Getting your picky eater to the dinner table

Have the British lost their table manners?

Food on the Table

Author: Dr. Elizabeth Roberts

Family meals are such a great learning experience for young children. We sometimes forget this as parents, but it is around the family dinner table that young children learn how and what to eat. They do this by intently watching and copying what and how their greatest tutors – you! – act and respond once dinner is served.

How children learn to eat from their parents

The importance of role modelling for young children’s eating habits has been shown time and again in research trials to be the most important factor influencing dietary intake in young children[i].

Children need to be seated well to eat well - this helps with swallowing

Children learn by copying their parents[ii]. The younger the child, the more important the adult role models, especially trusted adults like parents[iii]. Chances are, if you don’t eat it, your child won’t either.

Why is role modelling so important?

Most animals are born instinctively knowing what to eat, but humans are a little different. This is because mostly we have to learn what is good to eat.

The fact that humans can and do eat a wide variety of foods has enabled us to survive and thrive in many different parts of the world.

It is precisely because our ancestors were so willing to try new foods that nature had to give us a counterbalance to prevent us from poisoning ourselves. This counterbalance is a suspicion of new and unfamiliar foods and is called ‘neophobia’, from Greek meaning ‘fear of the new’. Without some neophobia humans may have been tempted to eat potentially toxic plants and animal products[iv].

We think that this suspicion of new and unfamiliar foods, or food neophobia, explains food fussiness in toddlers. It prevents young children, who are just starting to explore the world on their own two feet, from ingesting substances that are potentially harmful[v] until they have learnt what is safe to eat[vi].

The importance of role modelling for young children was cleverly demonstrated in an experiment conducted by the psychologist Sibylle K. Escalona in the 1940s[vii]. She worked in a prison for women.

The inmates were allowed to keep their children with them if they were under 3 years old. The children lived in the prison nursery, cared for by prison staff and visited by their mothers.

Escalona noted that some children developed either a dislike or preference for the tomato or orange juices that were served in the nursery. The two juice flavours were served on alternate days.

After some time, the children’s preference would change – and then, often, change back. Escalona pinpointed that their preference was directly related to the stated favourite of whichever member of staff was assigned to look after a particular child. When the main carer changed, the child’s juice preferences changed to match that of their main carer.

Modern eating habits versus evolution  

We have no precedent for today’s eating patterns. Children are designed, through millions of years of evolution, to observe and learn from those around them. This learning is based on humans’ tendency to eat together.

Today’s lifestyles are very different, with different demands.

We eat at different times, in a rush, and more often on our own than ever before (or even while on the move). Is it any wonder we experience problems with our children’s eating?

So how can parents provide opportunities to show their children how to enjoy new foods?

Turning the dinner table into a food learning-to-like event

• Try to make sure that the dinner table and family meals are a positive experience for your child. We know that children are more likely to accept a new food if it is paired with positive words and emotional expressions[viii]. We think this indicates to the child’s evolutionary instinct that the food is safe to eat.

• Try to prepare family meals where everyone can enjoy the same thing. Young children have to see role models eating the same as them to increase their willingness to try something new[ix]. It may help to have several things on the table that your child can choose from – a few safe foods and one or two new things. And let him help himself wherever possible – this allows your child some control and a sense of personal power.

• As often as possible, organise extended family meals, where your child can witness several adults and peers trying foods that are new to her. The more people that eat a food that is new to a toddler, the more likely she is to try it[x].

• Role models have to be enjoying the new food, or at least pretending to! Researchers in France showed that 5 and 8 year old children liked a food less when an adult pretended to be disgusted by a food, even when the food was one they already liked[xi].

It seems that the effects of seeing others eat go beyond the original meal, too – if a child sees other people eat the same food as him, then he is more likely to try it again at a later meal. What’s more, the effects of seeing our parents eating certain foods last into adulthood – we are more likely to like a food item now, even if we disliked the same food as a child, if we saw our parents eat that food[xii].

Should young children be made to sit at the table?

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, because children should sit, and stay seated, at the dinner table for as long as they are eating.

This is important for their safety. Young children are still learning how to eat and this is an important task that needs their full attention. If children are on the move while eating or not seated upright, there is a greater risk that they may accidentally choke on a food item.  

Just don’t make your child sit at the dinner table for the length of an adult meal. 20 to 30 minutes is enough, even less for a snack.

Once your child is finished with her meal or snack, let her get down. Don’t make a child stay at the table for a long time in the hope that she will eat more – she won’t. Children have a short attention span, and forcing their presence just makes mealtimes unpleasant.

Sitting children well for eating

Children need to be seated well to eat well – this helps with swallowing. When the pelvis is in a neutral position it supports the head. When the head is supported by the trunk, the tongue and jaw muscles aren’t needed for support – and can instead be used for eating and drinking.

To make sure your child is seated well for eating and drinking, consider the following:

• Make sure your child is seated with 90 degrees at the hips, 90 degrees at the knees and 90 degrees at the ankles. Get down and have a look to see how your child is seated. Use a booster seat if necessary.

