10 magic words/phrases to use with a fussy eater
The words we say to our child can be enormously powerful. We watch their face light up when we say something complimentary or them hang their head when we are disappointed. If we have a fussy eater picking the right words around food can be very important, but also often tricky.
It can seem like nothing we say is the ‘right’ thing. Either our child is anxious or upset or we feel like we’re giving in and doing the ‘wrong’ thing but making them happy.
I’ve compiled a list of words that can be a great addition to the vocabulary and really can make a big difference around food and feeding. They can change the dynamic at meals and even encourage a child to be more receptive to new foods.
Magic words or phrases to use with a fussy eater
1. “Yet” – anyone who works with me knows this is one of my favourite words! Often when we have a fussy eater both they and us have closed off the possibility of them eating a new food.
A child frequently looks at a new food and says, “I don’t like it”. Instead, I love to rephrase that as “this is not my favourite thing yet”. Opening their mind to the possibility that later they may be able to eat it, is very important.
2. “I like this because” – it’s very tempting to tell our child they will like something – especially when we KNOW they will. However, I love to take the emphasis away from a fussy eater and a good way to do that is to talk about someone else.
We are still putting across the same message, but without the focus being on them.
3. “This is just like” – knowing what will happen when something goes in the mouth can be very comforting for an anxious (or stubborn) eater. I love to relate it to a food that a child is already able to eat comfortably.
“This is crunchy like those crackers you like, but a little bit sweet like your strawberry yoghurt”. Doing this gives our child a positive way to think about a new food and contextualizes it for them.
4. “Which would you prefer?” – I love offering choices as it gives our child some autonomy over decisions. Giving them the option of two choices (more can be overwhelming) lets them know that we value their opinion and that they have some control.
“Would you like the crackers or the pretzels?”, or “did you want the cheese grated or in slices?”.
5. “You don’t have to eat it” – building comfort around foods is one of the critical factors in supporting a picky eater to eat more variety. In order to do this, it’s important that they become comfortable with the look, the feel and the smell.
None of this can happen unless a child is able to get up close and personal with a food. However, if foods are there with the expectation that they must take a bite, then it can often stop this valuable process.
Having the broccoli on the plate is an important part of the learning process. But, if our child knows that having it on the plate leads to pressure to eat it, they are less likely to want it on the plate.
If though, the broccoli is allowed to stay on the plate, with no pressure to eat it, the learning can happen!
6. “This is what’s available” – (which includes food you enjoy). Children who are uncomfortable around food often make demands about what they want to eat. This is super logical. If you are not comfortable around food, then making sure it’s a favourite is important.
However, if our child does only get served peanut butter sandwiches, fairly soon it can become the only thing they will accept to eat.
Instead, I explain that what is on the table is what is the family is having for the meal. You can also point out that there are foods that they are able to eat too. And having those options they can enjoy is important, but it does not always have to be a ‘favourite’.
7. “It’s okay if you’re not hungry, but please stay to chat” – many picky eaters, especially younger ones want to eat and dash, or eat two bites and whoosh, or even not eat anything and prefer to play instead of eat (which is very logical!).
However, not staying at the table frequently prevents a child from eating enough. They must have the opportunity to sit still and contemplate the food. Allowing them to do this without the pressure to eat may help them to independently eat more.
Even if this is not the case the first, second or even tenth time, it is something that is important long-term for supporting them to eat more volume and to eat more widely. When they are at the table, they can watch us modelling how to do this and do it pleasurably.
8. “You can take it out of your mouth politely” – it’s important that a child can taste a food and if it’s really unpleasant be able to take it back out again. Sometimes we do put something in our mouth that tastes or feels awful.
Having permission to spit it nicely into a napkin or the hand is positive.
9. “What do you think?” – rather than asking the loaded question “do you like it?”, reframing as “what do you think?” enables a child to form their own opinion about a food.
It also takes it from a binary “yes I like it” or “no, I don’t like it”, to a more open-ended “I think …”. We can learn a lot from the things that our child explains about a food too, if we’re open to listening.
Asking this question also gives a child the opportunity to think about the food more objectively, rather than giving the automatic “no I don’t like it”.
We can follow this up with words like “what could improve this for you?”, or “I wonder what it would be like if we…”.
10. “You’re still learning” – it’s very important our child realizes that learning to eat is a process. There will be some things that are easy, and other things that are more challenging, and that’s the same for everyone.
Knowing that it’s a process rather than something that needs to be aced right now and EVERY time something goes in the mouth is important. It also means that the cucumber that was tried and wasn’t great, may need to be tasted over and over before it does become a favourite.
We can use some positive phrases to let our child know that we know they have done something challenging for them like “you tasted it even though you weren’t sure”.
Using words and phrases that prevent anxiety or upset at the table is critical. The more relaxed we are, the more likely we are to eat.
Are any of these words or phrases you use? Do you have suggestions for other helpful ones?
Judith, MA Cantab, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/