Top tips for parents/carers of young fussy eaters

Dr Ros Miller

Registered Nutritionist @ Yummy Tummy Nutrition

Fussy eating is relatively common, around half of young children will go through a fussy stage at some point, typically starting at around 18 months and peaking at 3 years of age. For parents/carers it can be quite a stressful time, worrying about whether your child is getting enough nutrients, not to mention all the food that is getting wasted! However, there is help at hand and it is important to remember that unless your child is not gaining weight or is losing weight, they are likely to be getting enough energy for growth. Poor dietary variety can in some cases lead to low micronutrient intakes, particularly iron and zinc which are found in some meats and vegetables. Low intakes of dietary fibre, as a result of low intakes of fruit and vegetables, can also lead to constipation in fussy eaters. If you have a little fussy eater, there are lots of things you can try to get their eating back on track, some of which are discussed in this article.

Why does it happen?

There are a few reasons why fussy eating can occur, it is a complex subject area and depends on the individual child. It can be due to genetic and/or environmental factors, for example the social interactions during mealtimes and early experiences with different foods. However, as a parent/carer there are lots of things you can do to help them overcome fussy eating and make sure this is just a passing phase!

Here are some of Yummy Tummy Nutrition’s top tips for young fussy eaters;

1.       Eat together – try to make meals into social occasions.  Eat at the table and offer the same foods to your child as you, and the rest of your family, are eating. Watching you, or other members of the family eat certain foods may encourage them to give them a go. It can be logistically difficult to eat together as a family when one or both parents/carers are not back from work until late but try to do it when you can (e.g. weekends or with one parent/carer present).

2.       Give them the attention when they try a food – not when they are refusing food. When they are flinging food from their tray or not wanting to try a food take a deep breath and try to ride it out without comment. Relax and don’t get stressed about it, mealtimes are supposed to be enjoyable!

3.       Remove any distractions – young children can only focus on one thing at a time so try to remove any distractions during mealtimes such as television or toys.

4.       Repeat offerings – if your child refuses a particular food, don’t avoid giving it to them again. It can take 10-15 times of being offered a food for a child to taste it and/or like it. Keep trying!

5.       Watch how much milk you are giving – young children can fill up on milk if too much is given and then refuse meals.

For more fussy eating tips, meal ideas, appropriate portion sizes and the important food groups to include in your child’s diet, join us at one of Yummy Tummy Nutrition’s workshops or schedule a 1-2-1 consultation.

Future thinking

As you child gets older (2+ years) there are other strategies which can help to manage fussy eating. An important one to note is to try not to use food as a reward or bribe.

It is common to hear parents/carers say things like ‘eat three more mouthfuls then you can have your pudding’ or ‘you can’t have pudding unless you eat your sandwich’ – this can make a child think the main course is something horrible which must be endured to get to the yummy pudding rather than learning to love savoury foods.

Bribing children to do something e.g. ‘if you tidy up your toys you can have an ice-cream’ can make those sweet treats seem so desirable. Instead, use non-food rewards such as stickers, activities or points to collect for pocket money or a toy.

Using food to soothe a crying child ‘here’s a biscuit to make it all better’ can mix up emotions with food preferences. Later in life this may become a problem as they could end up reaching for those sweet treats when they are feeling low (i.e. emotional eating).

In summary

Fussy eating is common in young children. It is a complex and highly individual behaviour but there are some general things you can try. Being mindful about your parent-child social interactions during mealtimes and sticking to a schedule may help. For older children, there are additional things you can try. Get in touch with Yummy Tummy Nutrition to find out more about the nutrition workshops we offer or to get more personalised help with your little eater.

Ros Miller