As parents we have, and continue to face the ongoing challenge of fussy eating…. where our children may love a particular food one day and then flat refuse it the next… for no apparent reason. In our search to combat this problem, we found it really difficult to track down genuinely helpful advice. Below is some practical information we've found useful and some tips to help.
A good place to start is to highlight a few facts about fussy eating:
Armed with this information, you are in a better position to manage fussy eaters. Below we outline some of the reasons for fussy eating and offer some of our ideas to help.
By understanding a little about why young children can be fussy eaters – we hope to alleviate some of the stress around mealtimes – and help to make eating fun.
Below are some of the reasons for fussy eating:
Erratic appetites are common between one and five years as growth slows down. Toddlers and young children have a naturally fluctuating appetite which is influenced by growth cycles.
For many kids, fussy eating becomes apparent between 12 and 15 months of age - prior to this they may have happily tried everything. This happens to coincide developmentally with when toddlers are becoming aware of their independence, expressing themselves and testing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. They can be very strong-willed when it comes to making decisions (what, when, where and how they eat) about food. It’s all part of their social, intellectual and emotional development.
It’s a great way to get attention or a reaction. Toddlers and young children may refuse food just because they know its important to you and it provokes a reaction.
toddlers and young children have different taste preferences to adults.
the world is a fun place with lots of distractions. Children may find it hard to sit still and eat as there are so many other fun things to do.
The first step to is to identify exactly what you’re up against.
Ask yourself these questions:
What and how much is my child really eating? Monitor the child’s food and drink intake for a few days and write it down. A food diary is a really good way to do this. Some parents are pleasantly surprised to find that their child is actually eating quite well when they analyse it – for example, children may prefer to ‘graze’ rather than eat larger meals, but still may be eating a reasonable range of foods. You may also find that your child may have days when they eat furiously and others when they hardly touch a thing.
Liquid intake can also be revealing. Many children fill up on drinks, leaving no room for food. Milk might be the culprit – although it’s important for children to drink milk, they only need about 500 - 600mls a day after the age of one.
‘I was very pleasantly surprised to find my 2 year old daughter who has notoriously been a picky eater at home, was eating everything put in front of her at daycare. After observing my daughter in different situations, I have found she is a very social and competitive eater. By making sure we sit down and eat as a family, her fussy eating has really improved!’
What food does your child like? Write down everything the child will eat on a list. Again, this can be reassuring, OR it may also highlight nutrients your child is lacking (an inadequate diet). A healthy diet needs a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals BUT remember nutrients are found in a huge variety of foods so if your child won’t eat something, there are a range of options to try.
For more information see the Nutritional Needs for Children article.
Fun Food games/activities are fabulous tools to help educate your family about food and healthy eating. Keeping a food diary as it is a great way to show your child’s preferences, to track what’s been eaten and it will help to solve your food challenges.
It may be challenging but make a real effort to make meal times a stress-free social occasion. Try not to worry about your child not finishing their meal, about knocked-over drinks or a mess on the floor. Give positive feedback on the habits you want continued, rather than focusing on the negatives. Serve your child the same meal the family is eating and if they choose not to eat it…try not to lose your cool, simply remove the uneaten food and try again at the next meal time.
Food and the experience of food should be enjoyed… even if it's not all eaten. Discovering and enjoying food for a toddler or young child means touching, feeling, tasting and playing with food. This can be messy, but if you expect it and prepare for the spills the experience of food can be genuinely fun for your child…and you!
For all children (but particularly fussy eaters), broaden the experience of food by not only focusing on the eating but all the other things food has to offer. Think about food play, food preparation, growing food, cooking, the social aspects of food, food stories, food colours, textures and the learning potential around food. By doing this your child will develop an appreciation for food and a more lifestyle orientated attitude towards it.
For some great ideas to make food fun see Fun Food Guide article.
There will be days where your child is hungry and other days when they will hardly touch a thing…feed them when they’re hungry; and let them eat less when they’re not interested. This way you will encourage your child’s’ natural appetite – don’t worry they won’t starve!!
The amount of food children need and their appetite depends on the speed at which they grow. Babies grow rapidly - a six- month-old baby will gain one kilogram every eight weeks. But toddlers grow slowly in comparison and may take even six months to gain one kilogram . Very simply; toddlers and small children don’t eat as much as babies because they don’t need as much - despite the fact that they may be very active throughout the day!
