The Emotional Impact of Fussy Eating on the Family

If only eating was so easy – that we could simply put food on the table and have everyone fill up. But anyone experiencing fussy eating knows that that’s far from the case. Feeding and eating is rarely a case of preparing the food and getting it into those bellies, but can involve a whole array of difficult emotions. This emotional toll of fussy eating can be hard to understand if you haven’t been there! If you find yourself lying awake at night worrying about your little one, feel that knot in your stomach as you prepare the dinner, and have started second guessing your every move, – rest assured that you’re not going crazy! These emotions are a very common, and completely understandable part of parenting a fussy eater!

What we know from listening to parents...

The most common emotion expressed by Sprout users is feeling worried, panicked, or nervous. This could be about any number of things from the situation getting worse, the child’s nutrition, or the child’s participation at nursery or school. In fact, over 80% of parents who completed the fussy quiz said that their child’s eating has a big impact on how they feel, and 70% feel “very worried” or “extremely worried” about their child’s eating.

Then we have very strong feelings of guilt and shame. Many of our users attribute fussy eating to their parenting, when in fact we know from plenty of research studies, and our Picky Profile tool ( that there are child factors at play.

Sprout users have shared so many other feelings – from frustration, to despair and hopelessness. It’s not uncommon for parents to be totally burnt out, feeling very confused and alone. The kind of words we hear parents use to describe their experience, like “defeated” or “heart-broken” illustrate the power behind these emotions, as well as the loss many parents feel facing a child who is struggling with eating.

What do research studies say?

And it’s not just us talking! Research studies have identified the huge impact that eating challenges have on families, as well as the emotional climate at mealtimes. An interview study by Rubio and Rigal in 2017 with 38 parents found that fussy eating leads to concern about health, conflict at mealtimes and feelings of guilt. Similarly, another interview study by Trofholz in 2017 reported how fussy eating impacts family meals and parents’ mealtime stress. Other studies have linked fussy eating with high levels of concern, as well as having a negative impact on family relationships (Harris et al., 2017; Goh & Jacob, 2012). In 2020, a systematic review was published, pulling together findings from 10 other studies. It found that children’s eating behaviours can directly impact parents’ emotions like worry and guilt, and also some feeding strategies can add to the stress and negative emotions that the family experiences (Wolstenholme et al., 2020).

What can we take away from this?

Well, first of all – it means you’re not alone if you’re struggling with the emotions that come with parenting a picky eater. The emotional impact of fussy eating is a very well-established phenomenon.

When we listen to parents’ experiences and take heed of the many research findings out there – it's clear that emotional support needs to be a part of every picky eater programme! We need to look beyond the basic parameters of health such as “a healthy weight” or “following a growth curve” and consider wellbeing more holistically.

This is why one of our main goals at Sprout is to reduce parents’ stress and to combine dietetic and psychology expertise to address nutrition concerns as well as wider family wellbeing. Our team programme is specifically designed to bring parents together who are going through a similar experience to create a supportive space for sharing this emotional toll it takes to parent a fussy eater!


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