As a parent, it’s not uncommon to worry about your child’s nutrition, especially when they refuse to eat certain foods. However, it’s important to understand that occasional food refusal is a normal part of a young child’s development. Rather than focusing on daily food intake or mealtime preferences, take a step back and look at your child’s overall eating habits throughout the week.
Dr Kirsty on Fussy Eaters
If your child is active, gaining weight, and appears healthy, it can be assumed that they are getting enough nutrition. Research shows that toddlers almost always manage to eat the right balance of nutrients needed for healthy growth and development. Make sure to offer a variety of foods from the four main food groups, including fruits and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, dairy or dairy alternatives, and proteins such as fish, meat, and eggs. If your child is consuming food from each of these groups, there is usually no need for concern.
While it’s understandable to be concerned about your child’s nutrition, it’s important to not let that concern lead to unhealthy eating habits. Have you noticed that your children eats better at nursery or school than at home? Research shows that this is due to several factors, including the structured environment and the encouragement to try new foods in a positive way such as food fun and supportive setting. At nursery/school, children are also likely to eat with their peers, which can make mealtimes more enjoyable and social. This creates a positive mealtime experience.
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Fussy Eaters at Meal Times
At home are mealtimes more stressful for you with multiple meals being made for each child? Do they eat the same foods over and over again? To help your child eat better at home, try creating a structured eating routine and a no pressure mealtime environment. Promoting positive eating experiences is key. Provide regular, balanced meals and snacks throughout the day and encourage your child to eat at set times. This can help regulate their appetite and reduce the likelihood of snacking on unhealthy foods. Eating family meals together can also help as you are your children’s biggest role models when it comes to foods.
Remember that persistence is key when introducing new foods to your child. Even if they refuse a new food, initially, continue offering it, as children’s tastes can change over time. With patience and a variety of healthy food options, your child can develop healthy eating habits that will benefit them for years to come. Change up how you cook and present foods.
Advice for parents dealing with selective eaters
When it comes to feeding your child, it’s important to consider their own needs and preferences. One strategy that can be helpful is serving your child the same food as the rest of the family, alongside a safe food that your child prefers.
Research has shown that children often learn to eat and enjoy new foods by observing their parents. Eating with your child as frequently as possible can be a great way to model healthy eating habits and encourage them to try new things.
When offering food to your child, start with small portions and acknowledge their efforts to eat, regardless of how much they consume. It’s important to avoid forcing your child to eat if they reject a food. Instead, simply take the food away without comment and offer it again at another time.
It’s also important to avoid waiting until your child is overly hungry or tired before offering meals. And remember that some children may need more time to finish their meals, so it’s important to remain patient.
When it comes to snacks, it’s recommended to limit the number given between meals to two to three healthy options per day. And while it may be tempting to use food as a reward for good behaviour, this can lead to a preference for sweets over vegetables. Consider offering a trip to a park or promising to play a game instead.
It’s possible that your child may need more time to finish meals, so it’s important to remain patient. Some kids won’t want sit to long at the table, so only get them to sit down when the food is ready.
It is recommended to avoid grazing on snacks throughout the day as they fill up on these foods and are thus less likely to eat at mealtimes. Limit the number of snacks given to a child between meals, with two healthy snacks during the day and one before bed time if needed.
It is advised to avoid using food as a reward for children, as it may lead to a preference for sweets over vegetables. Instead, offering a trip to a park or promising to play a game can be used as a reward.
During mealtimes, it’s recommended to engage in conversation and not solely focus on consuming food. Make is a fun and positive experience so that you are children are relaxed and more willing to eat with no pressure.
Consider inviting other children of similar age who have a healthy appetite to join for a meal, but refrain from overly praising their eating habits.
Consider asking an adult whom your child admires to join you for a meal. This may encourage the child to eat without resistance, particularly if it is someone like a grandparent.
Modifying the serving style of a dish can increase its appeal. For instance, a child may reject cooked carrots but prefer them grated and raw. Food fun can also make foods more appealing.
Try to keep your cool even if a meal hasn’t been eaten. If you are anxious and tense, your child will pick up on this and it could make the situation worse. So don’t make a fuss – just take the plate away without comment.
Involve them. Involve children/young people in meal planning, shopping, preparing meals, serving the meal and cleaning up.
Get messy. Give lots of time for taking part in messy play activities and food preparation.
Discover Dr Kirsty's Food Fun Kits
Are you worried about your child’s eating? Does your child eat a limited range of foods? Can’t get them to try new foods or eat fruit or vegetables? Then check out our new food fun box created by trusted experts a Children’s Dietitian and Occupational Therapist aka the dream team! The messy play aspects encourages your child to explore different smells, textures, temperatures and consistencies of food in a playful way! It removes all of the pressure of eating and makes food fun!
