Most parents and carers have been there: they make a delicious (...or so they thought!) meal for their child, only to have it rejected with a “yuck” or an emphatic “no”. Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
There's no universal definition of fussy eating, but sensitivities, a dislike of new foods or preferences for certain flavours or textures all can contribute.
It can also be made worse by pressure ("eat what's on your plate or nothing"), coaxing, reasoning or how family meals are organised. It’s common to accidentally become a ‘short order cook’, preparing different meals for everyone - and the cycle continues.
To make mealtimes less of a battle and more of a learning experience, here are some things to consider.
Take the pressure off
Remember that picky eating is normal. It can be random and confusing, but it’s a natural part of a child’s development, especially in the toddler years. Children can start asserting their independence at this age, which can show up in their eating habits.
Your child's preferences today, this week or next month might not be the same a year from now. As they grow and experience new things, their tastes and interests are likely to change.
Try focusing on what they’re doing well. And look out for the bigger picture - do they eat various foods over a week or month?
It's normal to feel stressed, defeated or worried about fussy eating, but it's important to try not to bring those feelings to the table. Keep an open mind and an optimistic outlook because, in time, the situation is likely to change.
Involve children in meal preparation
Children don’t have to do anything complicated - simple tasks like helping to set the table, washing vegetables or measuring ingredients can get them involved. If they’re actively helping to prepare some meals, even in the smallest ways, they’re likely to feel a sense of achievement and feel more inclined to try something new.
Create a calm, positive mealtime environment
Mealtimes are about more than just eating. They're also a time to connect with each other. In fact, the World Health Organisation states that feeding times are periods of learning and love - a time for caregivers to talk to the child, making eye to eye contact.2
Where possible, try to keep your family's mealtime routine consistent, like eating together at similar times each day. Let your child know that mealtime is coming, turn off devices and screens and remove distractions.
Encourage conversation and show your willingness to try new combinations of foods in small portions.
You can say things like, "that's something I've never eaten before, I wonder what it’s like," or "I didn't like it the first time, but now it's one of my favourites."
Children can pick up good habits simply by watching how their parents and carers react and respond to mealtimes.
Give positive reinforcement
Even if it's just a small taste, bite or lick, positive reinforcement is key when it comes to your child trying something new. For example, giving a high five, offering praise or telling your child you’re proud of them. It can build their confidence and encourage them to keep trying.
Above all, have realistic expectations
Most kids won't eat everything you serve them, and that’s a lot of pressure for you and them. Their appetite can also vary from day to day, so try not to worry if they don't eat as much as you expect. It’s a good idea to keep portion sizes realistic and try not to pressure them to finish everything on their plate.
A little optimism and calm guidance (plus lots of patience) can encourage adventurous eating and make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone.
If you’re worried that your child isn’t eating enough to have the energy to play and explore, have a chat with your GP, child and family health nurse or paediatrician.
- Zucker, N. L., & Hughes, S. O. (2020). The Persistence of Picky Eating: Opportunities to Improve Our Strategies and Messaging. Pediatrics, 145(6), e20200893. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-0893
- World Health Organization. (2011). Child health and development. https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/child-health-and-development