Fussy Eater or Picky Eater — what’s the difference? And what to do about it?

Many parents report difficulty in feeding their children at some stage. Often, children refuse to eat specific groups of foods (like vegetables, or fruits), resulting in worried parents and stressful mealtimes.

I spent a lot of time trying to get my children to eat better, and wondering how much of their resistance to new foods was due to power struggles (and therefore negotiable) versus a real resistance to/difficulty in eating new foods (much less negotiable). One helpful insight I learned in France is the difference between a ‘picky eater’ and a ‘fussy eater’.

Picky eaters are very selective about what they eat. They probably have a degree of what scientists call “food neophobia”, which is generally defined as the reluctance to eat, or even sample, new foods. Children with neophobia often reject many ‘new’ foods. This can result in children eating a limited variety of foods. But the good news is that this is usually a temporary phase. Gently encouraging children to continue trying new foods is the key. Researchers have found that tasting foods repeatedly (anywhere from 7 to 15 times) will usually result in acceptance of a new food. Note: this doesn’t mean forcing a child to eat, but rather gently, calmly encouraging them to taste something. So we say to our kids: “You don’t have to like it, you just have to taste it.” This method has worked for lots of foods (broccoli, beets, salad, cauliflower, lentils) which our kids now happily eat. (This works for French kids too; check out the amazing French Kids School Lunch menus from schools all over France).

Fussy eaters, on the other hand, will reject foods that they like one day, but then happily eat them the next. This sometimes happens with my younger daughter, who ‘likes’ her breakfast oatmeal one day but then (frustratingly) won’t touch it the next. Inconsistency is apparently a consistent pattern in toddler behavior, so when my children were younger I let it slide. But now (and especially with my older daughter) I’m firm: if they’ve liked it in the past, they have to eat it now.

The French don’t tolerate kids’ fussiness about food–which often arises because kids are testing limits, and turning food into a power struggle. Being firm and consistent avoids these power struggles. Above all, no short order cooking! At lunch (at the school cafeteria) and at home, only one menu is on offer. The kids soon adapt — and everyone is happier as a result.

Can a child be both picky and fussy? Yes, they can! This was the case with our older daughter. We’ve been working hard over the years at encouraging consistency (so that she eats the things she has already tried and liked), and adventurousness with new foods (still sometimes a challenge, but a lot better than it used to be). If my kids don’t like something, I simply tell them: “That’s fine, you’ll like it when you grow up.” I believe it, and I think they believe me!

So, are your children picky eaters, or fussy eaters, or both? And how do you deal with it?

6 thoughts on “Fussy Eater or Picky Eater — what’s the difference? And what to do about it?

  1. Our family picky eater is the one that doesn’t like to follow suit – he’s a rebel. Even if it tastes great, he will be the one who sneers at it. That is, until we make it one of ‘his favorites’. Gradually we are adding more favorites to the menu… today he had his favorite ‘grilled chicken breast’. Although the other kids may love it as well, he can say it is his favorite and in this manner he essentially takes ownership for it being on the table for the family. Give it a try, and you will find it works very well.

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  2. I disagree – ‘fussy eater’ and ‘picky eater’ are just terms that are favoured on different side of the Atlantic but mean the same thing. They can become more serious when fussiness develops into Selective Eating Disorder, or a number of other issues.

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  3. That is so interesting, Bri! And so similar to our family. Our older daughter is inherently more sensitive (to noise and smell as well as taste), and we’ve had to work with her to help her overcome that. The younger one started being picky when a toddler (imitating the older sibling) but this was more of a behavioural issue. The French Kids Food Rules we learned in France really helped deal with each of them, although we adapted strategies to suit each child as appropriate.

    You do have to take time to educate your child to eat. (In fact, it isn’t that time-consuming, but you do have to be mindful of the issue). However, we do the same for reading, and math. In my view, eating is just as important!

