Tips for “fussy” eaters

At some stage we are all faced with a case of a “challenging” eater. We understand that this can cause a lot of stress and it is important to know that this is both common and normal with the key being how to manage it.

Fussy eating can be explained to a degree by the development that your child is going through and that what they choose to put in or not put in their mouths is one of the few things that they can control over. For example, the age group 12–16 months coincides with the development of autonomy and independence and meal times are often one of the few areas that toddlers can exert their growing autonomy – by refusing to eat when they are not hungry, especially when they know it gets a response (1)

We might find our children going through stages of having strong preferences for particular foods and being reluctant to try new foods or insisting on their food being presented a particular way.

A study has found that specific parental behaviors are linked to having positive effects on managing and reducing fussy eating (2).  The study showed that using rewards and adjusting all meals to the child’s taste to try encourage eating were counterproductive and associated with long term pickiness and lead to a restricted diet. However, the study did show that repeatedly offering the same foods was one of the best ways to get children to eat the foods parents wanted them to.

Here are our top tips:

Repeat, repeat, repeat: Many studies have shown that continuing to offer the foods you wish for your children to be eating but without the pressure to eat encourages greater acceptance and that it can take up to 15 tries of a new food before a taste for it is developed (3).

Role modelling:  Our babies learn by watching and mimicking us so them seeing you eating broccoli may encourage them to take a bite too without any pressure.

Variety: Offering a variety of vegetables from an early age has been shown to increase the preference of vegetables as the child gets older, meaning more vegetables eaten (yay!) (4)

Hide your emotions:  This can be a lot harder than it sounds as it is hard not to get frustrated at times.  Instead try to remain positive at meal times to help ensure they are less stressful and enjoyable for everyone.

Get your children in the kitchen:  Children can be involved in the meal preparation from an early age, from helping to pick vegetables in the garden, counting out ingredients, measuring, pouring or stirring.

Family meals:  Creating a habit of having family meals together and all eating the same or part of the same meal can help create a positive atmosphere. This may be one parent having a meal with your child during the week or even picking one meal a week say Sunday breakfast that you can all enjoy together – whatever works best for your family.

Language: Researchers have struggled to agree on the exact definition of picky eaters or identify who picky eaters are, and as parents we are often too quick at labelling our children as a ‘fussy eater’. While we have an innate desire to raise our children as ‘a good eater’ practices such as praising our children for finishing their plate’ can also have a negative impact on developing healthy eating habits (4) It is important we think about the language we use around our children especially when it comes to negative language such as ‘fussy’ as sometimes using labels can create more of an issue than necessary.

And remember that research has also shown that even a picky toddler is still likely to grow up to be normal weight and height 🙂 (5)

For more help, head to our Future Foody – Starting Solids Support Group or contact Our Nutritionist.


  1. Forman DR. Autonomy, compliance, and internalization. In: Brownell CA, Kopp CB, editors. Socioemotional development in the toddler years: transitions and transformations.New York, NY, US: Guilford Press; 2007. pp. 285–319.
  2. Rubio B, Rigal N (2017). Parental concerns and attributes of food pickiness and its consequences for the parent-child relationship: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Child Health Care.21:4 404-414
  3. Carruth B, Ziegler P, Gordan A, Barr S (2004). Prevalence of picky eaters among infants and toddlers and their caregivers’ decisions about offering a new food. Journal of American Dietetic Association 104:57-64
  4. L Chambers (2016)  Complementary feeding: Vegetables first frequently and in variety. British Nutrition Foundation Nutrition Bulletin, 41, 142–146
  5. Byrne R, Jansen E, Daniels L (2017). Perceived fussy eating in Australian children at 14 months of age and subsequent use of feeding practices at 2 years. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity 14:123
  6. Golding J (1990). Children of the nineties.  A longitudinal study of pregnancy and childhood based on the population of Avon (ALSPAC).  University of Bristol.  West England Medical Journal 105(3):80-2

Further reading:

Mascola A, Bryson S, Agras W (2010). Picky eating during childhood: A longitudinal study to age 11 years. Eating Behaviours 11(4): 253-257

DeCosta P, Moller P, Frost M, Olsen A (2017) Changing children’s eating behaviour – a review of experimental research. Appetite 113: 327-357