It’s normal for children to be fussy eaters – that is, to not like the taste, 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 children’s appetites go up and down depending on how much they’re growing and how active they are.
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.
- Start small. For example, start by asking your child to lick a piece of food, and work up to trying a mouthful. And praise your child for these small attempts.
- 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.
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. You provide healthy food options for your child. But let your child 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 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 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
- getting food out of the fridge
- washing fruit and vegies
- tossing a salad
- planting and picking herbs at home.
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.
Introducing 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:
- Keep offering new foods at different times. Your child will probably try them and eventually like them – but she might have to see a food on the plate 10-15 times before she even tries a taste.
- 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 lick the new food.
- Make food attractive. Offer your child a variety of different colours, shapes and sizes and let your child choose what he eats from the plate.
- 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 she 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 healthy food groups. For example, if your child doesn’t like cheese, he might enjoy yoghurt instead.
- Try not to let your child fill up on drinks or ‘sometimes’ foods before introducing new foods. She’s more likely to try food if she’s hungry and doesn’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 – he might be more willing to try a food if other children are tucking in.
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, calmly take it away and 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.