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  4. This is a wonderful way to articulate the subtle difference in eating styles that American parents so often overlook — I think we lump all eating issues together into one category, call it “pickiness,” and assume it’s a rite of childhood. But you’re absolutely correct that there is a difference between a child who exhibits fear or reluctance to try new foods, craves familiarity, and must be cajoled to step outside of the comfort zone, and a child who sort of hops from food to food, shows no real resistance to most of them, and just wants what he/she wants when he/she wants it. That’s my younger child to a T — and while I try to not make too much fuss about it because he’s not yet 3 years old, we HAVE found that by addressing his eating as a behavioral rather than a feeding issue, he’s greatly improved.
    Now, my older one…a “great” eater by most people’s estimation, but has inborn pickiness, mainly because of his sensory issues. Too often I think parents mistake a true sensory or feeding disorder for picky eating and think their kids will outgrow it; it’s only by our determination and work with helping him regulate his system that we’ve got the eater we’ve managed to get!

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  5. Thanks for your email; Sarah Jane’s blog is fantastic, isn’t it? I adore her style; she created wonderful illustrations for the book.

    I was very interested to read your story. Seven children…wow! Your blog is beautiful–and bilingual too! I entirely agreed with your comments your about manners! :)

    The challenge for me is: how to adapt the French approach (which works so well in France) for families in America? That is one main focus of the book, which sums up the French approach to food education with ten French Kids’ Food Rules. The rules really worked for our family, so I’d love to get your thoughts on the rules, and the book — and I am so glad you are looking forward to reading it!

    In the meantime, I have a question: what was the most difficult thing for you, as a French mother living in the US? Snacking? Manners? I’d love to know!

    Merci pour votre e-mail; le blog de Sarah Jane est fantastique, n’est-ce pas? J’adore son style; elle a créé des illustrations merveilleux pour le livre.

    J’ai été très intéressé par votre histoire et j’adore votre blog! Le défi (selon moi) est la suivante: comment adapter l’approche française (qui fonctionne si bien en France) pour les familles en Amérique? C’est un objectif principal du livre, qui résume l’approche française avec dix ‘Règles Alimentaires des Enfants Français’. Cet approche a vraiment marché pour notre famille, alors je serais ravi d’obtenir votre opinion; et je suis si contente que vous êtes impatient de lire le livre!

    En attendant, j’ai une question: quelle était la chose la plus difficile pour vous? Snacking? Manners? I’d love to know!

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  6. Chere Karen,
    Je découvre votre blog et nous avons vécu le contraire, aux USA! Nous sommes rentres en France en aout 2011, nous avons vécu 3 ans a Virginia Beach ( a cote de Norfolk). Nous avons eu beaucoup de mal avec la nourriture d’une part, mais aussi avec les bonnes habitudes françaises que nos enfants ont commence a perdre!
    Cela n’a pas été toujours facile, non plus, avec les petits amis américains qui ne mangeaient rien, restaient 10 minutes a table, puis se levaient pour aller fouiller dans notre réfrigérateur pour essayer de trouver des glaces ou d’autres petites choses a grignoter….Comme j’aime beaucoup cuisiner, des amies américaines m’ont demande de leur apprendre la cuisine française mais je crois que je n’ai réussi qu’a leur enseigner la quiche, tout le reste leur paraissait trop complique mais surtout trop long!
    Pour répondre a la dernière question, nous avons 7 enfants ( de 18 a 8 ans), ils mangent tout ce que je prépare depuis qu’ils sont petits. Je ne propose pas de repas different s’ils n’apprécient pas, parcontre, je les sers un peu moins. Ils savent que s’ils sont invites, ils devront manger de tout. C’est aussi une question d’éducation …..tres française!
    C’est amusant, car j’ai un blog et mon dernier post parle aussi de tout ça ….J’ai découvert votre blog grâce a celui de Sarah Jane que j’apprécie beaucoup et que j’ai découverte aux States car je dessine aussi.
    A bientôt et merci beaucoup pour votre livre que je manquerai d’acheter!

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