What is fussy eating?
Fussy eating is a normal part of development. Many children, especially toddlers, are picky eaters. It can mean that they won’t try new foods or reject foods that are a particular:
Often it means your child will only want to eat from a small selection of foods familiar to them.
Young children naturally prefer sweet foods and avoid bitter foods. This is one reason it can be challenging to get your children to eat vegetables.
It can be frustrating when your child wants to eat the same thing every day — but it’s not uncommon. There are things you can do to encourage your child to try at least a few bites of nutritious food at each meal.
What should I do if my child is a fussy eater?
The best strategies to improve nutrition and encourage non-fussy eating habits are:
- serving a variety of healthy foods and snacks
- having regular family meals
- eating meals and snacks at regular times
- being a positive role model and eating a wide range of foods yourself
- avoiding battles over food
- getting children involved in meal planning and preparation
- providing eating experiences with other children their own age (fussy eaters may be more likely to try new foods with their friends)
Regular family meals
Family meals are a comforting ritual for parents and children. Try to have family meals at the same time every night. This way, your child can have a regular routine to:
- help them feel more secure
- avoid spoiling their appetite
Family meals are very important and are often the only time when the whole family is together.
It’s best to eat at the dinner table, with the television and any other screens switched off to reduce distractions.
Family meals also provide an opportunity to introduce your child to new foods.
Try to offer snacks at set times that are not close to mealtimes, so they don’t lose their appetite. Kids who have a big glass of milk or juice before dinner will also eat less.
Serving a variety of healthy foods and snacks
It’s important to include servings of food from the 5 food groups into your child’s daily routine. Each day, a young child should have:
- 1 to 2 serves of fruit
- 2½ to 5 serves of vegetables
- 4 to 5 serves of grain
- 1 to 2½ serves of protein
- 1½ to 2½ serves of dairy
When they reach adolescence, your child should aim to eat:
- 2 serves of fruit a day
- 5 servings of vegetables a day
- 4 to 7 serves of grain a day
- 2½ serves of protein a day
- 3 to 3½ serves of dairy a day
Make it easy for your child to choose healthy snacks:
- Keep fruit and vegetables on hand and ready to eat.
- Other good snacks include yoghurt, nuts or wholegrain crackers and cheese.
Choose healthy recipes:
- Serve good sources of protein such as lean meats, eggs and nuts.
- Choose wholegrain breads and cereals so your child gets more fibre.
- Choose healthier cooking methods, such as grilling, roasting and steaming.
- Avoid deep-fried foods.
Try to avoid ‘sometimes foods’ and drinks:
- Limit sugary drinks such as soft drinks and juices. Serve water and milk instead.
- Limit fast food and other low-nutrient snacks such as chips and sweets.
Don’t ban favourite snacks. Instead, make them 'once in a while' foods, so your child doesn’t feel that they’re missing out.
Being a role model
Children will learn from and imitate the adults they see every day. So, the best way for you to encourage healthy eating is to eat well yourself. You can be a good role model by eating fruits and vegetables and not overindulging in less nutritious foods.
You can also teach your child to not overeat by limiting your portions. This is especially important with younger children. Talk about feeling full — such as by saying 'this is delicious, but I am full, so I am going to stop eating’.
Keep a positive attitude towards food, and body image. This will help your child to develop lifelong healthy eating habits.
Parents who are always dieting or complaining about their bodies may foster negative feelings in children.
Don’t battle over food
It’s easy for food to become a source of conflict. There are ways to avoid mealtime tantrums.
You may try to bargain with or bribe your child with snacks so they eat the healthy food in front of them. However, this can develop unhealthy ideas. For example, if you tell your child they can have a biscuit if they eat their broccoli, you’re telling them that the biscuit is better than vegetables.
Instead, give your child some control, while also limiting the kind of foods available at home.
Making choices is an important part of social development. While you can control the foods available to your child, let your child decide:
- if they’re hungry
- what they will eat from the foods served
- when they’re full
You can keep control, and still give your child choice by asking questions such as these:
- Which morning tea snack would you like: a piece of fruit or a sandwich?
