Here are our 10 tips for managing fussy eating in children:
- Try to keep a consistent meal routine
- Replace ‘snacks’ with ‘mini-meals’
- Expose them to a variety of foods from a young age
- Pair foods they enjoy with new foods
- Present new foods in a variety of ways
- Use small portions and don’t pressure them to finish their plate
- Get them involved in the cooking process
- Eat together
- Encourage them to feed themselves
- Keep calm and be mindful of the language you use
Did you know that studies show it can take up to 11 tries before a child accepts and enjoys a new food?
We know! That’s a lot of trying and crying. Sometimes it may be very hard, but little steps at a time can help.
Worrying about our children when they go through ‘fussy’ phases is normal. For example, refusing to eat certain foods or being picky about when and where they want to eat.
Fussiness can occur at any time from weaning through to adulthood, and it’s often a child’s way of showing their want for independence and autonomy, as well as to test the boundaries.
While it’s likely to be just a phase they’ll grow out of and nothing to worry about, it can be a stressful and frustrating time for parents.
In this guide, we’ll share our top tips for managing these phases and laying the foundations for a good relationship with food in your children.
1. Try to keep a consistent meal routine
We’d recommend sticking to three main meals daily, with ‘mini meals’ in between (see more on this in the next tip).
Keeping these meals at roughly the same time each day and sitting in the same places to eat can be worthwhile. This helps children to feel comfortable and safe in their eating environment, which might make them more willing to try new things.
This will also help ensure kids are hungry for food and not snacking too close to meals.
2. Replace ‘snacks’ with ‘mini-meals’
While there’s nothing wrong with having snacks between main meals, the term ‘snacks’ can give the illusion to children that these foods are a ‘treat’, less nutritious, or just something to pass the time.
For this reason, some parents find it helpful to reframe snacks as ‘mini-meals’.
It’s also important to consider how balanced and filling the mini-meals we give children are because if we give them foods that aren’t filling, they will be hungry again shortly after.
To build a balanced and filling snack, try pairing a source of protein or fat with complex carbohydrates and fruits or vegetables. A helpful tip can be to ask yourself, ‘would this fill me up?’.
Here are some examples of mini-meals for your kids to try:
- Hummus with veggie sticks (carrot, cucumber, pepper, celery)
- Mini omelettes (get the recipe in our 10 simple recipes suitable for the whole family)
- 2 tbsp. of natural nut butter with 1/2 an apple, small banana, or celery sticks
- Greek yoghurt with berries
- Plain crackers with cheese and/or cucumber
- Boiled egg
- Apple with cheese slices
- Tuna lettuce wraps
- Bitesize pieces of our Second Nature banana bread
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3. Expose them to a variety of foods from a young age
This doesn’t mean every meal has to be full of variety but try to incorporate a variety of foods over the course of the day, week, or month. Doing this will help to normalise trying new foods, expand their taste buds, and give them an idea of what healthy food looks like.
The term ‘eat the rainbow’ is helpful to remember, and not just for our kids! A diverse range of fruits and vegetables in our diet gives us many different vitamins and minerals and is also beneficial for our gut health.
Food exposure doesn’t have to be just at meal times either. Why not take them with you to the supermarket to see the variety of foods, to a restaurant to try a new cuisine, or fruit picking during the summer months?
You could also focus books, TV shows, and games on food. All this will help educate them and get them excited about trying new things.
Keep an eye on our Parent’s Portal; we will add some games to help you with this.
4. Pair new foods with foods you know they enjoy
To help children feel more comfortable trying new foods, it can help offer foods they’ve tried and tested alongside new foods. This will make the meal look more familiar.
Studies suggest it takes around 11 times exposure to a food before a child will accept and enjoy eating it. So don’t be put off by their rejections, keep persevering.
5. Present new foods in a variety of ways
Often children are put off by food appearances or textures, so it can help to offer foods in different ways. For example, if they don’t like the look or texture of a banana, you could try giving it to them mashed.
Be open and discuss this with them too. When giving them food in a new way, remind them of past positive experiences with the same food, such as how they enjoyed carrots when mashed in pasta sauce.
