Fussy eaters are children who refuse to try a new food, or reject foods of certain textures, flavours or shapes. Fussy eating can lead to stress, concern and frustration for parents, who worry that their child is not eating enough.

It is important for you to know that fussy eating is a normal part of childhood development. It allows children to explore their environment and assert their independence. Always remember that healthy children will not starve themselves.

There are some things you can do to improve your child’s eating habits and save your sanity.

  • Begin offering foods with a variety of textures (mashed, pureed, chopped, etc.) from an early age. See our article on ‘Starting Solids’ for more on this.
  • A toddler may need to be offered the same food upwards of 10 to 15 times before they will even try it. Do not be put off by this – persistence and patience are key.
  • Lead by example. Eating habits are learned behaviours, so it is up to you to set a good example for your child.
  • Allow your baby and young toddler to eat food from your plate. Even though you might have put the same thing in front of them, eating from an adult’s plate is far more exciting and will lead to an adventurous appetite for a variety of different foods
  • Don’t overwhelm the plate – it is often better to put only a few bites on a plate and then top it up. Large amounts of food on a plate can overwhelm young children and cause them to refuse to eat anything.
  • Try to avoid influencing your child’s food avoidance (e.g. just because you hate olives doesn’t mean your child will)
  • Many young toddlers will devour all sorts of foods as they haven’t learnt to analyse the food, they just know what tastes good to them.  My own niece ate a tremendous number of crickets during a trip to Vietnam at the age of 1!
  • A child’s appetite varies dramatically depending on their growth rate, when growing rapidly they will eat much more. Keep this in mind as just because your child ate a whole plate of food last week doesn’t mean their bodies have the same needs this week.
  • Be prepared to compromise (i.e. just eat one bite of a new vegetable, rather than the whole serving). Just make sure you aren’t using treat foods to bargain.
  • Avoid bargaining with your child or substituting healthy foods for favourite foods when meals are not eaten. Just try offering them the same food again at the next meal instead.
  • Make mealtime family time. This is a great opportunity for your child to develop a healthy relationship with food and learn some important social skills.
  • Try not to focus too much attention on your child when they are displaying fussy eating behaviours. Often, the attention they get from being fussy can increase this behaviour as it is getting attention.
  • Your child should be eating the same meals as the rest of the family. Offering different meals for adults and children, or even between children, can sometimes encourage fussy eaters.
  • Try to encourage your child to “eat the rainbow” as most foods of the same colour contain similar nutrients. It is more important that they eat foods of several different colours than eat every type of green vegetable, if you are having to compromise with them. If they are happy to eat zucchini and broccoli only, be happy with this and work on incorporating other ‘colours’.
  • Raw and frozen vegetables are often appealing to young children – try raw carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, avocado. The bonus is it saves you a lot of prep time in the kitchen. Many children think frozen peas served straight from the pack are a dessert treat!
  • Make food fun – creating a face out of vegetables or a rainbow out of different coloured fruits often encourages children to try a new food as curiosity gets the better of them.
  • Food on a stick is often a winner – vegetable and fruit skewers will often get children excited
  • If your child is struggling with a texture, try other foods with similar nutrients. For example, yoghurt instead of milk; mince instead of chewy meat; raw or grated vegetables instead of cooked vegetables.
  • Give your child options, but limit these to two to three at a time. (e.g. would you like carrots or broccoli?)
  • Set a time limit on meals of about 20 minutes.
  • Use a visual timer to help remind children of how long there is left before mealtime is over.
  • Remind children when there is 5 minutes left, they might not have an adult concept of time, but they will recognise that this warning means there isn’t much time left.
  • Involve your child in the cooking process. Ask them to help you choose a recipe, wash the vegetables or set the table before a meal.
  • Try not to let your child fill up on drinks or snacks before a meal. As a rule of thumb, nothing but water to eat or drink for one hour prior to mealtimes is appropriate.
  • If they are hassling you that they are hungry before dinner is ready, offer raw vegetable sticks as it doesn’t matter at what time of the day they eat their veggies!
  • If your child finds it hard to settle down at the table, ensure they start winding down at least 15 minutes before a meal. Have them stop whatever they are doing and sit and read a book, wash their hands or some other quiet activity to calm them before mealtime.

If fussy eating is still an issue for you, it may be time to consult a paediatrician. Contact us to arrange an appointment.