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Fussy eating in toddlers and children

5-minute read

Some children, especially toddlers can be picky eaters. It can be frustrating when your child wants to eat the same thing every day — but it is not uncommon. Some children are fussy by nature, but there are things you can do to encourage your child to try at least a few bites of nutritious food at each meal.

Look for recipes that contain ingredients your child likes and include your child in the food preparation.

Being part of the process of choosing meal plans, grocery shopping, cooking, serving food and cleaning up may also help.

It is important not to let your child's fussiness become a source of mealtime tension. This comes back to a simple rule — parents choose which foods to offer; children decide whether to eat it and how much of it they want to eat.

Good nutrition and a balanced diet will help your child grow up healthy.

The best strategies to improve nutrition and encourage non-fussy eating habits are:

  • Have regular family meals.
  • Serve a variety of healthy foods and snacks.
  • Be a positive role model.
  • Do not battle over food.
  • Get children involved in meal planning and preparation.

Regular family meals

Family meals are a comforting ritual for parents and children. Children like the predictability of family meals and parents get a chance to talk to their children. Children who take part in family meals regularly are more likely to eat fruit, vegetables and grains, and less likely to snack on unhealthy foods.

Family meals provide an opportunity to introduce your child to new foods.

Serving a variety of healthy foods and snacks

  • Work fruit and vegetables into the daily routine aiming for the eventual goal of 5 to 6 servings of vegetables a day and 2 serves of fruit a day by the time they are approaching adolescence.
  • Make it easy for your child to choose healthy snacks. Keep fruits and vegetables on hand and ready to eat. Other good snacks include yoghurt, nuts or whole grain crackers and cheese.
  • Serve lean meats and other good sources of protein, such as eggs and nuts.
  • Choose wholegrain breads and cereals so your child gets more fibre.
  • Limit fat intake by avoiding deep-fried foods and choosing healthier cooking methods, such as grilling, roasting and steaming.
  • Limit fast food and other low-nutrient snacks such as chips and sweets, but do not ban favourite snacks. Instead, make them 'once in a while' foods, so your child does not feel deprived.
  • Limit sugary drinks such as soft drinks and juices, and serve water and milk instead.

Being a role model

The best way for you to encourage healthy eating is to eat well yourself. Children will follow the lead of the adults they see every day. By eating fruits and vegetables and not overindulging in the less nutritious foods, you’ll send the right message.

Another way you can be a good role model is by limiting portions and not overeating. Talk about your feelings of fullness. This is especially important with younger children. You might say: 'This is delicious, but I am full, so I am going to stop eating.' At the same time, parents who are always dieting or complaining about their bodies may foster negative feelings in children. Try to keep a positive approach when it comes to food.

Do not battle over food

It is easy for food to become a source of conflict. Well-intentioned parents might find themselves bargaining or bribing children so they eat the healthy food in front of them. By telling your child they can have a biscuit if they eat their broccoli, you are only reinforcing the value of the biscuit over vegetables.

A better strategy is to give kids some control, but to also limit the kind of foods available at home. Children should decide if they are hungry, what they will eat from the foods served, and when they are full. Parents control which foods are available to the child, both at mealtime and between meals. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Establish a predictable schedule of meals and snacks. Children like knowing what to expect.
  • Do not force children to clean their plates. Doing so teaches kids to override feelings of fullness.
  • Do not bribe or reward children with food. Avoid using dessert as the prize for eating the meal.
  • Do not use food as a way of showing love. When you want to show love, give them a hug or praise.

Get children involved in food

Most children will enjoy making the decision about what to make for dinner. Talk to them about making choices and planning a balanced meal. Some children may even want to help shop for ingredients and prepare the meal.

In the kitchen, select age-appropriate tasks so your child can play a part without getting injured or feeling overwhelmed. At the end of the meal, do not forget to praise the chef.

School lunches can be another learning lesson for children. More importantly, if you can get them thinking about what they eat for lunch, you may be able to help them make positive changes. A good place to start may be at the supermarket, where you can shop together for healthy, packable foods.

There is another important reason why children should be involved — it can help prepare them to make good decisions on their own about the foods they want to eat. That is not to say that your child will suddenly want a salad instead of chips, but the mealtime habits you help create now can lead to a lifetime of healthier choices.

When to get help for fussy eaters

If your child is healthy and growing well, they are probably eating enough food.

It can be a good idea to check with your GP or a dietitian if your child:

  • only eats a very small range of foods
  • will not eat entire food groups for a time
  • consistently refuses food

It is also good to seek advice if you are worried about your child's growth or overall nutrition

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2021

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Fussy eaters

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