clumsy attempts to create lunchbox art with the same disdain that art critics reserve for Ken Done prints.

Write things with food: Go ahead and carve their name into carrots or spell out Shakespearean sonnets with string beans, but it’s still going to make them gag.

Hide the vegetables: You could puree spinach in the Hadron Collider of food processors and truly fussy eaters will still detect the tiniest specks of green.

Fussy eating exists on a spectrum and extremely stubborn kids aren’t fooled by cheesy gimmicks. If an atom-smasher capable of destroying the entire planet can’t get broccoli into your child, nothing can.

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Stage Two: Optimism and Emotional Manipulation

Insanity is often described as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. Parents of fussy eaters excel at this. We know these strategies don’t work but we persist with them anyway, driven by the hope that Little Bobby will one day discover he really does love brussel sprouts that have been carved into baby sheep.

Despite repeated rejection we cheerfully serve up plates of nutritious food, with faces frozen into exaggerated smiles. Love can overcome any obstacle. Love will make this happen. If you LOVE me you will EAT this, GODDAMNIT!

Stage Three: Resistance

Without fail the parents of fussy eaters will meet with resistance. Those forced smiles will sour into frowns as fussy children glare at the rainbow of delicious colour on their plates, sniffing at it suspiciously like they’ve just been served up a box of RatSak.

Any hopes for a quick resolution will die in the frigid atmosphere of that ice-cold stare, as you prepare yourself for the next phase of conflict.

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Stage Four: Bargaining and Negotiation  

Your child refuses to eat and you refuse to concede to their demands: it’s time for the bargaining phase to commence. Parents have three primary weapons when it comes to negotiation:

  1. Bribes: Create forward momentum in your negotiations by offering a commodity in exchange for cooperation (stickers, jellybeans, Lego etc). It’s basically a form of benign extortion, and it can be costly.
  1. Threats: Threats are like bribes without the happy ending, and should only be used when attempts to buy their compliance have already failed. Empty threats are a high-risk strategy. Use them wisely.
  1. Begging: Begging is a humiliating form of defeat. It’s best avoided if possible.

Note: All three strategies can be combined with minimal success.

Example: Your fussy eater is now banned from the iPad for 47 days and you owe him a $300 Star Wars Lego set because he ran his tongue over a piece of chargrilled zucchini. You beg him not to tell his father about the Lego.

Stage Five: Stalemate

Failed negotiations will force a retreat back to the kitchen, where you’ll spend the next 45 minutes turning expensive seasonal produce into a tempting selection of cartoon characters, circus animals and whimsical scenes from the Minions movie.

When nothing passes those tightly-pursed lips you will feel rage oozing onto the plate like a smear of shit-coloured jus. You swore you would never be the sort of parent who catered to the extreme demands of a fussy eater. You swore you would never be this weak.

The fantasy version of yourself would never back down.

The fantasy child you birthed had a much more sophisticated palate.

Reality is a bitch.

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Stage Six: Surrender

Minutes turn to hours and your child still refuses to eat, standing firm with the unwavering willpower of a seasoned hunger-striker.

You can feel it coming….

GGAAAAAAAAARGGHHHH! ALRIGHT! I GIVE UP!!

Shoulders drooped in defeat, you reach for a box of frozen fish fingers.

Stage Seven: Appeasement and Guilt

You silently hand your child a plate of exactly what they asked for at the very start, and you refuse to meet their eyes because you know they will be shining with the smug exuberance of victory.

Dinner is finally served: fish fingers marinated in frustrated tears, with a whopping big scoop of mummy guilt on the side. Fussy child scoffs the lot then swigs straight from a bottle of tomato sauce like it’s a stubbie of beer.

You savagely bite into one of the leftover fish fingers. It tastes like failure.

Only 23 hours before you have to do this all over again.

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92 thoughts on “The Seven Emotional Stages of Dealing With Fussy Eaters

  1. Hahaha I loved the bribe/threat/beg example. Mine used to be an eat anything kid and he has become fussy although not as bad as some kids so I try hard not to complain. Ungrateful little sods they are though!

