Fussy eating in toddlers is common and considered a normal part of their development. However, if your little one is a fussy or picky eater, it can be a worrying time for you and anyone helping to look after your child (such as their nursery or childminder). There are lots of strategies that you can try at home, and in partnership with your childcare provider, to support you in creating positive mealtimes!
Fussy, picky, or faddy eating is common among toddlers and considered a normal part of their development. You may find that some days your child will eat well at mealtimes and other days they are less interested. If your child is a fussy eater, you might notice some of the following things at mealtimes:
- An unwillingness to eat familiar foods
- An unwillingness to try new foods
- Strong food preferences, resulting in poor dietary variety, e.g. a preference for particular textures or coloured food.
Fussy Eating typically occurs in the second year (around 18 months) and tends to peak around the age of two years. Most children go through this phase, and it’s important to remember that every child will differ in the range of foods they accept and in their attitudes towards trying new foods. There are lots of reasons why your little one may refuse food, so it’s important to consider these when thinking about any changes to support them at mealtimes.
What causes fussy eating in toddlers?
Many children experience ‘neophobia’ – a fear of new foods. They may become wary of foods based on their colour, texture, smell and taste. You can help your little one to overcome their natural uncertainty of foods, and encourage them to taste new foods.
There are a number of other factors that can also impact on children’s acceptance of food. This is not an exhaustive list, but it may help you to consider your little ones daily routine and how it impacts on their appetite.
- Lack of a meal and snack routine. If your child has no meal or snack routine it can often result in grazing behaviours, where your child eats lots of snacks throughout the day. This may result in your child feeling full at mealtimes, meaning they aren’t interested in eating or are only able to manage small amounts of food.
- Consuming large amounts or milk, juice and/ or other drinks. Sometimes, if your child is a picky eater, you may offer them extra milk to try and compensate for the lack of food eaten. However, this is likely to fill up their little tummies and make them less likely to try the foods on offer.
- Feeling tired. If your child is tired they may feel uninterested in eating and trying new foods. Having a good meal and snack routine can help to combat this.
- Distracted by toys, games, tv or tablets. You may feel that by distracting your child you are able to get them to eat something. While this may work in the short term, your child is not engaging in the mealtime or taking notice of the foods on offer.
Note: some medical conditions may also effect children’s eating and/or drinking, in which case it’s best seek advice and support for a health care 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!). It’s best to avoid coaxing or bribed your little one to eat, as the act of being pressured into eating can create a stressful eating environment. This can create negative associations with the food, and increase refusal. 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. It’s best to adopt the strategies below to support your little ones at meal and snack times:
Repeated Exposure: Children’s food preferences are influenced by how familiar a food is to them. The more exposure your child has to refused foods, the more familiar they become with the sensory properties (colour, taste, texture) and the more likely they are to accept it. It can sometimes take 15-20 exposures (tries) before children are willing to accept a new or refused food. The older a child gets, typically the more exposure is needed. It’s important not to give up, it can take time to learn to like new foods!
Copying Others: Children love to copy those around them, meaning they are likely to imitate the eating behaviours of the people they spend time with. Try talking to your little one about the foods you enjoy, as this may encourage them to try it too. For example “Mummy really likes these crunchy carrots’ or “Daddy really likes this lovely tuna”.
Meal Routine: It’s important for children to have a good meal and snack routine. Offer 3 main meals and 2-3 nutritious snacks each day. Try to offer meals and snacks at similar times each day.
Offer Appropriate Serving Sizes: It’s best to allow your little one to eat to their appetite. Avoid over filling their plate as it can be overwhelming. Try not to worry if your child doesn’t eat everything on their plate. With a good meal routine in place, they will have lots of opportunities to try foods across the day, at meal and snack times!
Avoid Offering Alternatives: If your little one has eaten very little or refused food completely, it’s best to avoid offering them an alternative, including milk or fruit juice. Your child will quickly learn that if they refuse, they will be offered an alternative food they like, which is likely to make fussy eating worse and result in a diet of little variety. Wait until your child’s next meal or snack time to offer another food. It’s best to continue to offer your little one family meals and accept that there may be times when they prefer some foods to others. It is always good to look at what your child has eaten across the whole week, and to not focus too much on each individual meal. It’s likely that you’ll see that they’re having more than you realised.
Avoid Distractions: Avoid using distractions, such as TV, phones, and toys, to encourage children to eat. A social mealtime, where children are engaged, is much more encouraging. Try and make mealtimes calm, relaxed and enjoyable. If children feel pressure to eat, it may make they feel more anxious and less likely to eat.
Offer Non Food Rewards: Praise children for good eating behaviours, such as trying a new food or sitting nicely at the table. This will help to reinforce good behaviour and encourage children to repeat it. While it’s good to reward children for positive behaviours, avoid using food as a reward. Instead you could try some of the following ideas:
- Playing their favourite game
- Picking a story to read
- Visiting the park or a place they like.
Celebrate even the smallest successes! We understand that mealtimes can be an emotional time for you if you’re worried about how much food your little one is having. So don’t forget to recognise and praise yourself for the successes you have achieved with your little one, no matter how small! Even if it’s your child simply touching a new or refused food! Reward yourself too by treating yourself to something you enjoy, e.g. a long walk, a bath, reading a book, mindfulness.
Remember that changing behaviours can take a little bit of time. Pick a strategy or two that you feel will work for you and your little one. Sometimes fussy eating can get worse before it gets better, so it’s important to be consistent and persevere with the strategies. It will be worth it in the long run. If your little one is in a childcare setting, try to work in partnership with them, to ensure that you’re all supporting your child in the same way.
We have lots of additional resources to support you at mealtimes, from tip sheets to webinars and online courses.
Download our Fussy Eating Tip Sheet (PDF, 2MB) as a reminder of the helpful strategies to apply at mealtimes to support your little one.
Free Parent Webinars: each 45 minutes webinar will provide you with top tips from our Registered Nutritionist
You can also speak to your Health Visitor, Dietitian or Nutritionist for additional advice and support.
Support for Early Years Settings
Our Fussy Eating training (opens in new tab) will support early years staff to learn more about how to support children who are fussy with food. Our Food Policy Training (opens in new tab) 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.