Top Tips for Fussy Eaters
I once heard that our kids are usually making either our hearts or our heads explode – and I know that fussy eating can be a common cause of the latter! It’s actually one of the most frequent issues parents speak to me about.
For some little ones, fussy eating creeps up over time, but for many it seemingly comes out of nowhere. I so often hear from parents and carers who had a relatively straight forward weaning journey (often with an adventurous little eater!), only for their toddler to suddenly start rejecting foods or limit their diet.
Please know that, as stressful as it can be, this is often a very normal stage of your child’s development. In fact, about 50% of children are fussy at some point during the early years1, and most grow out of it. It’s something I come across daily as a nutritionist, but it’s also reared its head in my home, too. Raffy has gone through quite a few periods of fussy eating now, which really surprised everyone as he has always loved his food. So, please know that most children will grow out of it.
In my last blog on this issue, we looked at why your child might be displaying picky tendencies. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading this to determine if there’s any underlying factors causing your little one to be fussy. Sometimes a few little tweaks to routines can make a big difference.
Before meal times…
Before I dive into my tips, I want to quickly recap things to check. Before serving meals, do make sure that your child is at their best, and ready to accept food. Make sure they are:
- not too full on snacks
- not too full on milk (see my milk recommendations blog to make sure your child isn’t filling up on milk)
- aren’t feeling unwell or teething
- aren’t overly tired
- aren’t overly hungry (your child might need snacks in between meals if this is the case)
All of the above can contribute to your child rejecting foods. If you’re sure none of these apply you’re probably still asking…
How do I get my fussy child to eat?
There are always things we can do to help our children accept foods. Here are my top tips for tackling picky eating.
As often as you can, eat with your child at the dinner table. Even better, eat as a family if possible, and try to all eat the same meal (but do ensure lower salt content for little ones). You can be a great role model eater for your child, and research shows children are less fussy when they eat with others. This is also a great chance to bond together, discuss the day and talk about food, too. If you have an older toddler, you could try to get them involved in the mealtime process – with cooking, setting up the table, or with serving up.
Allow your toddler to get familiar with foods
During weaning and the toddler years, it’s SO important to build familiarisation with foods. Children often need to be exposed to a food many times before accepting it – some research suggests up to 15 times!2 So, if you find your toddler rejects broccoli, don’t assume they don’t like it and DON’T stop serving it.
Neophobia, the fear of new foods, is very common in toddlers. Research suggests it’s a built-in evolutionary sense that prevents them from eating potentially poisonous or harmful foods. It means many children will happily gobble up fruit, but be more cautious of bitter or non-sweet tasting foods – and yes, these are often vegetables! So, we need to keep offering these foods so children can learn they are safe to eat, as well as learn to enjoy them.
Offer realistic portion sizes
Big portion sizes can be really overwhelming for little tummies, and can actually contribute to the rejection of meals. Children need much smaller portions than their parents. At your next meal, try offering a smaller portion than what you usually serve. Look closely for your child’s appetite cues, and allow them to go for seconds if they are still hungry. When offering new foods, start small – offering a pile of cauliflower to a toddler who is not confident with vegetables will only put them off. Once they accept the new food (remember, keep trying!) you can then offer more.
Avoid offering alternatives
Understandably, many parents worry when their child rejects a meal, and many go on to offer a more palatable alternative that they know will be accepted. This is ultimately teaching children that it’s ok to reject foods and that they are in control, as there will always be an alternative available. Remember, we want to encourage our children to be adventurous eaters and to try new or different things.
A better way to deal with a fussy toddler is to offer choices. So, you can ask them if they’d prefer porridge or scrambled egg for breakfast; a pear or banana for a snack; cottage pie or salmon for tea. By giving a choice of two healthy alternatives you are in control, but you’re still allowing your little one some independence.
If your child rejects what you serve, don’t make a fuss – simply take it away once you are finished with your own meal. Leave it in the fridge, and try parts of it or even the whole meal again later.
Have a structure around food
As is the case with sleep, having a routine around food is really important, and research shows children are less fussy when they have structured mealtimes. Try to eat together at the same time each day. Kids thrive on routines and like to know what to expect.
The following meal time routine is recommended for young children. These guidelines are for food to have alongside their regular milk (see my milk recommendations blog for how much milk your little one should continue to have):
|Child’s age||Frequency of food|
|6-8 months||Meals 1-3 times a day|
|9-11 months||Meals 3 times a day|
|12-24+ months||Meals 3 times daily and 1-2 nutritious snacks.|
Make mealtimes fun (and keep the pressure off!)
Ultimately we want our little ones to have positive associations with mealtimes. Chat together, use colourful tablecloths and cutlery, or even have themed dinner nights. Whatever your little one loves, try and integrate it around the table. Just be careful not to include distractions, such as TV or toys. When the food is served we want our little ones to focus on eating.
I know so many parents dread mealtimes with a fussy toddler, but try to avoid battles at the dinner table. Focus your attention on the positive eating behaviours your child displays, not the negative ones. And offer some subtle praise for when your little one does eat well. Do NOT force your child to eat, and do try to stay calm – if you are calm then they are more likely to be, too. We all know toddlers do not respond well to pressure!
My final tip: Try not to worry!
We all have a tendency to worry if our child misses a meal, but it’s very important to look at what your little one eats over the space of a week, and not a day. If it helps, make notes on what and how much they eat throughout the day, and then take a look at the end of the week – it may be more than you think.
If your child is gaining weight and has enough energy then they are most likely getting enough nutrients3. As always, check with your Health Visitor or paediatrician if you have any concerns.
To sum up…
Here’s a summary of the tips for fussy eaters, including a few extras.
- Make sure your child isn’t too hungry, tired, unwell, teething or full of milk/snacks before serving meals.
- Eat with your child as often as you can.
- Keep offering foods, even if your child rejects them. Children need exposure to foods to learn to like them and know they are safe to eat.
- Try smaller portion sizes and see how your child responds. Offer seconds if they’re still hungry.
- Avoid offering alternatives if meals are rejected.
- Have a structure and routine around mealtimes.
- Try to build positive associations with mealtimes, and make them fun.
- Keep mealtimes calm, and never put pressure on your child to eat.
- Focus on positive eating behaviours, and offer praise when your child eats well.
- Don’t use food as a reward such as ‘you’ll get a pudding if you eat this’. This will only increase rejection of foods.
- Avoid distractions at mealtimes as your little one may be too absorbed in them to eat!
- Don’t give up!
- Try to have fun with meals and food as much as possible
Fussy eating can be one of the biggest challenges we face as toddler parents. But, please know there is so much you can do to help, and with consistency it’s likely your child will get through this stage. There is also a lot of support available.
I frequently run fussy eating webinars that go into a lot more detail about what you can do. In these workshops I also answer your questions, so do join us if you would like some more tailored support. I also have a fussy eating factsheet with some more information on how to cope.
Finally, if you’d like regular child nutrition content from me, come and join me on Instagram!
- Cardona Cano S et al. (2015) Trajectories of picky eating during childhood: A general population study. Int J Eat Disord. 2015 Sep;48(6):570-9.
- Schwartz S& Benuck I (2013) Strategies and suggestions for a healthy toddler diet. Pediatr Ann 42(9):181-3.
- Steinsbekk Set al. (2017) Child and parent predictors of picky eating from preschool to school age. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 14(1):87.