Fussy Eating: What it is, why it happens and what you can do to help.

Fussy eating, also known as picky eating, is common in early childhood.  The Victorian Government’s Department of Health website Better Health Channel describes a fussy eater as a child who refuses food at least half of the time.  They report at least half of toddlers fit this description.  It is no surprise then that so many parents worry about their child’s eating.

Fussy eating behaviour may be seen as:  

  • Refusal to eat foods that are a particular taste, shape, colour or texture.

  • Variable acceptance of food (a child will eat a particular food one day, but not the next).

Parents commonly report that their child: 

  • Eats a limited range of food 

  • Can get upset a mealtimes 

  • Won’t feed themselves 

  • Will eat only with certain people or places (e.g. childcare) 

  • Won’t stay at the table  

  • Refuse to try foods 

  • Need distractions such as screens to eat 

While it is believed that many of these behaviours are typical in early childhood development (we’ll explain why in a moment), if these behaviours persist and are significantly impacting the child/family relationships and their nutrition and growth, it may suggest that the child has ‘feeding difficulties’. Learning to eat is complex. It is reliant on all of the systems (e.g. digestive, respiratory, circulatory) of our body working together. If there are complications with these systems such as constipation, teething, or reflux it can impact a child's eating, not only when the child is experiencing discomfort, but sometimes for a long period of time after. If you are concerned about your child’s eating please seek support from a professional (e.g. your child’s GP, Paediatrician, Maternal Child Health Nurse etc.) 

Why is fussy eating common in children? 

Toddlers undergo a surge in cognitive, social, emotional and physical development from 1-3 years.  Research tells us the following characteristics  are common with a child’s growing brain and body.  Understanding these developmental phases, help us to understand why many children naturally go through a “fussy period”  in the toddler years.   Here are just a few:

  • They learn to say ‘no’ and develop a sense of autonomy.  They learn they can control their own body, as well as influence the behaviours of others.    

  • They also develop a more heightened awareness of the world around them.  For example; this can make coping with the smell, or look of new foods more challenging. 

  • They are wary of change, and they find it hard to regulate their emotions (especially if tired or hungry), which may result in tantrums or meltdowns.   

  • They are learning to use their body in new ways, which make sitting still at the table more difficult.    

  • Children’s cognitive development is not yet at the level of adults, and they are still easily convinced by their ideas.  This can lead to some strong beliefs about eating and food, that may not be able to be easily dismissed (e.g. milk tastes best out of the blue cup or I once got sick after eating noodles, so I shouldn't eat noodles).

Despite many children going through a fussy period, what we do and what we say is very important at this time to reduce the likelihood of longer-term feeding difficulties.  For example, a toddler who finds it hard to sit still at the table for a meal may sit still when the TV is on.  This may lead to parents relying on the use of the TV to get their child to eat. The child has reduced eating learning opportunities such as looking at and interacting with food during mealtimes and this may lead to the child eating a smaller variety of foods over time. 

Another example is a toddler at childcare who notices that every time he refuses a particular food, he is offered his favourite sandwich. Gradually the toddler learns that if he refuses to accept the bowl of food in his space, it increases the likelihood of a favourite food being offered. As the child grows older they have a diet of a smaller range of foods.

What you can do to help fussy eating behaviour: 

1. Seek to understand WHY fussy eating behaviour is occurring. Are there underlying physiological/medical issues that need addressing?

2. Gain an understanding of HOW children learn to eat new foods. Children need to go on a journey with new foods in order to learn to eat them. Eating is complex and requires a range of skills You can watch our short video about the journey to eating here.

3. Apply The Recipe for Mealtime Success to your mealtimes.  The Recipe for Mealtime Success has 4 research-driven ingredients that encourage children  to explore and eat a wider range of food by feeling safe and happy at mealtimes.  These are:

  • Mealtime Responsibilities

  • Regular Routines  

  • Family Mealtimes

  • Fun

At the core of  the Recipe for Mealtime Success is  trust at mealtimes. This is  represented by our Love Spoon  at the centre of the circle.   It is important that  caregivers  can learn to  trust  that their  child  is able to eat what their body needs for their growth and development and that  children  can trust that  their caregiver will make them feel safe and secure, help them build independent eating skills and provide the right foods, at the right time.    

Learn more about our recipe for Mealtime Success here

You can learn more about why fussy eating occurs and how to support children to learn to eat a wider range of foods at our workshops. You will also learn how to apply the Recipe for Mealtime Success to the specific challenges you are facing, and come away with a clear plan for mealtime success. Click here to attend one of our workshops.


To learn how to apply the Recipe for Mealtime Success to the specific challenges your are facing at mealtimes, and come away with a clear plan for mealtime success click here to attend one of our workshops. 

Interested in learning more?    

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