Top tips for parents with fussy eaters

Dealing with children who are picky with food

Fussy eating can be a daily struggle for families trying to encourage children to try new foods.  You want your children to look forward to eating and enjoy meals together with the rest of the family. But this isn’t always the case; rather mealtimes become a source of anxiety and frustration. 

First up, it’s important to know that fussy eating is a relatively normal phase in your child’s development. If you have some concerns about your child’s diet you are not alone. 80% of parents are concerned about their children’s eating habits and 1 in 3 worry that their child may not be eating enough. 

Food fussiness typically presents itself during the toddler years anytime from around 18 months up to 3 years of age as children begin to assert their independence. Deciding whether or not they will accept or reject a food is one of few major choices they can make at this age. Many aspects of picky eating behaviour can continue right up until when a child is about 9-10 years of age, so perseverance and persistence is the key.

How can I tell if fussiness is a big problem?

If you can answer YES to most of these questions, it’s likely that your child’s eating behaviours are not putting them in harm’s way: 

- Is their weight tracking well for their height? (GP can determine this on a growth chart)

- Are they sleeping well, have plenty of energy and are generally healthy?

- Do their bowels move regularly and without pain?

- Are they eating at least a few foods from each food group? 

- Have they moved on to eat foods with different textures – lumpy, chewy, crunchy etc.?

- If you consider their food intake over a week, rather than on one day, is it generally pretty balanced?

It can become a more serious problem if:

- Their weight and height are falling behind for their age on the growth chart

- They have toileting troubles (constipation, pain) and often become unwell (low immunity)

- Your child is avoiding whole food groups (i.e. no vegetables or meat)

- Will only eat soft or blended foods

- Won’t mix foods on the plate (everything has to be separate and not touching)

- Their behaviour is interfering with the parent/child relationship 

NOTE: Always speak to a GP about your concerns. A speech pathologist or dietician specialising in fussy eating can help to improve your child’s diet and relationship with food. 

Tips to help manage fussy eating behaviours

There is no one size fits all method to improve fussy eating, but here are some tips to help with mealtime fussiness and how to introduce new foods to your children:

Stay calm  

• When a child refuses to eat, stay calm and avoid reacting. Raised voices, nagging or bribing to prevent a power struggle can prolong their behaviour at meals.

• Keep in mind that children are very good at judging their hunger signals. If your child isn’t eating well or won’t finish their food, take the uneaten food away without commenting and don’t offer favourite foods or snacks afterward. 

Remain positive 

• Try not to label a child as a fussy or picky eater. The child can come to identify with being the fussy eater, or ‘the child that doesn’t eat vegetables’, and want to continue the problem behaviour to ensure this identity in their family remains.

• Instead try to reinforce positive messages. For example saying things like “they are really good at trying new foods” – even if they only took a small bite.

• Children respond positively to praise, so a great technique is to praise your child when he or she eats well, or praise siblings for being good role models when they try a food. 

• Be positive about food and keep a smile on your face (we know this can be hard). For example say “Yum! Did you know “insert food” is good for your skin, muscles, brain, running faster?”

Be patient 

• Did you know it takes 10-15 presentations of a new food before a child’s brain stops identifying the food as new and they may become more accepting to try it? So keep offering a particular food over a period of time even if they continually refuse it. 

• Fussy eaters are often slow eaters. Try not to hurry your child to eat as this can put them off their food. Be patient and let them eat at their own pace. 

Offer healthy alternatives 

• Offer plenty of healthy choices and allow children to choose from a small number of different foods. For example, offer two different fruit options and let your child decide. Instead of asking your child to pick what he or she wants from the fridge, ask “Would you like an apple or grapes?”

• If your child won’t drink milk, try yoghurt or cheese or a fruit smoothie blended with milk. 

• If your child doesn’t like chewing meat, try incorporating mince dishes or other soft protein alternatives such as slow cooked casserole meat, eggs, fish or legumes.

• If they refuse certain foods, keep trying every now and then by offering different versions of the food to help them develop their tastes. For example, if your child refuses boiled carrot try offering it grated, crinkle cut or a dish that subtly includes the ingredient such as a baked vegetable frittata.

• Consider using bridging tastes and flavours when trying new foods in the short term. For example, your child may like grated cheese or tomato sauce. This can initially be offered with new foods, and then slowly tapered away after children are familiar with the food. 

• Go with the flow. Let’s say your child really likes mashed potato, try mixing through similar coloured/textured foods like blended cooked cauliflower or cannellini beans. Or a mashed potato mashed pumpkin swirl using half of each.

Don’t let them fill up on drinks or snacks 

• Ensure children are not filling up on snacks prior to meal times as their stomachs will feel full and they will be less likely to eat.

• Don’t offer children a treat or a bottle after their meal as they may wait for this treat or drink to fill them up instead of trying new foods.

• Limit juice to a maximum 125ml per day and avoid cordials and soft drinks all together. Water is the best choice.

Avoid bribing with unhealthy foods 

• While it can be tempting to offer your child treat foods so that he or she will eat their meal, this can create an unhealthy relationship with food overtime. 

• A great alternative is to provide a non-food reward when your child has eaten well. For example, create a sticker chart and every time your child eats all of their vegetables, reward them with a fun sticker to add to their collection.

Include children in food preparation 

• Encourage children to be involved in food preparation and choice. For example “Would you prefer broccoli or zucchini as our green vegetable for dinner tonight?”

• Your child is more likely to eat a meal he or she has helped to make. This is also a great way to make meal times a fun activity and create a positive environment around food. If an occasion is enjoyable, your child will want to repeat it.

• Try make your own healthy pizza’s (lots of vegetables), healthy banana yoghurt muffins, a noodle stir-fry, rainbow vegie slice etc. 

Eat as a family 

• Children learn by watching others and are more likely to be adventurous if they are not eating alone.

• Continue to role model healthy food behaviours as children will mimic your behaviours and eat the foods you are eating. 

Is your life out of balance? Try the Wheel of Balance today to help you prioritise and get things back on track!

NAQ Nutrition

NAQ Nutrition is a not-for-profit, non-government organisation. We aim to shape the health and wellbeing of our community through informed food choices. Food is life. Food is you. 

Healthy Food Healthy Planet is NAQ Nutrition’s community meal planner and recipe website. It aims to provide people with simple, healthy recipes that are tasty and won’t break the bank.