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Coping with fussy eating

17th June 2015 By Nicole W.

Fussy eating is a common problem reported by parents, with 25-50% of children estimated to go through this stage of development. It is defined as the refusal of both new and familiar foods, which can result in limited variety in the child’s diet. 

It mostly doesn’t affect the child’s growth and development as the child will usually compensate at other meals. The child tends to grow out of it, particularly as they mix more with others and eating becomes an increasingly social activity. However, if the behaviour does continue this may lead to problems, including nutritional deficiencies. 

How the problem can be made worse

It’s difficult for parents to know what the best approach should be, and it can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety. 


  • Pressuring the child to eat – this only worsens the situation
  • Rewarding the behaviour – if a child eats their disliked vegetables, don’t then treat them with a chocolate bar. Choose something non-food related to use as a reward instead
  • Restricting their access to other well-liked foods – it adds to their desirability 
  • Making a big deal out of the behaviour - ignore the child and simply remove the food

Tips for managing fussy eating:

  • Keep the atmosphere positive so mealtimes can be enjoyable and social
  • Get into a routine with meals at similar times in a place without distractions
  • Keep trying even if the food has been rejected previously – repeated exposure to novel foods can eventually lead to acceptance, though it’s unknown how many times are necessary so don’t give up too easily! Serve the currently disliked foods alongside others as part of the meal
  • Eat similar foods to the child – there’s no point asking your child to eat vegetables if you’re not! Part of how children learn includes observing and modelling their behaviours on those demonstrated by their parents. Seeing family members enjoying a variety of foods can help the child overcome their fussy eating

Current advice regarding fussy eating can be conflicting and parents can feel confused and overwhelmed. Using fortified toddler milks or children’s multivitamins can help with putting parents mind at ease that their child is getting an adequate nutritional intake, but these should only be used in addition to changes in the child’s environment, including consistent promotion of eating a variety of foods, and in the management of their behaviour. 

In general, it is best to ignore the child’s behaviour at mealtimes when they are acting out, but not to ignore the problem. Instead, treat the problem in a way the child won’t notice – repeated exposure to foods, creation of a positive mealtime environment and being a positive role model can help contribute to moving out of the fussy eating stage.

Picky eating – a result of evolution?

Could the fussy eating habits of our young children really be the result of evolution? There is some evidence to suggest that that this is true. This argument claims that prior to 18 months of age children instinctively accept food that is given to them because evolution has taught them to trust the primary care givers. However, when children become mobile between 18 to 24 months they are exposed to many new dangers. This argument suggests that evolution has created an innate survival instinct in children to avoid unknown foods to ensure their safety. So, certain types of fussy eating may be a survival instinct passed down from our predecessors. What do you think? 

Article by Nicole W.

Nicole has been working a researcher and writer in the health industry for over five years. An avid runner and foodie, Nicole writes about the highs and lows of trying to follow a balanced lifestyle and has a keen interest in the complex relationship between nutrition and disease prevention.