  2. Yep. Tonight I made spaghetti with meat balls and sauce for Mick and our 14 yo, spaghetti with falafels and sauce for me (because I decided to quit red meat to improve my cholesterol), spaghetti with no sauce and meatballs for the 11yo and sausages for the 6 yo because he hates spaghetti despite never having tried it. He’s so bloody stubborn he won’t even try things in case he has to admit you’re right and say he likes it. Gah. So I’ll take that MOTY award, thanks.

    Hilarious, as usual! Thanks for the giggles. xo

  3. I’m so glad I’m not the only one!!!!! My eldest is the fussiest of eaters and the bane of my life. He freaked me out yesterday by actually wanting to try banana pancakes and then i nearly had to lie down when he agreed to try a banana smoothie later in the day. But his new found willingness to try different things evaporated overnight and he was back to his old favourite tonight – pies and chips. That’s my boy….

    • Hahhahaha I know the feeling when they try something new! My three year old announced “I love kiwifruit!” out of nowhere today, and I almost died of shock and relief and excitement. He now eats two things that are green: avocado and kiwifruit.

  4. Raffles will eat anything, in fact he’d probably eat me if I didn’t run faster than him. Sugarpuff will also eat just about anything – except she chooses not to. Why? Because it is more fun to torture me by telling me she doesn’t like *insert tonight’s dinner here* even though she ate it the previous three nights running and loved it. It has nothing to do with the food, she just loves to play puppet master. So I started getting her to cook dinner with me (after convincing her it was her idea). If she helps make it, she’ll eat it because it has had her regal touch and is therefore better than anything I could have made on my own. Little *Insert swear word here*!

  5. Ha ha! You’re the Queen of these posts! My kids are not that fussy but could drink from he sauce bottle like yours! I swear some nights they think they are on Survivor and deserve immunity to eat worms {which is actually nice fresh pasta}. x

  6. It’s official then: I’m insane. And I wonder why I drink more wine these days. It’s like you’re a fly on the wall in my kitchen Zilla (not that I’m likening you to a fly…you get the idea). Dinner time is my least favourite time of the day with many negotiations going on. No $300 Lego sets just yet but the promise of yoghurt usually does it. Mr TT gets his tonsils out in October and I’m hoping he’ll actually want to swallow something I lovingly cook for dinner. Although I’m getting mighty good at hiding things in smoothies and juices.

  7. If you think that’s bad, wait until Little Bobby grows up to a full sized man baby and has finely honed veggie detecting skills. He may not resist entirely but the dinner you slaved over might be met with a sniff, a stir with a fork and then “I really don’t care for that.” True story!

    • Oh god, I think I’m going to cry… It’s funny – my older brother is like that. If he detects the slightest whiff of a mushroom then it’s game over. I think he’s crazy. What’s not to bloody love about mushrooms?!

  8. My son thinks ketchup is his beer too. I actually feel some of my mummy guilt washing away after reading this. A good reminder that we all go through it. I think I’ve done 3 or 4 different attempts at things on my worst night. Then remember what my mother in-law (who has those 11 kids) says – they won’t starve if they don’t get what they want. I think I need to have just one more before I stop trying. haha.

    • Yep, I love hearing when other people struggle with this too because it makes me feel like so much less of a failure. I have to keep telling myself that it’s not me, it’s him. My eldest is fine – nowhere near as pedantic with food. I just happened to get one of each and it’s not because of anything I have done.

  9. Mum was telling me there was about 18 months there when I refused to sit at the table. The only way I would eat my dinner would be UNDER the table. Good luck!

  10. I’ve been pretty fortunate, my boy eats pretty well, veggies included. Though these days he can be vocal ie flatout ‘Don’t like this!’ if he doesn’t like what is served.

  11. Love it! Hilarity, as always. I have one fussy eater and he pretty much goes hungry every night. He gets served the same thing as his sister, watches her eat it, watches her eat a small dessert if she’s finished her dinner, and still isn’t interested. So I just figure he’s not that hungry. (I do this from the position of having seen him eat fruit and carbs all day, though – it’s just dinner that trips us up. So I’m okay with him going without because I know there’s still food in that tum.) x #teamIBOT

    • He sounds similar to mine. Will eat a decent amount of fruit and carbs during the day as well, but not much for cooperation at dinner. I figure he’s still alive three years later, so it can’t be too bad…right?