- 4 great recipes on wipeable cards – Frozen Fruit Bark, Smoothies/Ice Lollies, Pancakes and Blueberry Flapjacks
- Set of 3 Star Cutters
- Set of 4 Kid Safety Knives
- 6 Silicone Muffin Cases
- 1 Kids Peeler
- 1 Kids Crinkle Cutter
- 2 Sensory Play bases (colours may vary)
- Mini Wooden Scoop
- Scissor Tongs
EDUCATIONAL & EASY-TO-USE – Our kit will help teach children how to follow recipes, measure ingredients, whisking, rolling, work with different measurement units. The cookware is kid sized so they are easy to use by children. The utensils are dishwasher safe and easy to clean so they can be can be reused as your junior chef turns into a MasterChef. The messy play aspects encourages your child to explore different smells, textures, temperatures and consistencies of food in a playful way! It removes all of the pressure of eating and makes food fun!
What causes Fussy Eating?
Picky eating (also known as fussy, faddy or choosy eating) is usually classified as part of a spectrum of feeding difficulties. It is characterised by an unwillingness to eat familiar foods or to try new foods, as well as strong food preferences. The cause is multifaceted, with a variety of contributing factors coming together to shape a child’s eating habits. The consequences may include poor dietary variety during early childhood. It’s important to note that food refusal is a normal phase that most young children pass through, and it can stem from several behavioural and developmental reasons.
Around the end of the first year, a child’s growth rate slows down, which could decrease their appetite. At the same time, toddlers may be experiencing a growing sense of independence and asserting themselves through food refusal. In addition, their focus on learning new skills can make them less willing to pause and eat.
When infants turn two, fear of new foods may emerge as a survival mechanism to prevent increasingly mobile toddlers from accidentally poisoning themselves. This fear can limit the variety of foods a toddler is willing to eat for some time. It’s also common for a toddler to refuse food if it’s new to them. They may need to taste it a few times to learn to like it, so it’s essential to always offer it the next time you’re eating it.
A toddler’s appetite may also fluctuate based on a range of emotional and physical conditions. They may lose their appetite if they’re tired, unwell, feeling pressured to eat more food than they want, frequently offered foods that they dislike, rushed at mealtimes, or feeling sad, anxious, or insecure. Conditions like constipation and anaemia can also impact their willingness to eat.
In very rare cases, fussy eating can be linked to medical problems or a memory associated with discomfort when eating some particular foods. Some toddlers who are extremely fussy eaters may have nothing medically wrong with them but can be sensitive to sound, touch, or smells. For these toddlers, it’s especially important not to force them to eat food that they dislike, as this could lead to vomiting and eventually impact their growth.
It’s essential to continue a healthy diet by offering a wide variety of foods from each of the food groups. Even if your child’s diet seems very limited, research shows that young children almost always manage to eat the right balance of nutrients needed for healthy growth and development. However, if your child is losing weight, seems lethargic, weak and/or irritable, or is suffering from fever, it’s crucial to seek medical advice.
Why is my child such a fussy eater?
If you’re questioning, “Why is my child such a fussy or picky eater?” then rest assured, you’re not alone. It’s quite common for children to go through phases of fussy or picky eating. This can be due to a variety of reasons, many of which are part of normal childhood development.
For starters, toddlers and young children are often naturally wary of new or different foods—a trait known as ‘neophobia.’ This is thought to be a survival mechanism that prevents them from eating potentially harmful substances. For some time, toddlers may limit the variety of foods they eat, and they may need to taste a food several times before they learn to like it.
Additionally, young people and children’s appetites can fluctuate in response to their needs and emotions. They might lose their appetite if they’re tired, unwell, feeling pressured to eat, or experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety or insecurity. They may also eat less when they’re busy learning new skills and don’t want to stop to eat.
Occasionally, fussy eating can be linked to medical problems or memories associated with discomfort while eating. If your child’s fussy eating persists or you have concerns, it’s a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional. They can check your child’s growth and development, and if necessary, refer your child’s food challenges to a specialist for further assessment.
Another factor that can contribute to fussy eating is the nature of the food itself. Children are still developing their palate and may be more sensitive to certain tastes and textures. Offering a variety of healthy foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, and introducing new flavours and textures can help broaden their food preferences. Including higher-protein foods like meat, fish, nuts and pulses at least twice a week can also be beneficial. Experimenting with fruit and vegetables with different herbs and spices in simple meals can make them more appealing and may encourage your child to try and enjoy new foods.
Remember that this phase of fussy eating usually passes with time. Keep offering a variety of foods and avoid pressuring your child to eat the same meal. Above all, try to make mealtimes enjoyable and relaxed. This will help your child develop a healthy relationship with food for life.