Bored mum trying to feed her child

Fussy eaters: how to handle mealtimes

Nutritionist Lucy Shipton from the Early Years Nutrition Partnership explains why some children can be picky about food and gives lots of tips for dealing with fussy eaters.

While many parents do their best to provide a balanced and varied diet for children, fussy eating can make this a particular challenge.

Most children go through a phase of picky eating at some point, but if you understand why it happens and how you can help, it will become much easier to manage.

Developing tastes

At around age two, most children will go through a ‘neophobic’ phase and previously accepted foods will suddenly be rejected on sight, smell or taste.

This is thought to be a survival instinct, preventing children from eating something that could cause them harm. Children will want to check food by smelling, looking and licking at it before they put it in their mouths. It can take between 15-20 attempts before a child will try a new food, so don’t give up on any initially rejected.

A little later on when they are a bit older, children may go through a phase of disgust and develop a fear of contamination. Previously enjoyed foods may be rejected based on their resemblance to something that the child views as disgusting – spaghetti looking like worms is a good example. They may also become reluctant to eat foods if they have touched something else on their plate that they do not like.

If your child is going through a picky or fussy stage with their eating, have a think about whether it is related to their developmental stage or whether it could be something else. Other influences on fussy eating include the arrival of a new sibling, starting a nursery or school or moving house. Children might use their eating as a way of exerting control over the change in their circumstances. Uncommonly, it may be due to an underlying medical problem.

Smaller appetites

It is completely normal for the amount children eat each day, or even at each meal, to vary.

Toddlers are very good at listening to their appetites and eating what their body needs at the time.

Appetite is affected by a variety of factors including growth spurts, the weather, illness, teething, emotions and constipation.

As parents and caregivers we have a responsibility to offer a varied balanced diet but it is up to the child if and how much they eat.

Things to try when dealing with fussy eaters

* Encourage your child or children to take part in preparing for mealtimes. If they can’t be involved in preparing the food for some reason, they can lay the table or even serve themselves if the food isn't too hot.

* Sit with your child while they eat so you can offer gentle encouragement throughout the meal.

* Try using a tablecloth or even a vase of paper flowers to create a welcoming environment for your mealtimes.

* Avoid distractions at mealtimes. Toys and activities should be tidied away so the child can focus on the food and benefit from exposure to the food even if they don’t eat it.

* Playing classical music can also encourage a calm atmosphere.

* Be a good role model. Eat the food yourself, talk positively about the food and use positive body language to reassure them if they are unsure about trying these foods.

* Offer small portions. Too much food on a plate can be overwhelming for fussy eaters and you may put them off before they have even started.

* Praise children for eating well or trying new foods. Use star charts or stickers as a way of rewarding them but avoid using food as a reward.

* Work in partnership with your child's nursery or childminder. It is useful to learn about your child's eating habits when they are away from you. Are they more adventurous eaters at nursery than at home? What times do they eat at nursery — could this affect their appetite?

Things to avoid with fussy eaters

  • Don’t coerce a children into eating more than they want to. If they show signs that they have had enough, be careful not to pressure them to eat any more.
  • Don’t let mealtimes drag on ­–­­­­­­ 20-30 minutes is about right.
  • If a dish is refused, don’t offer children an alternative meal. This teaches children that it is okay to refuse food and they will keep holding out to see what they are offered next.
  • Puddings should not be offered as a reward for finishing a main meal. Children will learn that puddings are a more desirable food. Use stars or stickers instead and allow children to eat the usual pudding from your menu even if they haven’t finished the main meal.

This post was adapated from an article that first appeared in Under 5 magazine — the magazine of the Alliance. It was written by Lucy Shipton from the The Early Years Nutrition Partnership which works to improve the future health outcomes of young children by setting a standard for nutrition practice in early years settings. 

Where next?

Keeping children safe in the sun

9 ways to help your child develop robust mental health

5 fun and educational water play ideas