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Do play with your food!

“Play is the answer to the question, ‘How does anything new come about?’” ~ Jean Piaget

Child's hands playing with messy food
Put the fun into cooking

I Don't like it!

Have you spent an hour cooking only to find your child refuse to eat? Do you regularly start each meal with a child under the table because they don't like something? Do you just want to have one peaceful mealtime without an argument?

Then I am with you! I called my son to dinner last night, and he arrived at high speed, peered over my shoulder and shouted "Urgh! Why do you always cook disgusting chicken?" and then left. I guess I did get a peaceful mealtime - the complaining one upstairs refusing to eat - but that wasn't what I was hoping for.

How then to tackle this (let's face it unbelievable irritating) difficulty - the fussy eater?

Before we start

This guide is for children who are highly selective eaters, and also:

  • generally fit and well

  • an appropriate weight for their height

  • talk appropriately for their age

  • use mouth, tongue, swallow etc in line with their peers

  • do regularly eat at least one food from each of the major food groups

If this isn’t a description of the child you are concerned about, then please seek professional medical advice first as this guide may not be appropriate. Please see the end of this document for details of where to get help with that.

It's Just a Phase!

It turns out that the first point is that this one could well be just a phase. In fact, one way out of this is to wait for your child to grow out of it. There are caveats to that though...

  • Slow Process - unfortunately there isn't always a quick fix - definitely not one that will take effect before dinner tonight.


Charlie (6 yrs old) has been given just one piece of carrot on his plate. He learned to tolerate that, but it took at least 5 years before he was prepared to put one piece of carrot in his mouth...

  • Power of Friends - so many parents have said to me - 'she eats that at school' or 'why is my shepherds pie not OK but the school dinner one is?' Often the only thing that works is peer pressure - they want to join in with everyone else.


My darling husband, when I met him aged 18 at university, had a repertoire of 4 meals (!) that he was prepared to eat. I think he lived off mars bars at in preference to any other alien food (pasta, pizza, rice, vegetables cooked with anything else, anything with a sauce...) The only thing that changed his mind was when he was about to graduate and started looking for jobs. Prospective employers take you out for lunch as part of the interview process - and he was suddenly aware that refusing to eat everything on the menu might look a bit strange. So he started to try all these foods that he had spent years rejecting. It took a while for that to become a positive experience rather than a social pressure. I suspect he only took his first graduate job because that manager opted for a meat & 2 veg pub lunch on his interview day!

Genuine Psychological Difficulty

For some children, this can be a real psychological difficulty. This isn't a fad, or another attempt to press your buttons but a genuine feeling of disgust or fear. Hard as it may be to understand, there are children who genuinely experience very strong complex emotions in reaction to food - whether that's wet food, or just rice, anything green or every food that isn't a Coop pepperami pizza.

What can you do?

So we know that for some kids, even big kids like my husband, food can be a real challenge. In our podcast on fussy eating, we have five detailed episodes on different aspects of fussy eating and how you as a parent can respond. We go through the ins and outs of the reasons for fussy eating and talk about different strategies to handle it. One of our favourite techniques is play.

Top 5 Ways to Play with Food

For younger kids - get messy and treat food as something to be enjoyed with every one of your senses. In order of increasing mess - and therefore increasing challenge for children who find this tricky, our favourite ways to play with food are:

  1. Farming Breakfast Cereal

  2. Yoghurt Painting

  3. Jelly Dinosaur Dig

  4. Cooked Spaghetti Worms

  5. Cornflour and Water

  1. Farming Breakfast Cereal - e.g. crumble dry weeetabix to feed to your toy animals or push around the farm with tractors

  2. Yoghurt Painting: add food colouring for fun and use paintbrushes on trays or on paper.

  3. Jelly Dinosaur Dig - make up packets of jelly and put a selection of small plastic toys into the liquid jelly before you set it. Once set, have children dig out the toys with a spoon or fingers. We like to make this a 'dinosaur dig' through multiple layers of different coloured jelly (calling all future paleontologists!)

  4. Cooked Spaghetti drizzled with oil - make a big pile and get stuck in with both hands! (Add earth for a worm colony if you can guarantee that no toddler will actually try to eat it).

  5. Cornflour & Water - this stuff is completely weird and utterly addictive. I defy any adult to resist this. Its a liquid, unless you are moving it or striking it, when it becomes a solid. Magic! and magically messy.

For older kids get them cooking so that they are involved in the process without any pressure to actually eat it.

Physical Conditions

There a lots of physical conditions or symptoms that can affect a child's eating or approach to food. This guide does not apply to children with those symptoms. If you suspect difficulties with swallowing, problems moving mouth or using tongue to manipulate food or medical reasons to avoid food groups then speak to a health care provider like your GP and get some professional advice. Speech and Language therapists are the professionals who are most trained to assess and understand eating difficulties in young children with a physical or sensory cause, so ask for a referral to speech therapy. The assessment will be painless and non-invasive. We have personally seen children who needed lots of specialist help with physical symptom so please do not ignore these if you have any doubts.

This guide is from Please see our website for more information and to subscribe to our blog or podcasts.

Dr Helen Care & Rachel Tustian

A Confident Start - Copyright Dr Helen Care and Rachel Tustian 2019.

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