June 21st, 2023
The words ‘fussy eating’ and ‘toddlers’ often go hand in hand
Tantrums at mealtime… Hunger strikes…. Fussy eating throughout the early years can be an incredibly stressful time as a parent, however rest assured it is a completely normal part of toddler development. The question is: how do we create competent eaters in the long run? Positive eating habits take years to develop and this is only natural.
Q: What are the causes of fussy eating?
Aside from medical issues that can cause feeding issues, fussy eating may result when babies and young children are not given the opportunity to regularly get messy with food – touching, tasting and smelling a variety of foods and textures. Often, when we as parents get stressed about our child’s food intake, it actually makes the situation worse!
Tip: Children don’t need to be eating a complete range of fruit and vegetables by age 6, but they need to at least be eating some. Remember to include a variety of colours – they’re important from a nutritional perspective!
Q: When children were toddlers, they used to eat certain fruits and vegetables but once they are 4+ years of age, they won’t eat them anymore. Why does this happen and what can parents do?
From the age of 3, children can definitely go through a phase where they become afraid to try new foods and can also be genuinely disgusted by a food. Your little ones may reject food because it has a taste that they do not like or are not used to. They may also start to refuse a food on sight because it resembles something that they find disgusting. Children often prefer food that is separate and not mixed.
If your child is in this situation, don’t force the issue as this will only make things worse. Include a variety of foods on their plate – some that you know they will accept (safe foods) and others that you want them to try (just put a smaller amount on the plate).
Tip: Keep offering a wide variety of foods, eat with them, remain non-judgemental and try to respect that they have taste preferences just like us!
Q: How many times do children need to be exposed to new foods before they may like them?
When introducing new foods, research shows that it may take up to 10-15 attempts before they accept them. It’s easy to get disheartened and stop offering the food after the first 4 or 5 times.
Tip: Have a break from it for a while (for everyone’s sake!) but come back to it a few weeks later.
Q: My child will eat fruit, veggies and other foods in daycare that he refuses to eat at home. I just can’t get him to eat the foods that I know he eats at daycare when he is home. I am confused and need help!
This is a very common occurrence, and you’re not alone! Peer influence will mean children eat things in the centre that they won’t eat at home. Food refusal is one of the best ways that young children can attract your attention – they know this and will use it to ‘push your buttons’. Don’t make a fuss about it at the table as this will only worsen the situation.
Tip: Offer the food, remain calm, practise good role modelling and talk about something else. If it’s not eaten, just remove the food without fuss and try again next time!
Q: My toddler is refusing to eat dinner at night. He has eaten well during the day and is not sick, then in the middle of the night he wakes up ravenous. How can I get him to eat?
I would first check to make sure that you were giving him dinner early enough – is he becoming too tired to eat a proper meal? …try a 4:30-5pm dinner. In addition, offer him a dairy and fruit-based supper such as fruit and yoghurt which will hopefully help to sustain him overnight.
Q: Do parents’ own eating behaviours play a role in a child’s eating behaviours?
Yes, absolutely! It’s crucial that good role modelling occurs with the whole family. We as parents need to eat with our children as often as possible and by doing so, we teach them how to enjoy healthy wholesome food.
Tip: When children see the rest of the family happily enjoying healthy food, they are much more likely to trust the food and want to eat it too!
Karina Savage has over fifteen years of clinical paediatric experience and is the director of Smartbite Nutrition in Sydney. She has worked with the Gastroenterology Department at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in researching infant colic and childhood allergy/intolerance.