An Interview with Dr. Emma Haycraft

I recently conducted a survey to find out a little information about fussy eaters, what kids like and don’t like to eat and what parents do during stressful mealtimes. Here’s a little sneak peek which I am sure will show no surprises!

81% of house holds have at least one fussy eater

Cabbage is least liked vegetable

Tomatoes are least liked fruit

After collecting and analyzing the data I decided to contact Dr. Emma Haycraft co-developer of the Child Feeding Guide for some expert advice.  I wanted to share this great information with parents to show many of you that you are doing exactly what you should be. I also thought it could provide some tips to those of you who are experiencing stressful mealtimes.

Ladies and Gentlemen please give a warm welcome to Dr.  Emma Haycraft. Thank you for taking the time to answer these commonly asked questions in relation to fussy eaters. I really appreciate your expert advice. 

  1. What type of encouragement can a parent/caregiver give to a child that is reluctant to eat certain food types at mealtimes?

Children love to copy, so seeing others eating foods is a good way to encourage children to try these foods too.  Gentle encouragement to try one mouthful, or to lick or smell a food, can work well, as long as parents don’t force children to eat something they don’t want to.  There are things parents/caregivers can do outside of mealtimes too, such as messy play with foods, reading stories or singing songs about foods, or growing their own foods (e.g., cress or tomatoes).

  1. Some parents/caregivers do not allow their children to leave the table until they finish their dinner. Is this a commonly recommended strategy with proven results?

Children are really good at knowing when they’re hungry and when they’re full.  If they’re full and parents/caregivers force them to eat all their dinner, over time this will teach children to override their internal signals about fullness, which can lead to them eating when they’re not hungry and contribute to them becoming overweight.  In addition, if children are forced to eat foods, it can lessen their liking of these foods.  Parents should check portion sizes and ensure that they’re not expecting their child to eat too much.  As a guide, a portion should be about the size of the child’s palm, so you might expect a child to eat a palm-sized portion of the main food (e.g., lasagne) and 2-3 palm-sized portions of vegetables with it.  Caregivers should also consider when children last had a snack or a drink of milk as this can reduce appetite at mealtimes. It’s fine to ask children to remain at the table until the meal is over, as long as they’re not expected to clean their plates if they are full.

  1. Is it OK for a child to eat the same dinner day after day because the parents/caregiver knows they will eat?

It’s important for children to eat a varied, balanced diet to be healthy.  However, it’s not uncommon for children to go through phases of only eating certain foods.  This isn’t a problem for a short while, as long as children are getting the required nutrients from different sources.  The key thing is for parents/caregivers not to pressure or force children to eat other foods.  If the child is happy eating the same foods and they’re nutritious, then that’s fine.  It’s likely to be just a phase that won’t last for too long, and other foods can be offered alongside favourites, which children can be gently encouraged to try.  However, if the child is only eating a very limited range of foods (e.g., just bread and butter), parents should consult a health professional.

  1. Can you cause damage by force feeding a child?

Force feeding a child can negatively impact on children’s experiences of eating.  If children are repeatedly forced to eat more than they wish, or to eat a food that they dislike, they will soon learn to associate mealtimes with stress and anxiety, and eating will become a less pleasurable experience.  Trust children to know when they are hungry and full and never force, coerce or pressure them to eat more than they want or to eat foods that they dislike.  Offer gentle encouragement, eat the foods yourself, and check portion sizes aren’t too big.

  1. Is it possible parents/caregivers may expect children to eat too much at mealtimes?

Yes, this can be quite common.  As I mentioned before, a portion should be about the size of the child’s palm, which is smaller than many of us realise.  It might be the case that a child will eat a palm-sized portion of the main food (e.g., sausages) and 2-3 palm-sized portions of potatoes and vegetables with it.

  1. What is your opinion on bribing at mealtimes?

Bribing can seem like an effective way to get children to eat foods (e.g., “If you eat all your peas, you can have some ice cream”).  However, evidence shows that it can have unintended consequences.  Specifically, it can increase children’s liking for the reward food (ice cream) and decrease children’s liking for the other food (peas).  So, while it may seem to be effective at making children eat their peas, it may actually be making them like peas less, so its use should be avoided.

  1. In 3 sentences sum up your advice for parents that are stressed at mealtimes with a fussy eater.

Keep calm and relaxed – fussy eating is really common and most likely only a phase that your child is going through.    Keep offering disliked foods as it can take up to 20 offerings before a child learns to trust and like a new or disliked  food. Keep eating with your child and allowing them to help with meal preparation and cooking so that they can learn more  about what they’re eating.

  1. At what point should medical advice be sought?

Medical advice should be sought if children are losing weight and/or are eating a very limited diet which is unlikely to be giving them all the nutrients they need.  In most cases, fussy eating means children are eating a limited variety of foods but are still generally healthy.  If in doubt, parents/caregivers should contact a health professional.

  1. Are some children genuinely nervous about trying new foods or are they just being stubborn?

Yes, some children develop a fear of new foods – which is known as ‘food neophobia’.  We see it commonly once children start to become more mobile, so typically around 12-24 months.  It’s believed to be an evolutionary response that developed as a way of ensuring that our ancestors didn’t eat something harmful when they were scavenging for food.  They made generalisations about foods – what colours, smells, tastes and textures suggested freshness or danger.  This is why children commonly refuse vegetables – which often taste bitter – or all foods of the same colour (e.g., refusing to eat any green foods).

Children need time to learn not to fear these foods.  Liking can be encouraged and refusal overcome with a little gentle persistence.  Parents/caregivers should keep offering foods – without any pressure to eat – even if their child refuses them.  Our ‘exposure monitor’ might be useful – parents can use it to log offerings of disliked/refused foods and it’s available for free via our website and mobile app.

Once again, thank you Dr Emma Haycraft, Co-developer of the Child Feeding Guide; a website and free mobile app designed to support caregivers with promoting happy, healthy eating behaviours in their children. Available from the Apple and Android app stores – for free



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