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How to turn around a fussy eater: Kids

Sick of tying yourself in knots trying to get your child to eat vegetables? Take heart, you're not alone!

Nutritionists find fussy eating to be one the greatest problems for those who prepare and cook food for their family. The following strategies may help.

It's normal for toddlers and young children to go through a stage of refusing food. This is a part of gaining independence and an effective tool for upsetting and controlling adults. The important thing to remember is that children will not willingly starve themselves, and fussy eating is unlikely to lead to long-term growth or nutritional problems. If you can, get on top of it early to save yourself years of future angst!

  • Don't assume food refusal means food dislike
    Children frequently reject a new food when first offered. This is usually not because they don't like it, but because it is different to anything they have experienced before. They are simply not used to the taste, texture and smell.
  • Offer one new food at a time
    Offering new foods too quickly can backfire, particularly with very young children. Allow time for each food to become familiar before moving on to something new. Offering a new food with already familiar and enjoyed foods can help the new food become accepted.
  • Keep trying: don't give up after the first attempt
    It can take 10 or more attempts before a new food is accepted. Offer a small amount often and your child should eventually get used to the flavour and texture.
  • Make new foods fun and easy to eat
    Young children are attracted to different colours and shapes. They also love to play with their food, and this is an important part of food acceptance. Finger foods are a good choice. Try different colours and shapes to maximise appeal and attractiveness.
  • Keep your emotions under wraps
    Children are good at picking up on feelings. It you worry too much, it will show. Work hard on controlling your emotions. If you appear not to care, then there is nothing for a child to gain by being fussy. Be careful also not to over-praise good behaviour – this can have the same effect as showing concern about not eating.
  • Resist the urge to cave in
    If a child learns you will eventually give up and feed them what they want when they refuse a food, they have gained the upper hand. Their fussy eating will continue, and your battles with food will be ongoing. Be firm and stick to a 'this or nothing' policy. Missing a meal occasionally will not harm a child and is more likely to teach them better eating habits for the future.

Clenched jaws and untouched vegetables are an all too familiar scene. Getting children to eat vegetables seems to be the toughest food challenge.

  • Be careful about your messages
    Children often pick up a message that vegetables are not enjoyable when told to eat them because they are 'good for you'. Bribes such as 'No dessert until you have eaten your vegetables' show that vegetables are to be endured, while dessert is special. I once told my children they weren't allowed to eat from a fruit and vegetable platter I had prepared. This made them passionate about the 'munch and crunch' platters, and I eventually 'caved in' and let them eat!
  • Make vegetables as attractive as possible
    Cut vegetables into bright coloured sticks served on a platter with a dipping sauce as a snack or mini-meal, grate vegetables into colourful stacks, or cut them into interesting shapes.
  • Don't use force or blackmail
    Not letting a child leave the table until they have eaten their vegetables can backfire. It can reinforce a dislike rather than create a good habit. Calmly take the meal away and re-offer when hunger is next expressed. Resist the urge to fill your child up in the meantime with other less healthy favourites.
  • Be a good role model
    When children see others enjoying a food, they are more likely to try and enjoy it themselves. Fill your meals with vegetables and demonstrate your enjoyment. Don't go over the top, however, or they will see through your efforts!


Expert tips for super-fussy eaters

Dietitian Anna Richards specialises in family nutrition and allergies.  She offers her advice on coping with fussy children.

  • Allow young children to explore
    Get them in touch with their food – literally. Squishing a banana is all part of getting to know the fruit. Familiarity breeds acceptance.
  • Serve new foods
    Alongside favourite familiar foods, regularly serve new foods – even if they are initially rejected. Remember, 20 yucks to one yum!
  • Don't make open-ended offers
    Offer two choices (when possible). Say, 'Would you like milk or water?' not, 'What would you like to drink?' Or, 'Would you like X or Y?' rather than 'What would you like for lunch?'
  • Make mealtimes calm
    Warn children when it's nearly mealtime – no one likes unexpected interruptions to their games or their work. Turn the TV and phones off.
  • Feed children when they are hungriest
    Young children are often ready for dinner by 4-5pm. Give them the best nutrition then, and allow them to join in the family meal at 6pm with finger foods, or delay dessert until this time.
  • Stay at the table until everyone has finished
    To keep young children focused, a timer with a set time (10-15 minutes) may work for older pre-schoolers. Make sure children are seated correctly and have the right cutlery.
  • Infants and young children can regulate their food intake
    Children have an innate knowledge of how many calories they need. You trusted their judgement when they were breastfed, so trust if they say they've had enough. As long as they're healthy, happy and growing, it's all right.
  • Is your child filling up on too much milk?
    If children's energy requirements are largely being met by milk, they have no need to eat the meal you have just spent an hour making. Children aged 1-5 years need around 500-600ml of milk or milk equivalent (eg. milk, yoghurt, cheese). If their intake is above this, it's probably impacting on their food intake.
  • Join your children while they eat
    Treat dinner time as a special 'talk time' about the day. You'll treasure this as your children get older.
  • Check with the GP
    There may be a physical reason your child is picky with their food – food allergy, intolerance or reflux. Seek professional help to check. Often food aversion starts with an innate knowledge that 'this food doesn't make me feel good'.


Sophie Gray explains this simple method, which is brilliant for helping picky eaters adjust to new foods. Observing the one bite rule allows you to be firm while you learn what kids are simply afraid of, and what they truly don't like.

Easy does it

If a child won't eat a food, eg. green vegetables, include a single mouthful of the same green vegetable with their dinner every night for 7- 10 nights. When they kick up a fuss, firmly tell them, 'You must eat that one bite. If you don't, then get down from the table immediately and get ready for bed and there will be no story tonight. Why don't you try to eat that one little bite nicely?'

Dealing with theatrics

Many kids will make a great show of nearly vomiting, but it rarely actually happens. What does happen is over the course of the week, they tire of putting on the performance. They become accustomed to the texture and flavour of the feared food, and while they may not necessarily like it, they learn to eat it. When they can eat one bite without a fuss, you have them! The next night, put three pieces of the now familiar vegetable on their plate and introduce one mouthful of another feared food. They will be so busy obsessing about the new food, they won't even notice that they have eaten the other.

The choice is theirs

Children rarely choose to send themselves to bed over just one bite. Even the biggest drama queen can choke down one little mouthful, and the softest-hearted parents can manage to enforce it.

Observing the one bite rule allows you to be firm while you learn what kids are simply afraid of, and what they truly don't like.

First published: May 2009