Feeding Fussy Toddlers – Family Style

smoothie in a pink glass with a straw

You mean I have to feed them again?


This thought goes through my head just about every single night when it comes to feeding my fussy toddlers. Every night except Friday, when Mr McD makes them fish and chips, and I get a night off from the kitchen.

fish and chips on a plate

Friday night tradition – fish & chips

My two are really fussy eaters – it makes me want to tear my hair out. Little Miss is the worst culprit but the Stuntman is learning from her and starting to reject a lot of foods he used to eat now too. It is sooo effing frustrating to spend hours (or even 20 minutes!) over a hot stove, only to have the food you’ve lovingly prepared and nutritionally balanced thrown at your feet. Or in your face.

I don’t know where it all went so wrong. We did Baby Led Weaning with Little Miss, and she took to it beautifully – she was eating lamb cutlets, steak, broccoli, stir fries, Bolognese, fried rice and all sorts of things by seven or eight months of age.

Little Miss as a 1 year old sitting in high chair covered in food

Little Miss dining ‘al fresco’ in the good old days

Then, all of a sudden, at about 16 or 17 months old, she just started refusing all of the foods that she used to eat, and eating only plain foods, like pasta (no sauce!), plain rice, plain chicken, bread, and dairy products like cheese, yoghurt and milk.

Things haven’t improved much over the last two years, and now, at 3.5 she’s still favouring ‘white foods’, and flat out refusing to try anything new. She’ll sometimes eat carrots (only raw), might have a bite of some corn on the cob, but no other veg will willingly pass her lips. She won’t even eat potatoes! Unless they’re chips of course… Luckily she’ll still drink a smoothie if I make one, so I’ve been using my Nutribullet to make her a green smoothie (with baby spinach, cucumber, celery, broccoli, apple and banana) and adding a bit of raw beetroot to make it pink. So at least she’s getting some nutrients! And she does eat some fruit, so there’s that.

A smoothie in a pink glass with a straw

A pink (green) smoothie

She doesn’t eat any red meat, apart from chewing on a lamb cutlet once in a blue moon, and she won’t eat anything that’s ‘cooked together’ (like Bolognese or stir fries). She doesn’t like sausages, won’t eat meatballs, steak, stewed meat, roast meat, even meat that I’ve done in the slow cooker so it’s beautiful and tender. No interest. She won’t even try it.

I’ve tried lots of different strategies – ignoring her behaviour, serving the same thing every night, serving something totally different every night, tasting plates, eating outside, turning her food into works of art, allowing constant grazing, cutting out all snacking, bribery, cajoling, begging, you name it… nothing’s working. Over the last year or so I’ve pretty much given up and just started serving dinners that I know they’ll eat.

Healthy Little Eaters

In my quest for an answer, I stumbled across a great blog called Healthy Little Eaters, which is run by a dietician, Adina Pearson, and is full of great info about how to raise, well, healthy little eaters. Adina has teamed up with another dietician, Natalia Stasenko, who runs Tribeca Nutrition, to deliver a series of online courses through Feeding Bytes.

The main recommendation of the Feeding Bytes course is to implement Family Style Service, where, rather than serving up a complete plate of food for each person, all of the components of the meal are placed in dishes on the table, and each person can serve themselves whichever part they are interested in.

You can read about their approach to Family Style Service here.

Adina and Natalia’s advice is based on the work of Ellyn Satter, and the Division of Responsibility (DOR) theory, which boils down to the following:

It is MY job to feed them.

It is THEIR job to eat.

Family Style Dinners

We experimented with Family Style Service for our dinners last week, after completing the Feeding Bytes online course (5 Day Toddler Feeding Bootcamp). While I can’t say anything miraculous like Little Miss starting to eat vegetables occurred, I definitely felt less stressed about the whole situation, and it made dinner time quite fun.

One of the core ideas is to serve up a usual dinner meal, but kind of deconstruct it so that there are lots of different things to try, including a couple of dishes that you know your kids will eat. Tell the kids they can have whatever they want from the table, and don’t pressure them to try anything in particular. If they eat lots of one thing, and none of another, it doesn’t matter. You’re trying to teach them to listen to their own appetites, feel in control, and think of dinner time as a fun, no-pressure zone.

