Fussy eating in children

Children's food preferences, how much they eat and their willingness to try new foods will change as they grow and develop. Food choices and mealtimes can be influenced by:

  • nutritional needs
  • mood
  • level of activity
  • growth stage
  • developmental stage
  • appetite
  • beliefs about food.

Changes in a child’s preferences are common and typical behaviour.  

Food exploration

A baby’s first food is breastmilk or formula which is generally sweet in taste. Children often develop a preference for bland sweet foods as a result.  Delaying the introduction of solids from breastmilk or formula can also result in a preference for bland sweet foods and cause fussy eating.

Four of the five basic senses are used during meal times:

  • seeing
  • hearing
  • smelling
  • touching
  • tasting.

The look, smell, feel and taste of foods, can have a big effect on how a baby or child engages with food and mealtimes. Letting babies explore food using their senses and offering them a choice can help make feeding and mealtimes less problematic.

Using the senses, especially taste, is important to a child’s development of healthy habits. 

New foods with different colours, textures and tastes can be scary for a child. It is common for a baby or child to eat something one day and refuse to eat it the next day. Children may be open to some new foods and dislike others based on taste, smell, size, texture or colour.

A proven way to increase the range of foods a child will eat is by regularly introducing new or previously disliked foods at mealtimes. 

Food neophobia

The fear or rejection of new or unknown foods. Food rejection is common in children with 20 to 30% of children having challenging eating habits. 

Typical and problematic feeding

Feeding and mealtimes with children can be challenging at any age. When a baby or child is introduced to solids or new foods, they may develop challenging behaviours around mealtimes. It is normal for children to be scared of new things and need help trying new foods to help develop a healthy relationship with food around mealtimes.

There is a difference between typical feeding behaviour and problematic feeding behaviours.  

Typical feeding behaviour

Typical feeding behaviours may include a child: 

  • liking and eating certain foods one day and refusing the same food the next day
  • initially refusing new foods but trying some new food over time
  • wanting to only eat or drink from a specific plate, bowl or cup.

Problematic feeding behaviour

Problematic feeding behaviours may include a child:

  • refusing to eat all foods that are a certain colour 
  • fearing new foods and having strong reactions or tantrums 
  • not being able to emotionally cope if food is not prepared as expected, or if different foods are touching on the plate or a bowl.

Typical feeding behaviour can become problematic feeding behaviour when the growth of a baby or child starts to become affected.  

Failure to thrive (FTT) is a condition when a baby or child's weight, or rate of weight gain is below the expected amount. Weight and rate of weight gain are compared to that of other children of the same age and gender. Failure to thrive can be shown through weight tracking using:

The development of nutritional deficiencies may also result from typical feeding behaviours becoming problematic.

Some typical and problematic feeding behaviours may be driven by other factors or conditions such as: 

  • Digestive concerns: food intolerances or allergic food conditions including Food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES)
  • Sensory concerns: Sensory processing disorder (SPD), Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Eating disorders: Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), anorexia nervosa. 

Seeking health professional help

If you suspect your child has a digestive or sensory condition, consult with a paediatric specialist to get a correct diagnosis. 

If you think your child has a food allergy, intolerance or an eating disorder, consult a paediatric dietitian for a diagnosis and expert advice. 

Understanding feeding and mealtime behaviours

Difficulties with feeding and mealtime behaviours can be stressful, frustrating and exhausting for everyone involved. Children can have a lot of fear and anxiety at mealtimes, which may be difficult for them to control or express.  

Creating a stress-free and positive environment for every mealtime or feeding time isn’t always possible. It can also be affected by the mood of the baby, child or siblings on the day. 

A long-term view and focusing on small wins over a week is more important than being successful every single day with what your child eats.

Factors impacting mealtime behaviours

There are many common reasons for difficulties faced by parents and carers at mealtimes.  

Energy levels

Most children are full of energy, often very tired or maybe grumpy or grizzly which can make sitting down for meals a challenge. They may eat their food very slowly, not want to eat any food or may have a tantrum.


Medications can impact a child's behaviour. Some medications, like pain relief, may cause a loss of appetite. Other medications, like antibiotics, may make a child feel nauseous, or cause diarrhea and vomiting. This can also lead to a loss of appetite. If your child is taking short-term medication, it may not be a good time to introduce new foods as they may associate the new food with feeling sick and may develop a dislike for it.


If a child is feeling stressed it can produce high levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which are stress hormones. Stress hormones can affect a child's appetite and may lead to a loss of appetite.

Teething or dental issues

Teething or dental issues such as gum disease or loose teeth can cause pain and discomfort when eating. This may lead to a decrease in appetite or less food being eaten.


