Fussy eating is common during the toddler years. Although there is no widely accepted definition, fussy eating can be defined as ‘an unwillingness to eat familiar foods or try new foods, severe enough to interfere with daily routines to the extent that it is problematic to the child, parent or child-parent relationship’.
The fear of trying new foods or refusing foods previously eaten is thought to be the result of the ‘neophobic’ stage, a mechanism to protect young children from eating food that may be unsafe. Most children will outgrow this stage between three to five years of age.
For many families, this can be a stressful and worrying time, but it is important to note that most children will continue to meet their nutritional needs for growth with the help of some simple mealtime strategies.
Here are 10 tips to help families manage this fussy eating stage:
1. Offer a consistent mealtime routine of three meals and three snacks per day
Toddlers have high-energy needs for growth, but small tummies, so offering frequent meals and snacks allows them to meet their nutritional requirements throughout the day. Some parents worry that giving routine snacks will result in their child eating less at mealtimes, however withholding snacks can actually have the opposite effect and lead to children not recognising signals for hunger. A consistent mealtime and snack routine is essential for children over one year to ensure they know when to expect food and to help regulate their appetite.
2. Offer appropriate portion sizes
It is important to remember that the quantity of food that young children eat will vary day to day. It can be difficult to know what portion size to offer, but the key is to not overwhelm children with large portion sizes. Use your child’s hand size to guide the portions you offer:
Fist-sized portion for carbohydrate (breakfast cereal, rice, pasta, potato, bread)
Palm-sized portion for protein (meat, fish, egg, beans, vegetarian alternatives)
The amount their cupped hand can hold for vegetables
3. Provide a savoury course and nutritious dessert option at each meal
Offering a savoury and dessert option allows opportunity for your child to get the energy and nutrients they need from the main food groups. Offer both courses regardless of how much your child has eaten from the first course. Nutritious dessert options include custard, natural yoghurt and fruit.
4. Encourage self-feeding (embrace the mess!)
Encourage your child to feed themselves, and don’t be afraid to let them get messy as this helps them to learn about new foods and their textures. Allow them to explore with finger foods such as an omelette or eggy bread, hummus or cheese toast fingers, or cooked vegetables. Finger foods can be easier for your child to manage than cutlery.
5. Limit milk intake and large drinks before or with meals
Milk is a nutritious drink, however large quantities of milk or other drinks can reduce your child’s appetite at mealtimes. At one year of age, aim for no more than 600ml milk per day, including any milk drunk overnight.
6. Enjoy mealtimes together
Children learn by copying others, so eating together at mealtimes as much as possible will encourage children to eat more and try new foods. From 10-12 months of age, offer the same healthy meal as the rest of the family.
7. Avoid long mealtimes, keeping them to 20 or 30 minutes
After this time, it is unlikely that your child will eat more, and sitting with the food for extended time can lead to negative associations with the mealtime environment. It is best to take the meal away after this time without comment.
8. Involve your child in mealtime preparations
Research shows that children are more likely to try new foods that they have helped to prepare. Get your child involved with mealtime preparation such as weighing ingredients, cleaning and chopping vegetables, and preparing the table.
9. Ignore unwanted behaviour and praise the positive
Parents and carers are strong role models for children, so positive comments about food will increase your child’s willingness to try them. Ensure you don’t give extra attention to unwanted behaviours.
10. Be consistent in your approach
Ask everyone in your family and those who look after your child such as a grandparents, childminders or nursery staff to follow your approach to embed positive changes to your child’s eating behaviours overtime.
For most toddlers, fussy eating is a phase that will pass over time. If you are concerned that the problem is persisting and you are worried about your child’s growth, energy levels or nutritional intake, please speak to your GP or get in touch for an individualised assessment and treatment plan.
 Taylor CM et at ‘Picky/ Fussy Eating in Children Review of Definitions, Assessment, Prevalence and Dietary Intakes. Appetite 2015; 95:349-59