• Make sure her feet are supported. This is needed for core stability, which in turn is needed for jaw stability. Jaw stability is needed for tongue movement, chewing, and swallowing. It can also help stability if your child has her arms resting on the arms of a chair.

• Avoid “W” legs: when your child sits down with her feet pointing out to the side. A variation of this is wrapping her feet around the chair legs. Children and adults do this when core tone is low, as it provides more stability. Ideally, it is much better to practise upright sitting with her knees and ankles at 90 degrees. This allows better tone to develop, which means she no longer needs to grasp the chair legs with her feet for core support.

• Poor tone can lead a child to slide down in her seat. This affects head positioning and therefore also jaw stability, which in turn affects tongue movement.

• Poor posture can make a child wriggle at mealtimes. This is because she is trying to sit up and stay supported. This means she is focusing less on food and eating. It also makes the whole mealtime experience less pleasurable, both for your child and for you!

Looking for more tips about managing picky eating? Visit me at fussyaboutfood.com.

Interested to know if your child is a picky eater? Take the questionnaire and find out. The questionnaire is based on the Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire (CEBQ) developed by researchers at University College London and is a validated screening tool used in research studies to assess the degree of food fussiness in young children[xiii].


[i] Oliveria, S.A., Ellison, R.C., Moore, L.L., Gillman, M.W., Garrahie, E.J., Singer, M.R., 1992. Parent-child relationships in nutrient intake: the Framingham Children’s Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 56(3), 593-8.
[ii] Larsen, J.K., Hermans, R.C., Sleddens, E.F., Engels, R.C., Fisher, J.O., Kremers, S.P., 2015. How parental dietary behavior and food parenting practices affect children’s dietary behavior. Interacting sources of influence? Appetite 89, 246-57.
[iii] Paroche, M.M., Caton, S.J., Vereijken, C.M.J.L., Weenen, H., Houston-Price, C., 2017. How Infants and Young Children Learn About Food: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Psychology 25(8), 1046.
[iv] See for example: Dovey, T.M., Staples, P.A., Gibson, E.L., Halford, J.C., 2008. Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating in children: a review. Appetite 50(2-3), 181-93; Martins, Y., Pliner, P., 2005. Human food choices: an examination of the factors underlying acceptance/rejection of novel and familiar animal and nonanimal foods. Appetite 45(3), 214-24; Milton, K., 1993. Diet and primate evolution. Scientific American 269, 70–77.
[v] Lafraire, J., Rioux, C., Giboreau, A., Picard, D., 2016. Food rejections in children: Cognitive and social/environmental factors involved in food neophobia and picky/fussy eating behavior. Appetite 96, 347-357.
[vi] See Addessi, E., Galloway, A.T., Visalberghi, E., Birch, L.L., 2005. Specific social influences on the acceptance of novel foods in 2-5-year-old children. Appetite 45(3), 264-71; Birch, L.L., Gunder, L., Grimm-Thomas, K., Laing, D.G., 1998. Infants’ consumption of a new food enhances acceptance of similar foods. Appetite 30(3), 283-95; Rozin, P., Vollmecke, T.A., 1986. Food likes and dislikes. Annual Review of Nutrition 6, 433-56.
[vii] Escalona, S.K., 1945. Feeding disturbances in very young children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 15(1), 76-80.
[viii] Martins, Y., Pelchat, M.L., Pliner, P., 1997. “Try it; it’s good and it’s good for you”: effects of taste and nutrition information on willingness to try novel foods. Appetite 28(2), 89-102.
[ix] Addessi, E., Galloway, A.T., Visalberghi, E., Birch, L.L., 2005. Specific social influences on the acceptance of novel foods in 2-5-year-old children. Appetite 45(3), 264-71.
[x] Birch, L., 1980. Effects of peers models food choice and eating behavior on preschoolers food preferences. Child Development 51, 489-496.
[xi] Barthomeuf, L., Droit-Volet, S., Rousset, S., 2012. How emotions expressed by adults’ faces affect the desire to eat liked and disliked foods in children compared to adults. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 30(2), 253-66.
[xii] Wadhera, D., Capaldi Phillips, E.D., Wilkie, L.M.. 2015. Teaching children to like and eat vegetables. Appetite 93, 75-84.
[xiii] Wardle, J., Guthrie, C.A., Sanderson, S., Rapoport, L., 2001. Development of the Children’s Eating Behaviour Questionnaire. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 42(7):963-70.

Author: Dr. Elizabeth Roberts

Dr Elizabeth Roberts is a State Registered Dietitian and eating behaviour specialist with extensive healthcare experience gained over a 20+ year career in both public and private practice. She has helped hundreds of families struggling with fussy or picky toddlers. Her recent book “Help! My Toddler Is Not Eating: A 30-day plan to get your picky eater to enjoy new food.” is available from Amazon.