Carlos Gonzalez: What to do if your child won't eat

Got a fussy eater on your hands? Outspoken paediatrician and author, Carlos Gonzalez tells us exactly what we shouldn't be doing when it comes to feeding our children...

Child in highchair

Ever coached your child into 'one more mouthful'? Well, you might be in for a talking to. Known as the doctor who tells parents to break the rules, Spanish paediatrician Carlos Gonzalez is famous for his best-selling no-nonsense books on child rearing and breastfeeding. Here, he answers our questions in no uncertain terms...

Carlos Gonazalos © Agustin AmateDo new parents have certain preconceptions about raising children? 

Well, some of them have, and maybe more in our times than in centuries past. We have fewer siblings, and so fewer nephews/nieces, and so less experience of seeing real babies before we have our own. And babies in films and books frequently never cry, never wake in the night, and children are beautiful and obedient and play by themselves.
 
How have attitudes to bringing up children changed over recent generations?

Many things have changed, on average, some for good, some for bad:

  • Now, we have a clear conscience that you cannot spank a child. Never. In many countries it's even forbidden by law.
  • We generally think that children's feelings and wellbeing are important.
  • Children start attending school much earlier and are separated from their parents for many hours at an early age.
  • We are less tolerant with normal childhood behaviours. We no longer say "boys will be boys", but bring our children to a psychologist.
  • Instinctive parenting has been abandoned in favour of books, methods and experts.

Are there any common patterns behind fussy eating in children? 

I'm not speaking about real eating problems, about very sick children, but about normal, healthy children that are playing happily, but for which mealtimes are an inferno. And the cause in these cases is clear: the parents tried to force-feed the child, maybe misled by some professionals who recommend exaggerated amounts of food. Never try to force a child to eat. Neither by force nor by persuasion, coaching, bribing, distraction or any other method.
 
If parents don't force their children, usually children have, in the end, similar preferences.  If parents try to force-feed their children, usually children in the end hate that food. And since parents usually insist on more"healthy" foods, teenagers and young adults many times prefer the most unhealthy.

But doesn't it matter if your children eat vegetables?

You should eat vegetables, leave your children alone and, in the end, they'll probably eat vegetables also. But there are changes in food preferences in a lifetime. Between one and 16 years, most children would prefer macaroni to vegetables. They will change again, unless you make them really hate vegetables.

So how should a parent deal with a seriously fussy eater?

Leave the child alone. Fussy eating is not a child problem, it's a parent problem.  The parent is the one who has an abnormal behaviour. Because telling someone "finish your veggies" or "a little bit for Dad, a little bit for Granny" or "Brrrr Brrr look at the 'plane!" are not normal behaviours. Stop it now!
 
What's the best way of alleviating stress from the dinner table?

The child cannot change. He cannot say "I have decided to eat twice as much from now on, so you, Mum and Dad, will be happy". He cannot say that, because anyone who starts eating TWICE as much as before everyday will be obese in a few months. Your child is already eating well, it's you who have to change.
 
How do you feel about premade food for babies and children?

It's much more expensive and usually not as healthy as your home food. (And if your food at home is not healthy, you should change it now. Eating healthy baby food for a year and unhealthy family food for 30 years will not do). You don't need to prepare special food for your child. He can be offered normal family food from the start.
 
What's your top tip for raising healthy, adventurous eaters?

Adventurous eaters? I had never thought of that as an objective when raising my children. Usually children don't like new, unknown food. It's normal.

Sound common sense or just not practical? We'd love to hear what you think about Carlos Gonzalez' advice. Get involved in the debate below...

My Child Won't EatCarlos Gonzalez is the author of My Child Won't Eat, Kiss Me! and Breastfeeding Made Easy. For more information visit pinterandmartin.com.

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Comments (17)

estpyz's picture

One thing I don't get is if a parent doesn't want their child to eat fries, biscuits and rubbish why did they introduce them to it in the first place?!
As regards trying different veg the 10 times method really works. My brother couldn't stand avocado so my mum gave him a small piece and the same time for 10days (mum use to say "medicine time") and then made a meal that evening with avocado in it, he didn't even notice it. Tried it loads of different times and always worked.

jamontalto's picture

My daughter now 16, drove me mad as a baby and child. My elder son was no trouble - I always made home made baby food and he loved all different types of food. My daughter just vomited everything up and her first solid was at 9 months. For years she only ever ate a very restricted range of food. She is disgusted by most food and disgusted by food prepared out of home. Today, because I often refused to pander to her, she generally just makes her own food unless I am making her same old favourites.

It's not as easy as saying that parents make kids neurotic or stressed about food. I treated my kids the same - one was an easy eater, the other wasn't. And it's not the amount either - she would be really, really hungry when she was a kid, and just not want to eat. Then she would spend a day catching up and eating loads.

alexum's picture

I would be very interested in having information on handling eating issues with a child with learning difficulties. It is difficult enough to handle communication issues yet alone dealing with eating issues. Would welcome feedback.

