Help, my child is a fussy eater! What can I do to help?

It’s understandable to worry when our children may not be eating as well as others, perhaps going through a phase of refusing to eat certain foods they have eaten with no issues before.

However, it is quite normal for toddlers and children to go through stages of food refusal and fussiness as they are growing up. Try to look at what your child is eating across the week overall, rather than at each mealtime.

If your child seems well and is growing, gaining weight and remaining active, this is a good sign they are eating enough for their needs. We have put some of our top tips together to ensure better outcomes, if your child becomes fussy. However, if you are concerned that it has been a long-term issue and your child is not growing as expected and not engaging in daily activity, we recommend reaching out to your GP and our team of registered dietitians for further tailored support.

Do not force your child to eat everything

Children often use the table as a place to demonstrate their independence and autonomy. Saying “I don’t want to” makes them feel in control.

The recommendation is not to force them to finish everything. As a parent you can choose what to put on the plate for them to eat and when, but the child will determine how much they want. This will ensure that children are able to regulate their appetite and listen to their own hunger cues.

Don’t worry about going hungry, your child will eat when they need it.

Do not use food as a reward or punishment

Remember that the goal of eating is nutrition, do not use food as a reward or punishment. Food should never be a reward or a punishment, for example, we should not reward vegetable intake with sweets or desserts.

By doing this, the child will unconsciously associate the intake of certain foods with something sacrificed, ugly, and unpleasant. In addition, we will be contributing to increasing the consumption of sugar in your diet by using sweets as a reward or dessert.

Do not force certain foods

While we want our children to eat all vegetables and consume a wide and varied diet, forcing them can have the opposite effect. Making a child sit at the table until the plate is clean is not the best way to get him to eat. Forcing certain food distresses both parents and children and creates negative associations.

Instead, be the example

If your child never sees you sitting at the table, enjoying food, it is most likely that for them, sitting down to eat is seen as an obligation, and not as a moment to share with the family.
Eating together at the table (where possible!) can create a healthier environment where children can learn from their parent, and this can greatly influence their food choices. Creating a fun and positive atmosphere is also encouraging, as they are more likely to eat if they feel the environment is happy and safe.

Have a mix of food they enjoy along with other choices

If, for example, your does not like certain vegetables, let’s try to combine them on the same plate with other foods that they do accept willingly or with another recipe. In this way, it is easier to get them to try new foods. It is not a matter of camouflaging the food they reject, but of presenting it to them in a pleasant way or combining it with other ingredients that they like better.

Plates with the right amount

A plate that is too full can overwhelm the child. It is more effective to start with smaller portions, and if they want more, they will ask for more. It can be easy to forget that portion sizes differ for children at different stages of their growth, but they can always ask for more!

No distractions

Eating without television, without a mobile phone… enough time must be dedicated exclusively to eating and creating a pleasant moment of communication between parents and children. Eating while watching television or on your mobile is a bad habit that can later make things more complicated.

Do not snack close to meals

Giving snacks to children close to meal times can have a negative influence on their appetite. Establish clear schedules for each of the meals of the day, so they understand when the next meal is expected. Of course, if the child is hungry in between meals, they will ask for something to eat and that is an appropriate time for snacks.

Remember that all children can go through fussy eating phases, some more often than others, and respecting the child’s time will help build a better relationship and provide the tools so that you can offer a healthier diet.