6. Try smaller portions, and don’t pressure them to finish their plate
It’s easy to forget that children have much smaller stomachs than we do so need smaller portions. While we want to offer them a variety of foods, presenting them with a large plate full of food can be overwhelming.
Instead, try using children’s hands as a guide for portions. For example, look at their palm or fist size to get an idea of a suitable portion for them.
Many of us remember being told not to leave food on our plates and were pressured to eat everything we were given.
We now know that this is not a good approach for building positive eating habits and can lead to unhelpful behaviours later in life, such as not listening to hunger and fullness cues or having large portions.
If you notice your child isn’t eating everything on their plate, try offering them a smaller portion first so they can ask for more if they’d like to.
Doing this can help them to become in tune with their hunger and fullness cues and make them feel more involved in their eating decisions.
If they’re distressed about the meal or aren’t willing to eat after some gentle encouragement, respect their decision and try again another time.
7. Get them involved in the whole process
Children enjoy making decisions about the food they eat as it helps them to feel independent, which is a big part of growing up and becoming an individual.
Going through recipes together and asking them to choose meals for the family can be a great way to involve them in making decisions. For some ideas of quick family meals, look at our guide of 10 easy and healthy family recipes.
As well as getting them involved in the planning, roll up their sleeves and ask for some help in the kitchen.
Show them how you prepare and cook a meal or give them a small and safe task to do themselves, such as mixing ingredients in a bowl. Being hands-on is a brilliant way for children to learn and develop skills, plus it’s a fun activity to do together.
We have an incredible game coming up to help you with this. Check out our parent’s portal.
8. Eat together
It may not always be achievable, but when we can, sitting with our children to eat is a good way to model positive eating behaviours.
Eating with them will help normalise the eating experience and show them that we eat the same sorts of foods that they do.
This can help remove food fears or feelings of uncertainty. It will also start to educate them on what balanced meals look like.
Having structured meal times can help ensure you sit down together for meals, which also helps create unity and provides an opportunity for bonding.
9. Encourage them to feed themselves
As we’ve mentioned, kids like to feel in control of their choices, and we want them to develop this independence.
Allowing them to feed themselves, rather than us feeding them, is a good way to harness this and might actually result in them eating more.
It will get messy, but it’ll be a fun experience. Try cutting foods into small sizes that kids can hold easily.
Finger foods like sandwiches, cheese on crackers, breadsticks and hummus, mini sausages, vegetable sticks, or pieces of fruit are good options.
10. Keep calm and be mindful of the language you use
We know how frustrating it can be to see the food we’ve spent time, effort, and money on not being eaten, but it’s important not to show this frustration while children try to eat.
Studies have shown that fussy eating can be linked to children picking up the worry or stress of their parents during mealtimes. This can lead to a cycle where the child is averse to eating, and the parent is projecting stress and frustration.
Our website has plenty of stress management resources to help you if you feel this way and don’t want to pass these emotions down to your children.
Language is also very important because children are impressionable and will pick up on our behaviours. Use neutral language around food and avoid labelling them as fussy eaters.
Pickiness is a normal part of children’s development, but by drawing attention to it, they might start to think it’s bad or something wrong with them.
Here are some examples of phrases not to use:
‘Stop being fussy’
‘You’re being difficult’
‘Why can’t you eat like your sister?’
For more information on language to use around food, look at our insightful guide on how to talk to your children about food.
Take home message
We won’t be perfect, and this is important to note. Raising a child is hard, and paying attention to all these things is not always possible.
Fussy eating is a normal part of a child’s development process, but there are things we can do as parents to manage this in a supportive way and build the foundations of a healthy relationship with food.
We recommend trying out the tips in this guide that feel suitable for you and your children but also remember not to put too much pressure on yourself as a parent or carer because children’s diets don’t need to be perfect.
Are you looking to improve your own relationship with food? We have just released our Relationship with Food course, and it’s proving to be a success.
It helps reframe your mindset about food, deal with emotional eating and leave the diet mindset behind. Check it out here.