Fussy Eating

By Dr Evelyn Lewin

The child who is a fussy eater is often not disinterested in food – they want to be independent and make their own choices. Strategies include ensuring regular meal times, discouraging snacking, letting them help you prepare their food, and setting time limits for meals.


Article: Evelyn Lewin

Jodie Blight’s two sons couldn’t be more different from each other when it comes to their eating habits. While her older son pretty much loves to eat “everything”, her younger son, James, was the fussiest toddler. “If possible, he would have eaten pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Jodie. “We are lovers of food and it was initially really hard for me to comprehend his aversion to delicious food.”

Jodie tried many tactics to help her son ‘get over’ his food fussiness. “One thing I had to do to avoid the inevitable tantrum every meal when it wasn’t pasta, was to set a dedicated pasta night once a week. He knew when he was getting pasta, and it worked really well because he knew if he complained [about food that wasn’t pasta] then we would skip pasta night that week.” She also used the ‘three more mouthfuls and then you can have dessert’ line (dessert was yoghurt). “If he didn’t eat his ‘three more mouthfuls’ then I didn’t allow him to eat anything else. If he said he was hungry, there was always his plate of food.”




Accredited Practicing Dietitian Sharonne Symonds, Principal Dietitian at Feeding 4 Growth Nutrition (, says toddlers become fussy eaters for a few reasons. Firstly, children need less food intake at this age because their growth rate has slowed. Also, they’re establishing independence and becoming more aware of what’s going on around them. But it’s also about habit and preference. “Once a toddler is hooked on something – whether it’s their favourite toy, blanket or DVD – that’s all they want, over and over again; similarly with food,” says Symonds. While that all makes sense, if your little one is sitting at the table refusing to eat anything but toasted cheese sandwiches, what do you do? First off, don’t fall for the trap of only offering that, says Symonds. Doing so will discourage your child from trying something new. Instead, she recommends offering her the same foods as the rest of the family, but giving her one or two things she’s likely to eat with it. Next, don’t bribe her or reward her for trying different foods. She says this sends children the message that the food you are offering is so unpleasant, they need a reward to get through it; just keep offering her different foods. Symonds says children need to try a new food about 15 times before they’re familiar with. Then, they need to try it a further 10-15 times before they may like it. But if your little one is really putting her foot down and refusing to eat something you’re offering, don’t override her refusal. Symonds says that when toddlers say ‘no’ to a food, it’s giving them some control over the situation. “So you’re allowed to take ‘no’ for an answer.” You can even accept her refusal if that means she won’t eat at all. “Refusing the meal comes with the natural consequence of becoming hungry; hunger will make the next meal more appetising.” But having a child walk away from the table with an empty belly can make you feel like a terrible parent. Symonds says not to worry. “Healthy children do not starve themselves, nor will a short period of hunger harm them.” She says they will make up for their nutritional and energy needs at another meal or snack later in the day or even week. If you really are concerned your toddler’s not eating enough different foods, or not eating enough at all, take her to her GP. The best way to know if your child eats enough is to assess their growth. “A consistent growth pattern means your child is doing well,” Symonds explains. Your doctor may need to rule out an underlying medical condition or sensory disorder, though this is unlikely to be the cause. “If your child is trending nicely on their growth chart, and if food selection and feeding are appropriate, you can relax and trust your child’s weird and wonderful ways of eating.” Jodie finally got to relax and enjoy her son’s ‘wonderful’ ways of eating. She enjoys it even more nowadays, as James is now eight years old and is not only no longer a fussy eater, he now has a passion for food. “Now, every night when I get asked that inescapable question of ‘What’s for dinner?’ no matter what my reply, his response is always, ‘Oh yum, that’s my favourite’.”

 Symonds’ strategies to make mealtimes a fun (and hopefully satisfying) experience for your little one:

  1. If mealtimes stress you, it will stress your children. Relax and set a good example
  2. Praise your child for their good eating behaviour (such as, “Well done for trying new food tonight”, “You are drinking so well from a cup”. Avoid food-focused comments during meals such as, “Clean your plate” and, “You’re wasting food”).
  3. Implement the “one bite rule”, which allows children to discretely put food they don’t like into a napkin
  4. ​Allow your children to have fun and be creative with food to create positive association with food
  5. Offer water as the main drink and limit any drinks an hour before mealtimes, as they can ruin their appetite
  6. Talk to children about the appearance, smell, taste, texture, and temperature of the food on their plate.
  7. If your child dawdles over their meals, set a time limit. (20–30 minutes is usually enough)
  8. Prepare the same food in a different way. Your child may like carrot raw not cooked; alternatively they may like corn on the cob rather than individual kernels
  9. Include children in the ‘paddock to plate’ journey. Let your child choose the vegetables at the shop
  10. Ask your child to feed their toy. Grab their favourite toy and feed their food to their toy
  11. Be a good role model. Sit next to your child and show them you genuinely enjoy eating the food

 By Evelyn Lewin

Reviewed by Dr Evelyn Lewin 28 March 2015 references
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This document has been developed and peer reviewed by a KIDS HEALTH Advisory Board Representative and is based on expert opinion and the available published literature at the time of review. Information contained in this document is not intended to replace medical advice and any questions regarding a medical diagnosis or treatment should be directed to a medical practitioner.

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