7 tips for dealing with fussy eaters

Author: Jacqui Palmer, Paediatric Dietitian at My Nutrition Clinic

Has your dinner table become a battlefield? Would your child rather eat rubbish off the floor, than the nutritious food on their plate? Have you ever slaved over for hours creating the culinary masterpieces for your growing toddler, only to be treated with a solid “no”?

You’re not alone. Most toddlers will, at some point, go through a phase of picky eating. In fact, the picky eater phase is a normal part of their development where they begin to question their surroundings and exercise their new independence.

Although it can be rather frustrating for parents when their child refuses to eat what they happily chowed down yesterday – try to be patient as most children will grow out of being fussy with a little support. Read on to find our top tips for keeping mealtimes positive for your fussy eater.

1. No pressure

Don’t pressure kids to finish everything on their plate. Children often listen to their hunger much better than adults do. You provide healthy choices, and they decide what and how much they eat.

2. Be a great role model

Children pick up very quickly on parental attitudes. So if you want your child to eat vegetables, you need to eat them too. Just as children learn to play and read, they also need to learn to eat well.

3. Eat with your child

It’s important to sit with your child and share the same food together. If your child sits in a corner, away from the rest of the family during mealtimes, they associate these times with being away from you. It will impact their appetite and willingness to stay in their high chair.

fussy eating toddler

It’s also normal for toddlers to only want the food on your plate, even if they were offered the same food, so if it’s possible, try offering them from your own plate. This helps creating a positive experience for your child, and they will gradually learn how to share.

4. Don’t get stressed

Keep a happy face and refrain from showing that you’re upset, stressed or angry. If you act upset, your child will associate mealtimes with negative emotions and will be even less likely to approach food with an open mind. Rewarding picky eating with too much attention sometimes encourages your child to keep behaving that way.

5. Try to offer more new foods

It is very normal for your child to refuse foods that they are not familiar with. Keep including that food (without forcing) – it can take up to 15 times before a child will try a new kind of food.

Therefore, it’s important to keep offering a good variety of nutritious food from all food groups. Offering them in different shapes and textures is also a sensory experience in itself – let your child embrace the novelty!

6. Start a routine – and stick to it

fussy eating toddler

Children love to know what to expect. Routines help to establish boundaries and habits, so make them count. A good rule of thumb is to leave 2 ½ to 3 hours between each meal or snack during the day. If your child does not want to eat at a meal or snack, make sure that they understand that there is no food for their tummy until the next scheduled meal – if they think they can wait that long.

By this age, they should be eating the family meal, perfecting their skills, practising with cutlery, and practising their social skills. Remember – you provide, they decide.

7. Keep meals short and fun

All their best eating is done in the first 20 – 25 minutes, so don’t drag it out. Before ending a meal, give cues such as a 5-minute warning to finish up and wash their hands.

Keeping the mealtimes fun helps create positive experiences for your child, but don’t over do it. Keep the screens and toys aside – meal times should be fun, but not so fun that your child is too distracted to give the food a try.

Most toddlers grow out of the picky eater phase eventually. However, your child might need professional help if they:
– have a restricted number of foods (less than 25) and refuses whole food groups.
– have similar refusal behaviours across different environments (home, childcare, grandparents etc).
– frequently cough and gag when eating or drinking.
– become very upset when presented with a new food, or when food isn’t presented as usual.
– will only eat certain food textures or colours.
– are not growing along their growth centile.

If you notice any of these behaviours, seek the advice of your GP and discuss the suitability of seeing a paediatrician and paediatric dietitian for further investigation and support.