Many children are fussy eaters. Fussy eating is normal, but it can be hard to handle. Most of the time fussy eating isn’t about food – it’s often about children wanting to be independent. Here are some ideas that might help if you have fussy eaters in the family.
About fussy eating and fussy eaters
It’s normal for children to be fussy eaters – that is, to not like the shape, colour or texture of particular foods.
It’s also normal for children to like something one day but dislike it the next, to refuse new foods, and to eat more or less from day to day.
This all happens because fussy eating is part of children’s development. It’s a way of exploring their environment and asserting their independence. And it’s also because their appetites go up and down depending on how much they’re growing and how active they are.
The good news is that children are likely to get less fussy as they get older. One day your child will probably eat and enjoy a whole range of different foods.
How to handle fussy eaters: make mealtimes pleasant
Your child’s willingness to try food will depend partly on the eating environment. Pleasant, low-stress mealtimes can help.
Here are some tips:
- Make mealtimes happy, regular and social occasions. Try not to worry about spilled drinks or food on the floor.
- Have realistic expectations – for example, you can start by asking your child to lick a piece of food, and work up to trying a mouthful over time. And praise your child for any small effort to try a new food.
- Never force your child to try a food. He’ll have lots of other opportunities to try new foods.
- If your child is fussing about food, ignore it as much as you can. Giving fussy eating lots of attention can sometimes encourage children to keep behaving this way.
- Make healthy foods fun – for example, cut sandwiches into interesting shapes, or let your child help prepare a salad or whisk eggs for an omelette.
- Turn the TV off so your family members can talk to each other instead.
- Set a time limit of about 20 minutes for meals. Anything that goes on too long isn’t fun. If your child hasn’t eaten the food in this time, take it away and don’t offer your child more food until the next planned meal or snack time.
Sometimes toddlers are too distracted to sit at the family table for a meal. If this sounds like your child, try having quiet time before meals so she can calm down before eating. Even the ritual of hand-washing can help.
Offer a variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups at each family meal. Go for variety yourself – show your child that you’re willing to try new foods and that you enjoy them too. Healthy family food and an eating environment that encourages a positive attitude to healthy food make a great start for your child.
Giving fussy eaters independence with food
It can be a good idea to support your child’s need for independence when it comes to food. It’s up to you to provide healthy food options for your child. And it’s up to your child to decide how much he’ll eat!
You could also try letting your child make choices within a range of healthy foods. Just limit the options to two or three things, so your child doesn’t get too confused or overwhelmed to eat. For example, instead of asking your child to pick what she wants from the fridge, you could ask, ‘Would you like grapes or carrot sticks?’.
Another top tip is getting your child involved in preparing family meals.
For example, your child could help out with:
- picking a recipe
- washing fruit and vegies
- tossing a salad.
He’ll feel proud of helping and be more likely to eat something he has helped to make.
Sometimes your child will refuse food just because it gets an interesting reaction from you! If children refuse to eat a food, it doesn’t necessarily mean they dislike it – after all, they might not have even tasted it yet. They might just be putting on a show of independence to see what you’ll do. Try to stay calm when this happens.
How to introduce new foods to fussy eaters
If you have a fussy eater who doesn’t like trying new food, here are some tips that might help:
- Put a small amount of new food on the plate with familiar food your child already likes – for example, a piece of broccoli alongside some mashed potato. Encourage your child to touch, smell or take a lick of the new food.
- Make food attractive. Offer your child a variety of different colours, shapes and sizes and let your child choose what she eats from the plate.
- Keep offering previously refused foods. Your child will probably try it and eventually like it – but he might have to see a food on the plate 10-15 times before he even tries a taste.
- When possible, look for opportunities for your child to share meals and snacks with other children – she might be more willing to try a food if other children are tucking in.
- Serve your child the same meal the family is eating but in a portion size your child will eat. If your child doesn’t eat it, say something like, ‘Try it, it’s yummy’. If he still doesn’t want it, calmly say, ‘OK, we’ll try it another time when you’re hungry’.
- Offer different foods from each of the five good food groups. For example, if your child doesn’t like cheese, she might enjoy yoghurt instead.
- Try not to let your child fill up on drinks or ‘sometimes’ foods before introducing new foods. He’s more likely to try the food if he’s hungry and doesn’t have the option of something else to eat.
Punishments and bribes for fussy eaters
Punishing your child for refusing to try new foods can turn new foods into a negative thing. If your child refuses to eat it, you can offer it to her again another time.
It’s tempting to offer your child food treats just so he ‘eats something’ – for example, ‘If you have a carrot, you can have some chocolate’. But this can make your child more interested in treats than healthy food. It also sends the message that eating healthy food is a chore.
Fussy eating facts
These facts can help you understand why children sometimes fuss about their food:
- Children’s appetites are affected by their growth cycles. Even babies have changing appetites. At 1-6 years, it’s common for children to be really hungry one day and picky the next.
- Children have different taste preferences from grown-ups.
- Life is too exciting for children sometimes, and they’re too busy exploring the world around them to spend time eating.
- Children learn by testing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. They can be very strong willed when it comes to making decisions about food (to eat or not to eat, and what to eat). It’s all part of their social, intellectual and emotional development.