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?

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?

Should you let a toddler use a food knife?

This is, I know, likely to be a controversial question. Our children were given a full set of cutlery at a young age (we bought one of those cute kiddie sets of knives, forks, spoons). At family mealtimes, we demonstrate cutlery-handling skills to our children. Admittedly, our younger daughter still has some issues with positioning her food knife at mealtimes, but she’s got the basic idea.

This is partly a cultural issue: little children in France are used to using food knives, which are always on the table at mealtimes. It’s an expectation that even little children should know how to use a knife (and I think the same is true in Italy, Spain, and lots of other European countries).

Why would we want young children to learn to handle a food knife at a young age?

First, it teaches them a useful social skill. I remember still being awkward with a knife and fork in my late teens, and I still cringe at the memories.

Second, kids learn fine motor skills which are transferable–holding a knife and cutting aren’t that dissimilar to cutting paper with scissors, or even writing.

Third, it teaches them manners and respect for their food: in our house, only a few foods are ‘finger foods’.

Fourth, it’s less messy!

Fifth, it’s a safety issue: I teach my children how to walk with a knife (pointed down, parallel to the leg), and dangers associated with cutting in certain ways. (I admit that I’m a fan of that book “50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do)).

Last but not least, knife-handling teaches children independence. For example, our older daughter (now seven) is now skilled at chopping food. Recently, a guest came over to the house, and (without being asked) she went into the kitchen and chopped him some fresh apple slices, which she brought out to him on a plate. (I admit to being proud and a little surprised!)

My kids are proud that they know how to use a knife. I survey my toddler, but the older one is free to use her judgment. And (at least so far), she’s shown really good judgment.

Do you let your kids use knives? And how young do you think they should start?

Halloween in France (Corsica): Chestnuts and ‘Bread of the Dead’

It’s raining hard and barely above freezing right now in Vancouver, which is maybe why I’m thinking longingly of southern France. And the French island of Corsica is about as far south as you can get. It’s also beautiful: steep mountains, gorgeous white sand beaches, temperate climate.

The other reason I’m thinking of France is because today is very much a family day there. The French don’t celebrate Halloween, but rather the Catholic (with pagan roots) holiday of Toussaint (All Saints Eve). My husband’s family will be visiting the graves of their ancestors and laying flowers, and enjoying one of their extended family meals.

So, what do the French eat on Halloween? Corsicans traditionally leave chestnuts (châtaignes) on their windowsills. Chestnut harvest happens in the fall, and the fruit from the ‘tree of life’ is eaten roasted, or ground into flour and used in all sorts of foods: bread, porridge, cakes, and cookies. A traditional Corsican All Saints Eve speciality is the ‘Bread of the Dead’ (“Pain des Morts”), made with raisins and walnuts, and sold in local markets and bakeries.

One of the things I love about France is the way in which food traditions are locally rooted and associated with holidays throughout the year. This is a lovely way to create and celebrate a local food culture.

Does your family or community have any Halloween food traditions?

Halloween in France (Corsica): Chestnuts and 'Bread of the Dead'

It’s raining hard and barely above freezing right now in Vancouver, which is maybe why I’m thinking longingly of southern France. And the French island of Corsica is about as far south as you can get. It’s also beautiful: steep mountains, gorgeous white sand beaches, temperate climate.

The other reason I’m thinking of France is because today is very much a family day there. The French don’t celebrate Halloween, but rather the Catholic (with pagan roots) holiday of Toussaint (All Saints Eve). My husband’s family will be visiting the graves of their ancestors and laying flowers, and enjoying one of their extended family meals.

So, what do the French eat on Halloween? Corsicans traditionally leave chestnuts (châtaignes) on their windowsills. Chestnut harvest happens in the fall, and the fruit from the ‘tree of life’ is eaten roasted, or ground into flour and used in all sorts of foods: bread, porridge, cakes, and cookies. A traditional Corsican All Saints Eve speciality is the ‘Bread of the Dead’ (“Pain des Morts”), made with raisins and walnuts, and sold in local markets and bakeries.

One of the things I love about France is the way in which food traditions are locally rooted and associated with holidays throughout the year. This is a lovely way to create and celebrate a local food culture.

Does your family or community have any Halloween food traditions?