Being a fussy eater is normal in young children but can be worrying and frustrating for parents. As long as your child is growing and developing healthily, they're eating enough.
Key points about fussy eaters
- It’s the parents' role to choose what foods are offered to your child and when the food is offered. It’s your child’s role to choose how much to eat from what is offered.
- It’s completely normal for your toddler to let you know the foods they like and dislike. It’s also completely normal for your child to change their mind about their likes and dislikes.
- You may need to offer your child a new food many times before they will try eating it.
- Aim to make mealtimes fun and relaxing, rather than stressful or rushed. Be a good role model and show your child how to eat by eating well in front of them.
- There is a difference between picky eating and problem feeders. Problem feeders fail to thrive and need to be referred to a dietitian or specialist.
- Talk with your GP if you are worried about your child’s eating or growth.
What is normal fussiness?
Toddlers are built to be cautious of new foods for safety reasons. In the past, a lot of food was dangerous!
Fussiness may also be a way of attention seeking or demonstrating their independence.
Your child’s food preferences may also be due to what food they were exposed to when they were in the womb and in their first year of life. Babies taste foods in amniotic fluid and breast milk! Their genes may also play a role in their food preferences.
Fussy eater or problem feeder?
It takes many tries for children to learn to accept new foods:
- a few tries in infants
- 5–10 tries in toddlers
- 15 or more tries in 3–4-year-olds.
|Factor||Picky eater||Problem feeder|
|Number of foods||30 or more||20 or less|
|Food fads||Foods are lost due to “burn out” because of a food fad (i.e. only wanting to eat that food) but are usually re-gained after a 2 week break.||Foods lost due to food fads are not re-acquired after taking a break, often resulting in decreasing numbers of foods eaten.|
|New foods on plate||Tolerates them, may touch or taste (even if reluctantly).||Cries and fall apart with new foods with complete refusal.|
|Textures||Eats a variety of textures(e.g. puree, proteins, meltables, fruits).||Cries and fall apart with new foods with complete refusal.|
|Family dynamics||Frequently eats a different set of foods at a meal than the rest of the family but typically eats with the family.||Almost always eats different foods than the family and often doesn’t eat with them.|
|Failure to thrive||Normal weight.||Underweight ('failure to thrive'), weight below 3rd centile.|
Fussy? Or just not hungry?
Like most adults, children will have more of an appetite – and eat with more gusto – when they are hungry. Parents sometimes give their children food and drinks too regularly, which can lead to their child always feeling full and not experiencing the feeling of ‘being hungry’.
Children should have 3 main meals a day, including a small snack between each meal. Offer your child lots of healthy foods and let them choose what they would like to eat and how much they want to eat.
Out of desperation, you may feel tempted to offer your child salty, sugary and fatty foods, or more milk. But if your child consumes too much of these foods, they will have less room in their stomachs for healthy foods.
Try these healthy snacks:
- small sandwiches
Read more about healthy snacks for children.
Tips for between meals
Try these tips to help your child have a good appetite at mealtimes:
- Children need a gap of around 1–2 hours without eating to make sure they're hungry for their next meal, so try not to offer snacks right before a main meal.
- Limit your child’s milk to no more than 500–600ml each day. Drinking too much milk can make children feel full, so they may not eat as much food.
- Keep meals and snacks at set regular times. If your child asks for food in between these times, try to distract them with something else, eg, ask if they'd like to play a game outside. Offer them food at the next meal.
Tips for mealtimes
- Eat in a calm, relaxed environment, at a special place, with the family, without distractions and at a set time.
- Regularly offer your child new foods and a few foods that they turn down, but don’t force your child to eat anything. Fighting just attaches negative emotions to the food and makes the struggle worse.
- Simply prepare healthy foods, and if they don’t eat it, then try again later.
- Finish the meal within 20–30 minutes – don’t have long mealtimes and don’t chase your child around the room to get them to eat.
- Try new food/textures along with familiar foods. Don’t make separate meals for your child but make sure you include something you know they’ll eat.
- Use finger foods as often as possible – this allows them to interact more with the food.
- Avoid pressure – negative pressure (eat this or else) or positive pressure (if you eat this you can have) often leads to children eating less or more than what they need. Instead, encourage them to listen to their tummy voice and focus on eating your own food.
- Avoid saying “you’re making mum/dad so happy” as this tells them that they control your emotions.
- Let them make mess! Making a mess is important for their learning.
- Present a variety of foods in a box and encourage them to help themselves
- When older, encourage your child to be involved with food preparation, choosing recipes, cooking and gardening.
- Provide a spit cup or napkin – this allows your child to spit out foods into a cup or napkin to increase confidence that they don’t have to swallow.
- Make portions the right size. A toddler portion is about ¼ of an adult portion. Big portions can be overwhelming.
- Avoid talking about healthy, unhealthy, good and bad foods. Instead focus on a food’s taste, texture, flavour and cultural importance.
Feeding your baby during the first year of life
Nutrition in the first 2 years of a baby’s life is very important.
- Eat a variety of foods when pregnant and breastfeeding
- Milk (breast milk or formula) is a baby’s best source of nutrition in the first 6 months.
- Introduce solids at around 6 months of age – this includes all common allergens such as egg, wheat and peanut.
- Introduce a variety of textures. Start with soft, mushy foods and gradually increase the texture to lumpy, chunky, chewy, crunchy.
- Try foods fed with a spoon and soft finger foods.
Let your child choose the amount of food they eat and avoid putting pressure on them to eat more or less.
Talk to your Well Child nurse or doctor if you are worried about your child’s fussy eating, or call PlunketLine on 0800 933 922.
If you see a dietitian or paediatrician for a problem feeder, make sure they are trained in SOS (sequential and sensory approach), which works to systematically desensitise your child to new foods, or in division of responsibility in feeding. These are the only approaches with evidence backing their effectiveness.
Eating for healthy children aged 2-12 years HealthEd (Health Promotion Agency & Ministry of Health NZ)
Feeding your child – 1 year and over Ministry of Health NZ
Children's nutrition – 10 tips for picky eaters Mayo Clinic, USA, 2014
Being fussy about food – tips for parents SKIP, NZ
- Helpful advice for years 1-5 – fussy or picky eating Ministry of Health NZ
- Food & nutrition – fussy eating Plunket NZ
- Picky eating during childhood: a longitudinal study to age 11 years Eating & Behaviour, 2010
- Picky Eating in Children Frontiers in Pediatrics, 2015
- Division of responsibility in feeding Ellyn Satter Institute, US, 2019
|Elise Penning is a registered dietitian and food and nutrition blogger. Elise specialises in the non-diet approach and works with fussy kids, weight concern in children, disordered eating and binge eating.|