Telling your kids “you don’t have to eat” is liberating for both of you!

One night last week we had tacos, so I served up soft tacos on one plate, some mince (with lots of hidden veg) in a big bowl, another bowl of plain rice, a plate of chopped tomatoes, lettuce and cheese, and some separate chilli and hot sauce for Mr McD and I.

The Stuntman had a bowl of the meat mixed in with some rice, chucked the salad stuff on the floor, and then dipped his soft taco into the meat mixture. Little Miss served herself some rice, some cheese and a soft taco, flat out refused the meat and salad, but went back for a second taco and some more cheese.

Another night we had spaghetti Bolognese, and I served the meat sauce in one bowl, pasta in another, and a bowl of steamed veg separately. Little Miss just had plain pasta that night.

So, she wasn’t eating any better than last week, but I was far less stressed about it, we all had more fun, and I can definitely see how this could work in the long term.

3 dishes full of meat sauce, pasta and vegies, with empty bowls

Spag bol – Family Service Style

Prior to last week I’d been feeding the kids around 5:30pm, then Mr McD and I would eat after they’d gone to bed – which sometimes was after 9pm. We’d trialled family dinners before with distrastrous results, so having a solid week of enjoyable meals was a big plus.

Pros & Cons

After just a week of Family Style dinners, I’ve found the following pros and cons.


  • I only cook once a night
  • Dinner is a raucous but fun affair
  • Eating earlier is much better for our digestion (no more bedtime heartburn)
  • The Stuntman is definitely enjoying us all eating together, and has tried new things and been quite experimental
  • After we’ve had dinner, bathed the kids and wrestled them into bed, Mr McD and I have two or three blissful hours to ourselves before we collapse into bed (more time for blogging!)
  • Both kids are enjoying the novelty of serving themselves – I bought a whole bunch of colourful mini tongs and spoons from Aldi which they’re loving playing with.


  • I need to be a lot more organised to plan family meals that can be served up Family Style
  • It’s messy – 3 year olds aren’t great at self-service!
  • There seems to be a lot of food wasted
  • It’s quite difficult to break the habit of saying “just one bite”, or “try this, you’ll like it”
  • There’s a lot more washing up due to all the serving bowls and plates
  • Mr McD are missing our hot curries and ‘normal’ dinners with lots of spices and flavour.


small bowls of spices

Missing spice in my life!

As I get better at planning out suitable meals, I think this is going to get easier. So far the pros outweigh the cons so we’ll stick with it.

If you need help feeding fussy toddlers, or for more information about the Family Style Service concept, the Division of Responsibility, or the 5 Day Toddler Feeding Bootcamp, check out Adina’s Healthy Little Eaters blog or Facebook page or Natalia’s Tribeca Nutrition website.

What about you – do you have successful family dinners at your place? What’s your secret??

N.B. This is not a sponsored post, I just found the info really useful.




  • Thanks for sharing this. My oldest used to eat just fine but now she is getting fussy. Hoping its just a phase.

    • I think they all go through phases, it\’s just whether the phase lasts a few months, or – like my 3 yr old – a few years!!! Good luck 🙂

  • Sounds like a great idea. We'll definitely be giving it a try. At the moment my 8 month old is tasting lots of things (but mostly wants what's on him mummies' plates). I really hope he stays open but I know there's no guarantee. The odd thing is we live in Thailand and often eat very flavour-full Thai dishes with spice or curry and he's been tucking right in with us. We'll see if he keeps it up, I guess. Thanks so much for the great advice!


    • Great that your little one is already open to a range of flavours. I\’ve got one who\’s happy eating anything, and the other who is still pretty much on the \’white food\’ train… one day she\’ll eat!

  • Oh man, I just keep trying to think "this too shall pass!" It's so hard, right! My husband has been making it home for dinner more often, but just when it's our kid's yoghurt (dessert) time so we sit at the table together only for a little while, before the screaming starts and he just wants to wrestle dad. I've introduced sugar-loaded ketchup to the picture in a desperate attempt to get my kid to eat. I hate it! At the moment I feel like it's better than sending him to bed on an empty tummy. He doesn't sleep and then we won't either. I'm so glad I have a juicer to sneak the veg in. I make ice blocks with the fruit and veg juice too. I'm the sneakiest. haha

    • I\’m completely obsessed with my Nutribullet and making different kinds of smoothies to sneak veg in! My 3 yo loves pink, so I\’ve started adding beetroot to smoothies to make them pink – works a treat!