Angelica6468's picture

I have not read "My child won't eat, kiss me", however, in my experience you have to introduce your child to different types of food as early as possible. My 3 year old was eating blended broccoli, greens, cod & salmon from 4 months old and enjoys fish and vegetables very much. There is no problem with her eating those foods now. I gave her boiled water from 6 weeks old, which is her preferred drink. She has not had any fizzy or fruit drinks (very occasionally has freshly squeezed orange/apple juice), no sweets, crisps and has chocolate at the weekends which she enjoys. I try and introduce new seasonal vegetables/fish in a meal as often as I can. I do not agree with the 'leave them to eat what they want' attitude. It is the parent's responsibility to educate their child's palate in a creative, healthy and fun way.

emma latham's picture

My 4 year old daughter isn't just a fussy eater she just wont eat, at all not, nothing. I have been to doctors but banging my head against a brick wall as nothing is being done. I am starting to loose it with it all sick of it to be honest.

jamontalto's picture

If she is developing healthily and her weight is OK, give yourself a break and don't worry too much. My daughter was and always will be a fussy eater, it worries me so much and drove me crazy but at the end of the day the worry and hassle changed nothing. So consider that the stress may not be worth it in the long run.

Sammy-gibbo's picture

Your not alone Emma my eldest is 18 months on the 23rd and he is refusing to eat anything, I have tried everything to get him to eat even things the Carlos has said, only now my doctors r interested, he had me in tears today cause he wouldn't eat I ended up putting him in his play pen and leaving the room to have s cry as I felt defeated by him, yes I no he had one but hopefully he the doctors will find out why. Maybe u should go back to ur doctors and say this has gone on far to long this needs looking into.

emmareddy's picture

Sound advice, parents should worry less and focus on setting a healthy example rather than forcing children to eat, though forcing children to sit to the table with the rest of the family would seem like a good compromise.

MartaBr's picture

Well seem than I have very different fussy child because while I relax and let him eat what he wants and haw much he wants he wouldn't eat a think and looses weight. Therefore I do not support any of this theory's. If I don't feed him and he is 4 he wont eat. I did try some of the advises given here about4 month's ago and my son as skinny as he is lost 3 kilograms in a month. Only food he likes is chips , garlic bread, nan bread, ham, pizza without veg-he pics them out, mash potatoes and of course Mcdonalds-where he only with his child minder once a week. I cook variety of healthy meals at home.

fairystoryteller's picture

I also think lots of variety is important and plenty of choice. My older daughter would eat most things when she was little, and still does, but my younger one was a lot less enthusiastic about food. I found that putting things in serving dishes and letting the girls help themselves (rather then plonking a loaded up plate in front of them) worked really well because it took the pressure off them. Most days I would prepare a family meal without consulting them but at the weekend I would ask them to choose what they wanted to eat and then we would all tuck in. Chicken nuggets (homemade ones of course!) were often on the menu on a Saturday night! Both my girls are now young adults and they eat really healthily and really enjoy food.

thebeloved96's picture

As a parent I wasn't given any preventative life handbook to bringing up my children perfectly, and I'm kind of glad because this parent found that experience out ways the do's and do not's of life. I was undoubtedly swayed by the influence of my own parents and potently my own children picked up some of my own strong will and aggressive behaviour but it is what it is, and dealing with both was never going to be easy. After reading the author Carlos Gonzales words I definitely feel they are good advice and see a lot of truth. We are all different though and what works for us may not be for you, these are the little idiosyncrasies of life that makes it so exciting. For me love your kids as you feed them and as they grow up despite your mistakes and theirs.

chrisnation's picture

How to feed children? All sit to the table. Food - let's suppose it is good quality food, properly cooked - is served. Bargaining and negotiations for alternatives are ignored. Parents show a united front in not indulging in pickiness in front of their children. Everybody eats what is on their plate. Hungry children will.

jamontalto's picture

Nope. Did all you said and still had one picky eater and 3 normal eaters. So whilst I agree with your approach, I can't agree with your generalisation.

Jo Cormack's picture

This is sound advice and very much resonates with my approach to picky eating, EAF (emotionally aware feeding). I advise parents who want their children to be adventurous eaters to strop worrying about what their child is consuming and 'model' being adventurous eaters themselves... as Carlos points out, parental reaction to picky eating is often a major factor in the problems being experienced and the best way to get your child to enjoy their food is to relax and enjoy yours.

Solving Picky Eating

CBiancaL's picture

My parents could do with reading this one!!!

sarahleetes's picture

Does not really support parents who have children who are extremely fuss! I have a child in my care who was fed with those baby food pouches until well over a year and now will only eat a limited number of foods ie no meat, few veg, pasta (only if a certain shape) garlic bread, cereal, biscuits, pizza (cheese and tom only). Will not try new foods and can spot a mile if you liquidise meat into pasta sauce or even vegetables in cake! Parents have never force fed but hope he will eat everything else in good time (He is now almost 4 years old)! Next year he will have to cope with cooked school meals or take packed lunch everyday (will only eat choc spread sandwiches)!

suegoodman's picture

Sounds very much like my son, he was eventually diagnosed with Asperger's, worth keeping in mind

Questions (1)

TanziBear's picture

My youngest child is now almost 15 and is still a horrendous non food addict. She has not been reared any differently from the previous two. I am, if anything, more tolerant than my younger self when I probably did force the other two to eat. Whilst my youngest has improved in that she will now allow more than one food on a plate her progression of food variants is still terribly limited. What would you advise? I do encourage her to try some of what the rest of us eat by offering her to sample, but never push the issue when she declines to even taste. She has not grown to the same extent as the other two and this bothers her.

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