Understand that will be times when your child is simply not hungry. Respect this and avoid forcing or coercing them to eat. Acknowledge that if your child is sick, has a sore throat or is teething, this will have an effect on their appetite.
Understandably, parents become worried if their child’s appetite is small and will try to ensure adequate energy intake by offering snacks throughout the day….we have definitely been guilty of this.
Snacks are as essential for young children as meals. Try to offer nutritious snacks but as all parents know… taste and perception will ultimately influence whether it is eaten or not so be creative – see snack ideas and information for some of our ideas.
Offering sugary or salty snacks throughout the day in an attempt to ensure your child is getting something is likely to back fire. Remember, snacks high in fat, sugar, salt or additives may ruin your child’s appetite (particularly if they are close to mealtimes) AND toddlers and children become less inclined to eat family food when they know they will get tempting snacks as an alternative.
If your child will only eat a few foods, try to increase the range of things they will eat. Persevere and try to introduce your fussy eater to a range of tastes, textures, and colours. Continue to offer their favourites, but include something new at each mealtime and praise the child for trying. If they won’t taste it this time, offer it again later. It may take 6-10 times before your child tastes and, eventually, eats it (hopefully).
Visit the local farmer’s markets….make it a weekend outing with your child. Farmers markets are a brilliant place to experience a variety of foods - ask questions, learn what is in season, touch, taste and enjoy food.
See making food fun for more ideas on increasing the range and variety of foods for your child.
Convenience and processed foods that are high in additives, salt, sugar and/or fat are not healthy. Homemade food can be exciting and the great thing about home cooking is you know exactly what’s in! By limiting the amount of additives, sugar and salt you add to your child’s food, you will help them learn to appreciate natural tastes.
Or should we say the wrong sort of distractions. Basically make time for food and socialising as a family around food. Little children are more likely to concentrate on eating if you prioritise mealtimes - turn off the T.V, sit down together and make the time for meals/eating. Fussy eaters are more likely to join in if mealtimes are relaxed and fun -where your child sees you enjoying food and enjoying time together. Children can be involved in all aspects of the process from shopping together, growing stuff for the meal, setting the table, serving, eating and cleaning up. Yes it definitely takes time and is not always possible in today’s hectic lifestyle BUT even if you can do for one meal a day… it will pay dividends in the long run and will teach children (and especially fussy eaters) to have a more positive appreciation of food.
Try to support your child’s move to independence rather than fighting it. Offering choices is a really good way to keep the experience positive, empower them to make decisions and ULTIMATELY increase the likelihood your child will eat good food.
Yum Yum Ideas to help -
Presentation can make all the difference between whether or not a child will eat food - particularly for those not so exciting foods. Serving foods in funky bright-coloured dishes of different shapes and sizes can encourage consumption as it makes eating fun. Little minds love to be creative and stimulated. Use a funky drink bottle to encourage the drinking of water and a gorgeous lunch box to make home packed healthy lunches fun.
Fussy eaters are often slow eaters who dawdle over their plate. It is pointless trying to hurry them. Offer meals at regular times in a relaxed and happy atmosphere. If a child has become used to picky eating, it may take some time to reverse things. Try to be calm, patient, and consistent. If your child rejects the food, calmly clear it away and resist the urge to offer alternatives. Just try again another day. Remember food often needs to be familiar before it is tried.
Acknowledge good behaviours and ignore the bad. The best reinforcement is your relationship with food. Young, children are more likely to want to eat the food their parents eat. As they get older, they tend to want the foods that their friends eat.
Using ‘treat’ foods like sweets and biscuits as bribes or rewards for good behaviour is very common however it may not be an effective way of promoting healthy eating in the longterm. An alternative is the use of the 'Fun To Eat Well' reward chart which will teach your child about nutrition and the place for treat foods in the overall diet. Also consider non food rewards for good eating – like going to the beach or to your childs favourite toy shop.
Vitamin supplements can help if a child is really missing out on vital nutrients. But they’re not a substitute for a balanced diet, so continue to strive towards healthy eating habits and seek professional advice if you are considering supplementing your child’s diet.
If your child’s fussy eating doesn’t improve and is extreme it may be a good idea to get some advice from a GP or health professional. They will be able to check a child’s weight and general health, offer nutritional advice and if necessary refer on to more expert help.