I know too well that fussy eating can be a huge source of frustration for parents and carers. You may find you spend hours each week cooking nourishing meals from scratch, only to find your toddler takes one look at their plate and pushes it away. Or, your child might demand to eat the same, very limited selection of foods at every meal or snack time.
Sound familiar? Then you might have a fussy eater on your hands. I encounter fussy or picky eating daily in my work, and Raffy has been through multiple phases of being a little fussy, especially during lockdown. It really is SO common, and it can also be a very normal stage of development that most children grow out of. So, try not to worry.
For many children, fussy eating can appear quite suddenly (hello toddlerhood!), and many parents ask why their toddler is suddenly eating a restricted diet. So, in this article I’ll look at some of the reasons why your child might be showing signs of fussiness.
How do I know if my child is a fussy eater?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a widely accepted definition of fussy eating1. However, if you’re unsure as to whether or not your toddler is a fussy eater, it’s worth considering the following questions. Do keep in mind not to be too quick to label your child as fussy – it’s very normal for children to go through phases of food refusal.
Does your child:
- eat a different meal to the rest of the family?
- have an obvious dislike towards new foods?
- eat a limited intake of foods?
- have a limited variety of foods?
- eat slowly?
- show little enjoyment of food?
- trigger stress at the dinner table?
If the answer to these is predominantly yes, then it’s likely you may have a fussy eater in the house.
Day to Day Causes of Fussy Eating
So, let’s consider if there are any underlying reasons for your child’s fussiness. There are actually a lot of day-to-day factors that can contribute to kids being picky, and some are easily missed by parents. The following questions might highlight why your toddler has been fussy recently.
1. Are they drinking too much milk?
If your child is drinking a lot of milk between meals this can affect their appetite. Milk is still a food which can fill little ones up and displace other foods in the diet. Try reducing milk intake or swapping milk for water if your child is over 12 months.
2. Are they having too many snacks?
Giving your child several snacks a day can mean they are too full to eat at mealtimes. Toddlers ideally require no more than 2 snacks a day: one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon snack. See my blog for some guidance on healthy snack ideas for toddlers.
3. Are portion sizes too big?
Large portion sizes can be overwhelming for little ones, and you may find they are more likely to gobble up much smaller portions. Check out my factsheet on portion sizes for children under 5. It may also help to consider your expectations of how much they should eat.
4. Are they unwell, tired or over hungry?
All these factors can contribute to a child’s eating habits – including being too hungry! Feeling too tired or unwell, including teething, can also contribute to a child’s appetite.
5. Do they feel under pressure?
If children sense they are under pressure to eat, they may reject their food. If mealtimes are perceived as a negative environment for little ones, they may be less likely to want to eat. A calm environment is key.
6. Are treats or puddings given too much importance?
If children are told that they need to eat their main meal in order to get a treat or pudding, they may reject their meal in anticipation of the yummy dessert! So, it’s generally best to avoid using food as a reward. You can see some of my thoughts on puddings in this blog on fruit as part of a meal.
7. Are they distracted?
Does your child play with toys at mealtimes, or watch TV? Or is there stimulating noise or activity going on? They may simply be too absorbed in this to eat. Try removing the distractions to see if it helps them focus on their meal.
8. Are they eating with someone?
You may find your little one is less likely to eat if they’re sat alone. On the other hand, if they regularly eat meals with someone (a role model eater!), it can actually help them to eat more and overcome their fussy stage.
9. Is there a mealtime routine or structure?
If the answer is no then this may be contributing to fussy eating. It could also mean they have not established their hunger and fullness signals.
10. Could certain nutritional deficiencies be affecting their appetite?
In some cases deficiencies might be a cause of fussy eating. If you are concerned this may be a factor, speak to your Health Visitor (HV) or another healthcare professional for advice.
Source: Adapted from NHS Choices3
Why is my toddler suddenly being fussy?
If you’ve found the questions above don’t relate to your child (always check with your HV or GP if unsure) then there may be other explanations. Please be aware that some of these causes, like genetics, do not mean there’s nothing you can do to help. There are always tips and tricks to improve things, even for children who are more prone to fussy eating or going through a period of neophobia.
One reason for your little one becoming fussy is the development of neophobia – a fear of new foods – which is very common amongst toddlers once they are on the move! Research shows that neophobia is an evolutionary response to prevent children from eating something new that is potentially poisonous or harmful
4. BUT, with consistent exposure, little ones can learn to develop the confidence to try new foods and learn that they are safe to eat.
Some children have a natural preference for certain tastes. There is research to show that some genes determine whether a child is more or less tolerant of certain flavours, such as bitter ones.
Not enough variety
If children haven’t had enough exposure to different flavours during the earlier stages of feeding then they may be less likely to accept new, sour or bitter tastes. Don’t worry though – it’s not too late to start exposing your child to new and varied tastes.
As a child reaches toddlerhood, they may become less cooperative with day to day activities as a way to assert themselves. We’re all familiar with toddler tantrums brought about by our requests for putting shoes or coats on – and it can also be the case with eating their meals!5 So, it’s a key reason to keep meal times pressure-free and not show any frustration if your child rejects foods.
Loss of appetite
You may have found your little one was an adventurous little foodie during weaning, only to suddenly reject foods or eat much less once they turned 12 months. This may be in part due to a change in appetite. Babies’ growth rate slows after 1 year which can contribute to a decrease in appetite and lack of interest in food6.
Should I be worried?
It’s natural to worry when your child doesn’t appear to be eating much. However, it’s very important to look at what your toddler has eaten over the course of a whole week and not just one day. You may find over seven days that your child has actually eaten more than you think. Keeping a food diary may help here.
The key things to look for in your toddler are:
- Are they gaining weight? Be sure to have them weighed regularly, especially if you’re worried at all about their food intakes.
- Do they have enough energy?
- Are they producing enough wet and dirty nappies? Check with your HV and try to keep an eye on what’s ‘normal’ for your little one.
If the answer to these is yes, then it’s likely your toddler is eating enough.
Want to read more?
I hope this article has given you some insights into why your toddler might be showing signs of fussiness. The key thing to keep in mind is that this is all very normal and that there are plenty of tips and tricks to help get your little one back on track with their eating (and help you feel calmer, too!). Continue to offer a variety of foods – with consistency, it’s likely they’ll grow out of this pesky phase!
See my factsheet for my tried and tested tips and strategies on how to deal with fussy eaters, which will give you lots of practical solutions you can start to implement straight away.
I also run detailed, informative, fussy eating webinars every month or so, so if you’re looking for more support and want your questions answered, do check these out. You can also find me posting about all things child nutrition on Instagram.
1. Taylor CM et al. (2015) Picky/fussy eating in children: Review of definitions, assessment, prevalence and dietary intakes. Appetite 95:349-59
2. Trofholz AC et al. (2017) How parents describe picky eating and its impact on family meals: A qualitative analysis. Appetite 110:36-43.
Tharner A et al. (2014) Toward an operative diagnosis of fussy/picky eating: a latent profile approach in a population-based cohort. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 11:14.
3. NHS Choices (2015) Fussy eaters. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/Pages/fussy-eaters.aspx
4. Demattè ML et al. (2014) Food neophobia and its relation with olfaction. Front Psychol. 2014 5:127.
5, 6. NHS (2009) Fussy Eaters Available at: https://www.gosh.nhs.uk/conditions-and-treatments/general-health-advice/food-and-diet/fussy-eaters/