  12. So you know I blog about family food and like to try different things all the time? Well my 6 year olds mission in life is to break me and show me just who’s the boss. At the moment the only things that she will open her mouth for are apples (although this morning she told me she’s had enough of those for a while), rice crackers & hummus (yay) and honey on toast and these will only be eaten while dancing around in her undies. I’ve chosen to ignore her ways and focus on my 8 year old who actually floored me by asking for a green smoothie the other day (!!), there is hope as for a long time she was the fussy one. Kids, whatever angle they can use to send you insane they will take it! x

    • HAHAHAHAHHAAHHA! It’s so true though, isn’t it! I get the feeling that he is old enough now to realise there is a bit of power in this for him as well, so I know that’s part of the deal here too. I have to try not to turn it into too much of a battle (easier said than done) because he gets so stubborn about it. Little buggers they are!

  13. Oh god, all the yesses. Some nights I’m just ‘whatevs’ and other nights it’s all I can do to restrain myself from prising open their mouths and shovelling it in there. Especially when you’ve made a meal that actually tastes really good (a miracle at the best of times) and they won’t even taste it. Kills me. Where would we be without the fish finger backup, eh?

  14. Little buggers. This stage in a kids life is when I really get a bit crazy. My kid is generally good at eating most things, but he still has his moments. And at those moments, I get quite pissed off. I once knew a kid who lived off peanut butter sandwiches for nearly 6 months! He is still alive, so all is good.

  15. I have one with sensory issues so the last 10 of her 12 years have been exhausting and I had to let go of most of the fussy that was on my end. She has added a lot to what she will eat but I still do vaiations and accomodations galore. It is a case of exhaustion leads to “whatever works” and trust that their health is ok so just get to 18 years old and let go xx

    • I’m actually starting to suspect we might have some sensory issues at play but will see how we go… This goes well beyond normal fussiness I think. I mean, I only have my eldest to compare with, so I guess my frame of reference is limited!

  16. Do you want the bad news or the terrible news?? It’s taken over 5 years of this every single day so say that FINALLY meal times in our house are not that bad (anymore) :))

  17. My Esther was a fussy eater and now she eats pretty much what I give her, but Mags is now fussy and she never used to be. Oh the things I have done to get them to eat their dinner and in the end, they are often just happy with a muesli bar. I try and I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Great post!

    • Thanks Bec – I’m pretty laid back in general with this parenting stuff but I have to admit that my youngest child and his fussiness worries me a bit. Hearing from other parents is quite reassuring in many ways!

  18. I was a fussy eater as a kid. I lived on hot chips and vegemite sandwiches and never ate vegetables.
    I have one out of four who is the same. I know that starving is preferable to eating something you don’t like, because I still do it occasionally. I say you do what works, but keep trying new things. Don’t give up but don’t make it a battle either.

    • Oh man, I could literally live on hot chips and vegemite sandwiches. “Don’t give up but don’t make it a battle either”. This is the fine line I find myself walking every day, and it’s so true.

  19. Thud will often go to bed with only a few spoonfuls of yoghurt in his stomach. Because he hates me. But he’s still stacking on the weight so I figure he’s fine. His specialty is refusing food that he wolfed down the night before.

  20. Argh! This was my life tonight .. and seemingly every night lately. Miss Two wanted spaghetti for dinner. Plain spaghetti – pasta with no sauce … nothing. She’s definitely on your white diet. The little ratbag 😉

  21. Lol…or you could just do what my mum did to me once when I complained about 2 minute noodles and played around with them till they got cold and mushy; she just emptied the entire plate of cold 2 minute Maggi noodles on my head. I still can’t eat 2-minute noodles… :-/

  22. It’s 5:24pm and I’m bracing for it…. wine at the ready!
    Last week he loved lasagne, this week it’s evil. You just can’t win no matter how you play it! Thanks for the laughs once again xx

  23. Aaaah yes, the months my husband paid my daughter one M&M for every bite she took… of anything that didn’t come from the Aldi freezer section… good times…

  24. Bahahaha I’m dying. When I’m at the grocery store, my internal voice goes, “Let me get the jar of applesauce because she won’t do the tiny pre-made cups. She eats craisins at school but don’t make the mistake of buying them for home again. To live in the pantry for a year and a half. Let’s see what else… Likes apple juice but only out of a square box…”

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