  • motherhoodtherealdeal

    This is really interesting! I too struggle with a fussy eater so might give this a whirl next time we get into a seriously tricksy patch although it does sound like you need to be super organised in doing it! #brillblogposts

    • There is definitely some organising up the front end, but I'm pretty sure once you get into a rhythm it will get much easier. Good luck with your fussy eater!

  • This post is brilliant, thank you. I'm so glad I came across it and will check out the Healthy Little Eaters blog too, now I've had my second child I don't want to make the same mistakes I made with my first, at 6 she is still very strong willed about what she will and won't eat. She never grew out of her fussy stage and as both my children are milk intolerant too they are already quite restricted. I too have pulled my hair out every single night with the stress of feeding the children. I dread dinner time.
    The family serving dinners sounds like it could be fun not sure I could stick to it every night. #MMWBH x

    • It's quite a lot of organising and planning, but then once you sit down to dinner all the pressure is off! It is THEIR job to eat… Little Miss 3 has just been serving herself rice, pasta and bread most nights, so no miracle breakthroughs really, but it is so much less stress! We all just sit and have an enjoyable meal together! I'm pretty confident that *eventually* she'll work up the courage to start trying new things 🙂

      My 20 month old is absolutely smashing it – this week he's had risotto, curry, tacos and chicken fried rice!

  • Ver interesting post. Love the idea of serving themselves to make them feel in control. I'm no expert like the guys from Healthy Little Eaters but I wrote this post the other day, which you might like: http://www.cookwithtoddlers.com/community/2015/3/…. #MMWBH

  • I've got one fussy eater, and the others are mostly ok. I'm fussy though so I know where she gets it from. This wouldn't work with mine though. She would just ignore what she didn't want, and never try it. She also gets her stubbornness from her mother 😉

  • My kids are 12 months apart, and when they were babies/toddlers it was so easy to feed them. They ate most vegetables, had salad for lunch, etc. When my youngest was around 4 he gradually got really fussy until we were reduced to the white food business you were taking about. He is 8 now, and not much better. He'll eat cucumber, beetroot and carrot (not cooked) and some fruit and meat, but the rest is freaking white. Almost impossible to hide vegetables – he is like The Princess and the Pea fairytale, the whole thing is virtually contaminated if he discovers one tiny grating of veg. I'm interested in your Nutribullet smoothies, and am toying with that idea, although I'd have to make them taste pretty damn nice. Apart from that he is a happy, active, socially adjusted, bright little man, but the fussiness really makes meal prep a pain.

    • The white food thing is nuts isn't it!! And yes, so difficult to hide any veg at all!
      I really recommend getting a Nutribullet, or any high powered blender really. For Little Miss I add broccoli, celery, spinach, green apple, frozen banana, raw beetroot, chia seeds, coconut water and normal water. To make it chocolatey you can add some cacao powder and maybe a medjool date to counteract the bitterness of the cacao. Yum!!

  • Bec

    We did something similar to this when we went out for chinese recently – our 2yo ate plain rice but our 4yo actually ended up eating sizzling mongolian beef! It's amazing what they'll try when you're not trying to make them eat it. And hey, if they don't – they'll be fine! #TeamIBOT

  • mummy do it

    Thanks for sharing! My two-year-old's food intake sounds very much like your daughters, though he does eat cucumber and capsicum and nuts. He occasionally eats a bit of pasta but it BETTER NOT be 'dirtied' by any sauce. Think I might try this method, we had soft tacos for dinner last night too and I didn't bother giving him any meat so he ate the taco, grated cheese and capsicum without too much fuss. Found you through IBOT.

    • Ha, 'dirtied', that's exactly what Little Miss says when I put sauce on her pasta, "Ewwww, it's DIRTY!!!!".

      Things can't get any worse… surely that means they've got to get better doesn't it??

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