Fussy Eaters! Top tips to get your children to eat healthy food


Got a child who is a fussy eater? Fussy eating can cause parents huge headache, and dinner-table tantrums can cause even more heartache. But don’t despair. With a few tips and tricks from Karina Savage, you’ll have them devouring their veggies in no time…

What are some of the causes of fussy eating?

The words ‘fussy eaters’ and ‘toddlers’ often go hand in hand! Food refusal is a normal part of toddler development. Aside from medical issues that can cause feeding issues, fussy eating may result when babies are not encouraged to touch/taste/smell a variety of foods and textures during the weaning period. Parental anxiety and placing too much emphasis on food/ pressure to eat can also create problems.

Do parents’ own eating behaviours play a role in a child’s eating behaviours?

Absolutely! It’s crucial that good role modelling occurs with the whole family.  When the toddler sees the rest of the family happily enjoying healthy food, they are much more likely to trust the food and want to eat it too!

Parents say that when their children were toddlers, they used to eat certain fruits and vegetables but once they are 4+ years of age, they won’t eat them anymore. Why does this happen and what can parents do?

Distaste, disgust and contamination fears influence what toddlers eat from around three years of age. They may reject food because it has a taste that they do not like or are not used to.  They may also start to refuse a food on sight because it resembles something that they find disgusting. They may also refuse food if it has been touched and contaminated by another food that they find disgusting. In this situation, don’t force the issue as this will only make things worse. Include a variety of foods on their plate – some that you know they will accept and others that you want them to try. Keep offering a wide variety of foods, just respect that they have taste preferences just like us!

Top 5 tips for parents with fussy eaters

  1. Offer them healthy foods throughout the day. Toddlers have small stomachs, therefore snacks can provide up to 50% of their nutrition. Dinner is only one sixth of their day, so if they don’t eat veggies then, include them in other meals and snacks.
  2. Serve meals earlier rather than later. Tired, distracted or anxious children eat poorly.
  3. Keep snack times consistent rather than a smorgasbord of food on offer all day.
  4. Eat at the table and remove as many distractions from eating as possible
  5. Limit their milk intake to 1-2 cups per day

Top 5 tips to getting kids to eat their vegetables

  1. Make it fun – make the food appealing to children, remember their whole world revolves around having fun!
  2. Incorporate it into snacks – ie grate zucchini /carrot into muffins and have as snacks or pesto/hummus dip with vegie sticks, fruit or veg blended into smoothies
  3. Get them involved in food preparation
  4. Don’t make a fuss – don’t show emotions about their eating habits
  5. Good role modelling – always eat them yourself and show you enjoy doing so (without going over the top!)

Note: Hiding pureed veg in food or smoothies is fine, but also make sure they are given and encouraged to eat pieces of vegetables

How many times do children need to be exposed to new foods before they may like them?

When introducing new foods, it may take up to 10-15 attempts before they accept them.

It’s easy to get disheartened and stop offering the food after the first 4 or 5 times. Have a break from it for a while (for everyone’s sake!) but always try to come back to it a few weeks later.

Questions from Parents:

My son will eat fruit, veggies and other foods in day-care that he refuses to eat at home. I just can’t get him to eat the foods that I know he eats at daycare when he is home. I am confused and need help!

This is a very common occurrence, you are not alone! Peer influence will mean children eat things in the centre that they won’t eat at home. Don’t make a fuss about it at the table as this will only worsen the situation. Food refusal is one of the best ways that young children can attract your attention. They know this and will use food refusal to “push your buttons”. The plan is: offer the food, remain calm, practise good role modelling and talk about something else. If it’s not eaten, just remove the food without fuss and try again next time!

My daughter used to eat vegetables and fruit as a toddler but now gradually, at age 7, she has reduced the foods that she eats to mainly chicken, bread, spaghetti Bolognese, pizza. There is a complete meltdown every meal/snack if vegetables or fruit are involved. I am so exhausted. She has two younger siblings and now they are beginning to copy her behaviour and I can’t have all three of them do this.

You need to preserve your energy/mental health as a busy mum!! Don’t enter into food wars with your daughter -food is not up for discussion!!  We as parents have the role to teach children what is healthy and good for their bodies. It’s our job to provide a few healthy options and it’s their job to decide which option they want and how much of it they want to eat. My advice would be to offer all of your children the choice of two healthy snacks and get them to choose. If they don’t choose either option, then nothing else is offered and they go hungry until the next meal. Your seven year old will soon start eating healthier foods if nothing else is on offer.

My 3 year old is refusing to eat dinner at night. He has eaten well during the day and is not sick. Then in the middle of the night he wakes up ravenous. When he wakes crying I give him milk. How can I get him to eat his dinner and break this cycle?

I would first check to make sure that you were giving him Dinner early enough – is he becoming too tired to eat a proper meal?…. try a 4:30-5pm dinner. In addition offer him a dairy and fruit based supper eg fruit and yoghurt or custard which will hopefully help to sustain him overnight. When he cries out overnight, instead of milk, give him water…..or start with very diluted milk and quickly move him over. If he realises that all that he will get when he wakes up is water, he may be less inclined!

My 5 year old daughter is refusing to eat meat, fruits and vegetables. She will only eat fish, eggs, oatmeal, banana and chocolate (of course). She said that she does not want to get fat like her 3 year old cousin and older sister. I have tried discussing it with her but it doesn’t seem to change her eating habits or thoughts. How can I get her to eat more nutritious foods?

Fish, egg, oatmeal and banana are all fantastic foods and good sources of protein and other nutrients. However as you say, it is a very limited intake, so small steps are needed to gradually increase her variety. Changing her mindset is key here…are there any positive role models that you can divert her attention to? Female athletes are often good options, especially if she is sporty herself. Discussing body image is such a delicate issue, try to focus on words such as “healthy” rather than using words such as “fat”, “thin” and “weight”. If it continues, you may need to seek professional help – sometimes it makes a difference when the advice is coming from someone else!

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