About fussy eating
It’s common for young children to be fussy about the foods they eat – that is, to not like the taste, shape, colour or texture of particular foods.
It’s also common 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 choosing what to eat – or what not to eat – is part of children’s development. It’s a way of exploring their environment and asserting independence. Also, children’s 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. If you offer children a wide variety of foods, they’re likely to grow up to eat and enjoy a variety of foods.
How pleasant mealtimes can help with fussy eating
Your child’s willingness to try food will depend partly on their eating environment. Pleasant, low-stress mealtimes can help.
Here are tips:
- Make mealtimes happy, regular and social occasions. Try not to worry about spilled drinks or food on the floor.
- Start small. Put a small amount of food on your child’s plate, or put all foods in the centre of the table and let your child serve themselves.
- Never force your child to try a food.
- 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 and focus on enjoying the meal.
- If your child is fussing about food, try to stay calm. This will help your child think of mealtimes as enjoyable and relaxing.
- 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 without fuss or comments.
Sometimes children are too distracted to sit at the family table for a meal. If this sounds like your child, try giving your child a 5-minute warning or quiet time before meals so they can calm down before eating. Even the ritual of hand-washing can help.
Offer a variety of nutritious foods from the 5 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 food make a great start for your child.
How food independence can help with fussy eating
It can be a good idea to support your child’s need for independence when it comes to food. You provide healthy food options for your child. But let your child decide how much they’ll eat.
You could also let your child make choices within a range of healthy foods. Just limit the options to 2-3 things, so your child doesn’t get too confused or overwhelmed to eat. For example, instead of asking your child to pick what they want from the fridge, you could ask, ‘Would you like carrot or cucumber?’
Another top tip is getting your child involved in preparing family meals. For example, your child could help out with:
- picking a recipe
- getting food out of the fridge
- washing fruit and vegetables
- tossing a salad
- planting and picking herbs at home.
They’ll feel proud of helping and be more likely to eat something they’ve helped to make.
Sometimes your child might refuse food to see how you’ll react. If you stay calm, it will be less interesting for your child, and they might be less likely to do it again.
How to introduce new foods and discourage fussy eating
If you have a child who doesn’t like trying new food, these tips might help:
- Keep offering a new food. It can take 10-15 tries (or even more) for children to become familiar with, accept and enjoy new foods.
- 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.
- Show your child how you explore food – for example, touching, smelling or licking.
- Make food attractive and fun. Offer your child a variety of different colours, shapes and sizes, and let your child choose what they eat from the plate.
- Serve your child the same meal the family is eating but in a portion size your child will eat.
- Offer different foods from each of the 5 food groups. For example, if your child doesn’t like cheese, they might enjoy yoghurt instead.
- Try not to let your child fill up on drinks or ‘sometimes’ foods before introducing new foods. They’re more likely to try food if they’re hungry and don’t have the option of something else to eat.
- When possible, look for opportunities for your child to share meals and snacks with other children – they might be more willing to try a food if they see other children eating it.
It can be tempting to offer your child food treats just so they eat 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 very 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. Eating also uses energy – so when they’re tired they might be less interested in 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.
If your child is healthy and has enough energy to play, learn and explore, they’re probably eating enough. But if your child eats only a very small range of foods or won’t eat entire food groups for longer than a few weeks, see your GP, your child and family health nurse or a dietitian.