Fussy eating is reported in up to 50% of toddlers and is a cause of much concern for parents. However, in most cases, fussy eating is a normal developmental stage. Most toddlers go through phases of refusing to eat certain foods or at times, refusing to eat anything at all. They can be wary of new foods and refuse to try them and can even refuse previously liked foods. Fussy eating and food refusal are often ways of showing independence, a normal part of growing up. Appropriate parental response to fussy eating can minimise it’s duration and prevent it turning into a more ingrained and problematic issue.
Promoting acceptance of a wide range of foods in children begins as early as in the womb. Flavour molecules from the mother’s diet appear in the amniotic fluid and the so the baby can be exposed to a range of flavours in utero. It is thought that food consumed during pregnancy can shape the infant’s food preferences later in life. Likewise, breastfed infants are exposed to a variety of flavours, as flavours from the mother’s diet move into the breastmilk. Thus a breastfed infant, before even consuming solid foods, is already accustomed to accepting flavour changes and therefore may be more accepting of new foods later on. When solid foods are introduced to infants at about 6 months, it is recommended that a wide range of foods and flavours are introduced from early on. Babies who are exposed to a variety of tastes are less likely to be fussy eaters later on.
If a toddler is showing signs of being a fussy eater, parents need to take positive action. The following are some of the recommended strategies.
- Ensure mealtimes are a positive and fun experience.
- One family meal (as opposed to different dishes for different family members), which includes at least some accepted foods, should be offered.
- Portion size should be age appropriate – give toddlers toddler-sized portions.
- Make sure the toddler is not filling up on drinks. Milk and water are the only drinks a toddler needs.
- If food is refused, alternatives should not be given.
- Parents and peers should be positive role models and lots of praise should be given for any foods tried.
- Continue to expose to a variety of foods rather than sticking to “the old reliables”.
- Never coerce or force-feed.
- Meal and snack times should not be prolonged.
- Refused foods should be removed without comment.
- Maintain a daily routine of 3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks, and do not allow grazing (except for drinks of water) in between meals and snacks.
- Involve the toddler in shopping for food and preparing for mealtimes.
It might be helpful for a concerned parent to keep a food diary for a week to see if the major food groups (grains and starches; fruits and vegetables; dairy or alternatives; meat, fish eggs and alternatives;) are represented. If not and/or if fussiness persists and there are concerns about the toddler’s growth and nutritional intake, a Paediatric Dietitian can provide a full nutritional assessment.