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10 ways to deal with a fussy eater

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It can be incredibly frustrating if your toddler turns her nose up at everything you prepare. Not only have you wasted time, effort and money when her dinner ends up in the bin, you may also be worried that she’s not getting the nutrition she needs. Here how to cope with a little one who’s forever pushing her plate away.
Has your toddler always been a fussy eater, turning away from the merest hint of anything green and wrinkling her tiny nose at your lovingly prepared fish bake? Or has she suddenly taken to rejecting the food she previously couldn’t get enough of? Either way, a picky eater is overwhelmingly annoying, frustrating and, at times, worrying. 
In truth, there are very few toddlers who can’t eat what they’re being offered – most of them simply won’t eat. Research indicates that a third of parents worry about their toddler not eating enough, and around 40% indicate they have a fussy eater in the family. 
The fact is, many parents take their toddler to their GP due to eating concerns; I was one of them. When my own two-year-old was surviving on a diet of rice, baked beans and ham for months on end, I headed to the GP. I was an experienced mum with two voracious, adventurous eaters to compare Barnaby with but his look of disgust when I offered him anything that wasn’t on his prescribed list of precisely three foods was enough to make me pull my hair out.

My doctor calmly told me that if my son was hungry enough, he’d eat. And she was right: as soon as I took the pressure off, he started being more adventurous. And although he’s still fussier than his older brothers, I’ve learned a few tricks along the way to take mealtimes fun again. 

Dos and don’ts to encourage a fussy eater

1. Don’t wheedle, threaten or punish

You’re in control, not your toddler. If you let her see that you’re stressed, upset or cross, then she’s got the attention she loves. Calmly placing her food in front of her and ignoring any tantrums will slowly teach her that she’s not going to get a reaction from you. In the end my son forgot he was supposed to be acting up and started to eat. 

2. Do watch what he's drinking

The best drinks for children are milk (breast, formula/follow-on and cow’s) and water, although too much milk can fill a tiny tummy. Cordial should be avoided if possible because it has an impact not only on children’s teeth and sugar levels but also on their appetites. Little ones who drink a lot can find the sugar content dulls their appetite so when it comes to mealtimes, they’re genuinely not hungry – but are crying out for food later when the effect of the cordial has worn off.  

3. Don’t offer mealtime alternatives

A recent survey found that half of all Australian families prepare different meals for different children based on likes and dislikes. When toddlers are given too much choice it can be overwhelming for them – and you! Instead, make one meal for the family and refine it for your toddler. Chicken casserole might need the meat stripped from the drumsticks for her to manage but offering an alternative is creating a rod for your own back. Do it once and you’ll be doing it every mealtime. 

4. Do eat as a family

Research has shown that a child who eats with her family is less likely to have weight problems in the future; more likely to have closer ties with her siblings and parents, and has better table manners too! Eating a meal together also means the pressure is off – all your attention isn’t focussed on the one child and whether she is, or isn’t, eating her pasta. Watching everyone else around the table eat a variety of food encourages your toddler to get out of her comfort zone as she copies Mummy and Daddy in trying different tastes too. 

5. Don’t listen to criticism about eating

Parents need support from friends, family and other parents – not guilt trips, put-downs or criticism masquerading as well-meaning advice. The fact that you’re reading this at all means you’re a good parent; you care about your child and what she’s eating. You have the right to switch off to anything that begins with “In my day…”, “No offence but…” and “I don’t mean to criticise…” Try not to rise to the bait, whoever’s dangling it – breathe deeply and give yourself a pat on the back for all you achieve every day. 

6. Do persevere with your fussy eater

Studies show that it takes up to 20 times of offering a new food for a toddler to try it. Put a little on her plate without fanfare or fuss and just see what happens. My youngest rejected chicken casserole every time I made it, for example, and just hoovered up the accompanying rice instead. I almost fainted last week when he suddenly started wolfing the entire dish down. Believe me, it took all my restraint not to do a victory lap around the kitchen.

7. Don’t dismiss a genuine food dislike

There’s a big difference between being fussy and genuinely disliking a particular food. Don’t expect your toddler to love everything you offer; she should be allowed to develop her individual palate. For instance, I know my middle boy hates tuna – doesn’t matter how I serve it, he can’t stand it so there’s no point in persevering. My others love mussels and olives; again, we learned this by offering different foods. My only rule is that my kids have to try new things – just one taste and the new food has to stay on their plates. 

8. Don’t take food rejection personally

Having your lovingly prepared (or, let’s be realistic, sometimes lovingly removed from the freezer) meal rejected can hurt. But it’s no reflection on you as a mum or as a cook – unless it’s burned or, as we like to say in our house, ‘caramelised’. Being a fussy eater has little to do with the food on offer and a lot to do with your toddlerasserting her independence, understanding she has choices and tugging on your heartstrings.

9. Do accept that fussy eating is a passing phase

Just like creeping into Mummy and Daddy’s bed, being engrossed in their own nostrils or wanting to read the same book at bedtime until you could scream, fussy eating is, more often than not, just a phase. Accept this and hold on to the knowledge that, like every other stage your toddler will go through, this too will pass. 

10. Do keep mealtimes fun

Eating should be fun; how we eat it, what we’re eating and with whom we’re eating all makes the experience special. Try to take away the drama by serving food in fun ways such as using cookie cutters on her sandwichesor making faces out of mashed potatoes, sausages and veggies. If it’s an option, take lunch outside in a ‘picnic’ and try to lead by example by showing your child that you’re enjoying healthy options. Or take some of the stress away by hiding pureed veggies in something she does like, bolognese for example, and relax in the knowledge that your little one is getting her daily vitamins.
If you’re concerned about your toddler’s eating habits (perhaps she doesn’t appear to be gaining weight/growing), keep a food diary for a week and, at the end of the week, check that she is eating from each of the nutritional groups. This is also useful information to take to the doctor, who can probably quickly allay your fears, or if necessary refer you to a specialist. 
Ask a Woolies mum: 
“The biggest contributor to fussy eating is being unfamiliar with different foods. When children get to two years old they suddenly have a huge fear of new foods, which is why a good eater seems to become a poor one overnight. The more foods kids have been exposed to before this age, the less likely this fussy eating phase will happen. I do this with my son Harry, who’s two-and-a-half, by including stories that have fruit and veggies mentioned in them when it’s bedtime or having a guessing game at the supermarket or at home with the fruit bowl. Fruit and veggies are part of everyday life to him now.”
Louise Fulton Keats, food writer and granddaughter of Woolies food doyenne, Margaret Fulton, NSW, mum of one
For fun ways to tempt your toddler, try our delicious recipes and to find out about the best nutritional intake, read Surprising tips for a healthy toddler


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