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Helping your child with fussy eating

You can do a lot to help your child with fussy eating.

You decide what foods to offer but let your child decide if and how much they eat. Give them a variety of foods they know and love but also give them small amounts of new foods that they're still learning to accept.

Tips for managing fussy eaters

Eat together

Mealtimes are an important opportunity for role-modelling. If your child sees you eating healthy food, they're more likely to eat it too.

Keep mealtimes relaxed and calm. Ask your child about their day rather than talking about food.

Offer your child the same food the rest of the family is eating but make sure each meal includes at least one food your child already accepts. Avoid preparing separate meals.

We eat the most in the first 10 minutes, so avoid long mealtimes. Try to finish the meal within 20 to 30 minutes.

Avoid distractions

Turn off the TV and other devices and put away toys so your child can focus on eating. Avoiding these distractions also allows family members to talk to each other.

Let them eat to their appetite

Children have small tummies, so offer them three meals and two to three snacks at set times each day. They need a gap of at least a couple of hours without eating to feel hungry for their next meal.

If your child doesn't eat at every opportunity you provide, that is okay. It's normal for children's appetites to vary from day to day.

Offer drinks halfway through and at the end of a meal so your child doesn't fill up on drinks.

Give praise and avoid a power struggle

Pressuring you child to eat can make them feel anxious and less likely to try new foods.

Encourage your child with positive prompts rather than a question they can say "no" to. For example, "You can try the peas" rather than "Can you try the peas?".

It can help to praise your child for at least one thing they do at every meal. This could be good chewing or biting, good sitting, good food exploring, and so on.

Use "Do" language. This tells your child the behaviour you would like. For example, replace "Stop throwing" with "Food stays on the table".

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Do not assume your child doesn't like a particular food after a few attempts. It often takes 10 to 15 times for a food to be offered before it's accepted. If at first your child says "yuck", you can say "You're still learning about that food".

If your child refuses a food do not force them to eat it. Just take the food away without saying anything. Try to stay calm, even if it's very frustrating.

Make food fun and easy to eat

Prepare foods in a way your child can manage. This might be puréed or cut into small, easy-to-chew bites or strips. Never leave your child alone while eating.

Finger foods may be easier to manage and can offer more enjoyment and independence.

Include a variety of shapes, colours, and textures – a cookie cutter works well.

Create imaginative names for foods. For example, "trees" for broccoli or "X-ray vision" for carrots.

Reward your child with treats other than with food

If children associate positive memories with sweet food, they will want more. There are many other ways to reward children.

If the tips above do not help and you're concerned about your child's eating, talk to your GP or practice nurse. They may refer you to a dietitian.

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Written by paediatric dietitians, Canterbury DHB. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created October 2021.


See also:

Parenting healthy & active children

Treats & rewards for children

Page reference: 916881

Review key: HIHEC-62690