How to Support Children who are Fussy Eaters

In this blog we’ll explore why children can become fussy eaters and provide you with top tips to help you support little ones at nursery and at home.

What is Fussy Eating?

While there is no individually accepted definition of the term ‘fussy eater’, it’s generally recognised as a type of feeding difficulty where children express:

  • An unwillingness to eat familiar foods
  • An unwillingness to try new food
  • Strong food preferences, to a small number of foods.
  • Fussy Eating Girl

Why does Fussy Eating Occur?

Fussy eating has been linked  to something called the ‘neophobic response’. This is thought to be a survival mechanism to help prevent toddlers, who are increasingly mobile, from poisoning themselves. Some toddlers may reject food without tasting it, as they see the food as unsafe or poisonous. Toddlers may feel the food doesn’t look right i.e. the colour is not the same, visible marks and imperfections, which can put children off eating the food. The rejection of new foods is considered a normal response, which peaks around the age of 20 months, before gradually diminishing by around eight years.

Fussy eating can also occur when children are:

Note: certain medical conditions may also effect a child’s eating and/or drinking in which case parents should seek the advice of a medical professional.

Fussy Eaters and Parental Anxiety

It’s normal for parents and caregivers to worry about what and how much food children are eating. However, it’s important to understand that children are able to regulate their appetite and will eat as much food as they need (which is often less than you think they need). While a child may eat a little more when being coerced, the act of being pressured into eating can can create a stressful eating environment. This can lead to the development of negative associations with the food, and ultimately dislike and avoidance. Both you and your child are likely to experience anxiety and frustration which, in turn, can make fussy eating worse!

Helping Children Overcome Fussy Eating

While it can be tempting to adopt strategies such as hiding food and coaxing children to eat, they will be ineffective in the long term. Moving children out of the neophobic stage is aided by two key things;

  • copying others around them
  • repeated exposure to foods.

Children’s food preferences are influenced by how familiar a food is to them.  The more exposure to a food, the more likely they are to accept it. It’s normal for us to offer a food two or three times before deciding a child doesn’t like it, but that’s usually not the case! Generally speaking, new food are offered around 10-15 times before a child will accept it.

The ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ of Supporting Fussy Eaters

  • Children should have a good meal and snack routine of 3 main meals and 2-3 healthy snacks across the day. It’s a good idea to leave at least 2 hours between meals and snack times and these should be offered at a similar time each day, including weekends. Although it may sometimes seem tempting, avoid leaving foods out for children to graze on as it will interfere with their meal and snack routine
  • Ideally mealtimes should last for around 20-30 minutes. This is more than enough time for children to eat what they need. If a child sits at the table for more than 30 minutes they are likely to become quite frustrated. Remember mealtimes should be enjoyable and something children look forward to
  • It’s best not to offer children alternative foods. Don’t worry if they don’t finish everything on their plate. It’s best to avoid offering them an alternative, including milk or fruit juice, as they’ll quickly learn that they will be offered something else, so there’s no need for them to consider trying the new or refused food. Stick to the meal and snack routine. They’ll have 5-6 opportunities in the day to eat!
  • Eat together and role model! Mealtimes should be social and enjoyable. Use this time as an opportunity to sit down and talk to children. This will help them feel relaxed and remove any pressure they feel. Remember children like to copy the behaviours of those around them
  • Children should be encouraged to feed themselves with a spoon and encouraged to have finger food
  • Offer appropriate serving sizes. Use age appropriate plates and bowls for children. Encourage self serving and offer smaller amounts of food, as large portions can overwhelm children. Second helpings can be offered if children want more
  • Try to avoid distraction such as TV, toys and game. Parents and practitioners sometimes find this can help them feed their child, because their attention is elsewhere, however, it’s not addressing the issue and won’t support them to move out of the neophobic stage
  • Involve children in preparing and cooking different foods. It’s not only a good learning opportunity but children will also be relaxed and have fun with food. Exposure to food without pressure to eat it is key!
  • Praise and reward children for good eating behaviours, such as trying a new food or sitting nicely at the table as this will help to reinforce good behaviour. Remember: do not use food as a reward, for example, avoid phrases such as ‘you can only have pudding if you eat all of your meal’ as it creates the idea of having to eat the undesirable food in order to get the ‘treat’
  • Have an agreed approach to managing fussy eating at home and in your early years setting. This will ensure children are supported in the same way be everyone and make the strategies discussed above more effective.

Support for Early Years Settings

Consider attending training. Our Fussy Eating training will support early years staff to learn more about how to support children who are fussy with food. Our Food Policy Training will also help you to consider and outline how you manage fussy eating as a whole setting and how you communicate this to families, to ensure a consistent approach for children.

Support for Parents with Fussy Eaters

Check out our free parents course- Positive Mealtimes: Fussy Eating Strategies for Families which has lots of top tips to support you and your little one at mealtimes.

We also run a number of free webinars where you can get expert guidance from one of our Nutritionists. Visit our parents hub for more details.

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