- Which cup would you like to drink your water from: the blue one or the red one?
- Should we buy red or green apples this week?
Here are some guidelines to follow:
- Don’t bribe or reward children with food. Avoid using dessert or sweets as the prize for eating a meal.
- Don’t use food as a way of showing love. When you want to show love, give them a hug or praise.
- Don’t replace meals your child doesn’t want. They will learn that if they complain, they will get a food they like.
- Don’t force feed your child or make them finish their plate. This is unpleasant, and can teach them to ignore their body’s hunger cues.
Get children involved in food
You can help your child develop an enthusiasm for food by including them in the process of:
- meal planning
- grocery shopping
- serving food
- cleaning up after meals
Look for recipes that contain ingredients your child likes. Talk to them about making choices and planning a balanced meal. Most children will enjoy deciding what to make for dinner.
Some children may even want to help shop for ingredients and prepare the meal. Help them with age-appropriate tasks so they don’t injure themselves or feel overwhelmed. At the end of the meal, praise the food and thank them for their help.
Preparing school lunches can also be a valuable lesson. Your child can think about what kinds of food they want for lunch. You may be able to help them make positive choices by shopping together for healthy foods.
Being involved in food activities can help prepare your child to make good decisions about the foods they want to eat. The mealtime habits you help create now can lead to a lifetime of healthier choices.
How do I get my child to try new foods?
Introducing new food to young children requires patience.
- Choose the food you would like your child to eat and keep offering it. It can take more than 10 tries for children to accept and enjoy new foods.
- Reassure your child that it is okay if they don’t like something.
- If food is rejected, calmly clear it away. Most foods can be safely kept in the fridge and offered again later.
- When your child accepts a new food to try, they might not eat it at first. They might investigate it in other ways, such as through touch and smell. It’s good to let them engage their senses, and you can talk with them about it.
- You can try introducing a new food alongside a food your child likes.
- Introduce one new food at a time. If you want to try making a new meal, introduce each of the ingredients to your child first.
How do I encourage my child to have a variety of different foods?
No single food is essential to a child's diet, and a substitute for refused food can easily be found. But you should keep offering the refused food too.
If your child will not drink milk, try:
If your child will not eat cooked vegetables for dinner, you could offer:
- more fruits
- salad vegetables (such as celery, snow peas, beans or carrots)
If your child will not eat red meat, you can give them the iron they need with foods like:
- iron-fortified breakfast cereals
- wholemeal bread
You can substitute the protein in meat with the protein in:
- dairy foods like cheese, milk and yoghurt
- peanut butter
You can mix these foods to get enough iron and protein. For example:
- baked beans on wholemeal toast
- iron-fortified breakfast cereal with milk
- wholemeal peanut butter sandwiches
How can I make eating fun for my child?
Food should be enjoyed, even if it’s not all eaten. Make foods fun when you can by:
- cutting sandwiches into shapes
- going to the park for a picnic
- letting your child help prepare part of the meal such as arranging salad or fruit pieces
For a toddler, enjoying food means feeling and playing with it. Let children feed themselves. Hands are as good as spoons, even if they are messier!
When should I get help for fussy eating?
It can be helpful to remember that:
- it’s normal for children to be fussy eaters
- a child will eat when they’re hungry
- toddlers are less inclined to eat nutritious foods when they fill up on non-nutritious snacks and drinks between meals
- children will imitate the adults in their life — so if your child’s fussy, check your own food behaviours
Try not to worry if your child doesn’t eat or only eats a small amount. It’s best to stay calm and positive. Children can sense if their parents are worried. Fussing over them at mealtimes can make eating more stressful.
If your child is healthy and growing well, they’re probably eating enough food. A healthy child who refuses to eat isn’t hungry and doesn’t need food right now.
- is not growing normally
- only eats a very small range of foods
- will not eat entire food groups
- consistently refuses food
- shows physical discomfort or pain when eating
It’s also good to seek advice if you are worried about your child's growth or overall nutrition.
Resources and Support
You can learn more about fussy eating through the Raising Children Network.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: March 2023