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Fussy eating in toddlers and children

10-minute read

What is fussy eating?

Some children, especially toddlers can be fussy or picky eaters. It can mean that they won’t try new foods or reject foods that are a particular shape, texture or colour. Often it means your child will only want to eat from a small selection of foods familiar to them.

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.

What should I do if my child is a fussy eater?

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.

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

  • have regular family meals
  • schedule meals and snacks at regular times
  • 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.

Schedule meal and snack times

Children, especially younger ones, do best when they know what to expect.

Try to have family meals at the same time every night so your child has a regular routine.

Family meals are very important and are often the only time when the whole family is together. It is best if the family can eat at the dinner table, turning off the television and any other screens to reduce distractions.

Try to offer snacks at set times that are not close to meal times, so they do not 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

  • 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.

How do I get my child to try new foods?

Introducing new food to young children can take patience. Choose the food you would like your child to eat and keep offering it. It can take 10 to 15 tries for children to accept and enjoy new foods.

Try the same approach with snacks. 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 wholegrain crackers and cheese.

If food is rejected, calmly clear it away. Most foods can be safely kept in the fridge and offered again later. Try not to bully, fuss or offer bribes. It is best not to prepare a 'special' separate meal for your toddler. It can be helpful to remember:

  • It is normal for children to be fussy eaters.
  • A child will eat when they are hungry.
  • A healthy child who refuses to eat is not hungry and does not need food right now.
  • Try not to worry if your child does not eat or only eats a small amount. It is best not to react but stay calm and positive. Children can sense that their parents are worried, or fussing over them at the mealtime and it can make eating more stressful.

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. If your child will not drink milk, try cheeses, yoghurts and milk shakes.

If your child will not eat cooked vegetables for dinner, you could offer more fruits or salad vegetables (such as celery or carrots). But keep offering the vegetables too.

If your child will not eat meat, you can give them the iron they need with foods like wholemeal bread, iron-fortified breakfast cereals, beans and lentils. And you can replace the protein in meat with the protein in milk, dairy foods, eggs, peanut butter and beans.

By mixing foods you can easily match meat for iron and protein. For example, peanut butter sandwiches, baked beans on toast and iron-fortified breakfast cereal with milk all contain protein and iron.

How can I make eating fun for my child?

Food should be enjoyed, even if it is not all eaten. Make foods fun when you can: for example, you can cut sandwiches into shapes, go to the park for a picnic, or let your child help prepare part of the meal such as arranging salad or fruit pieces.

For a toddler, enjoying food means touching, feeling and playing with it. Let children feed themselves. Hands are as good as spoons, even if they are messier.

How do I avoid mealtime tantrums?

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.

At the same time, give your toddler a choice when you can manage it. They like to have a say in things — this is an important part of their social development. Give them some choices about food but only offer choices you are happy with. For example, you can ask:

  • Which morning tea snack would you like: a piece of fruit or a sandwich?
  • Which cup would you like to drink your water from?
  • Should we buy red or green apples this week?

When should I get help for fussy eating?

If your child is healthy and growing well, they are probably eating enough food. It’s important to remember that:

  • a child will eat when hungry
  • toddlers are less inclined to eat nutritious foods when they fill up on non-nutritious snacks and drinks between meals
  • children are great imitators, so look to your own diet

It can be a good idea to check with your GP, child health nurse 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.

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 2021

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