Common childhood illnesses may change a child's behaviour towards food and mealtimes. These include:

  • the flu
  • ear infections
  • gastro viruses
  • strep throat.

Food inconsistencies

Many fresh foods like fruit and vegetables can vary in texture and taste depending on when they are picked and eaten. These differences in the same foods can cause a child to have different and inconsistent experiences. 

For example:

  • in a punnet of blueberries, some can taste sweet, some taste sour and some from the bottom of the punnet may be squishy
  • a slightly underripe banana is firmer and less sweet than a ripe or overripe banana which may be sweet, feel softer or even have squishy brown spots.

These changes may lead to your child liking some foods one day and not the next. If your child has a bad or negative experience with a food they usually like they may fear trying that same food again. If your child's first experience with a new food is negative, they also may not want to try it again. It is important to keep trying to get your child to eat different foods they seemingly dislike to help create a varied diet. 

It can take 15 or more tries for a child to taste and accept different foods. Regularly give your child new or disliked foods to increase the range of foods they will eat.

Packaged foods are generally consistent in taste and texture. Children may develop a preference for these foods for this reason.  

Tips for a calm mealtime

  1. Set routine mealtimes where food is offered at the table: Explain to your child they need to eat at the table and if they don't want to eat they don't have to but they need to sit with the family.
  2. Burn off energy before mealtimes: Some physical movement before a meal can help reduce high energy levels so a child is more likely to be calm at mealtimes.
  3. Add new foods with liked foods: By adding a portion of new food to food the child likes, they are less likely to get upset, stressed or have a tantrum. The aim is not for the child to eat all of the new food.  Even allowing the food on the plate or a small lick or nibble is considered a win. At the start, this may mean the new food needs to be put on a separate plate. 
  4. Remove distractions: If a child sees a toy they want to play with or their favourite show on the television, they may be less likely to sit and have their meal.
  5. Accept there will be a mess: It can take time for a baby or child to develop the skills to feed themselves.  Babies and toddlers also learn through all the senses.  Food may be squished, spilt, spat out or smeared across the table.  This is normal and if it is accepted that mealtimes are messy then there will be less stress for everyone involved.
  6. Let your child determine how much they eat: If the focus is not on watching the child eat or how much they eat it will be a less stressful environment.  If a child does not eat a lot of food or does not finish their food explain that once mealtime is over the food will be removed and if they feel hungry later the same plate of food will be offered.
  7. Explain foods as 'different': To combat food inconsistencies and hearing from your child "I don't like this or that" you can explain that you used a different food. For example, if your child says I don't like blueberries, because the last time they had blueberries they were sour, you can explain you bought different blueberries and that blueberries sometimes taste sweet and sometimes taste sour.  This is a good way to get them to try blueberries again.

Babies and children are still developing and understanding how to control and express their emotions. Being patient during these development stages can take time but will help your child develop good emotional regulation.

See Child Development - Preschoolers for more information on emotional regulation or Child Development - Toddlers for information on tantrums.

Introducing new foods

Foods come in lots of different colours and textures, and if they are all introduced at the same time to a child, it can be overwhelming. If certain foods are touching or mixed it could also lead to sensory overload for your child. 

Start by introducing 1 to 3 new or disliked foods per week. Where possible, try introducing these foods at different meals or on different days. Let your child choose which foods they would like to try - even just a bite.

How to introduce new foods

Introducing a food could mean any of the following: 

Exploring how it looks

Fruit and vegetables can be prepared in many different ways. A child may like food prepared in a certain way but not another. Keep preparing and offering foods in many different ways to increase the range of foods your child will eat.

For example, if the food chosen to try is carrot, present it raw or cooked in different ways including:

  • cut into sticks or circles
  • grated
  • boiled and mashed
  • served with a healthy dip like tzatziki.  

See which option your child chooses first or which option they seem most interested in. Repeatedly present the option they like with other options regularly over a few weeks.

Exploring by touch

Allow a child to explore and play with food. Touching and sensing different textures of food can help a child become more familiar and comfortable.  

Children can use their fingers or child-safe forks, spoons or knives. Encourage your child to roll it around in their hands, feel the texture of the skin, squish it or even poke it with a fork or spoon.

Exploring by smell

Some fruits and vegetables may not have a strong smell, but fish or meat, raw or cooked may be overwhelming for children.  

To increase your child’s curiosity about new foods and smells present different herbs and spices such as:

  • mint
  • lemon
  • cinnamon
  • honey
  • garlic
  • vanilla.  

Start with less strong smells like honey and move on to stronger smells like fish. If your child is very adventurous, you can ever try smelling the Durian fruit. 

Note: Honey is not suitable to consume for infants under 12-months old.

If your child does not want to try certain foods, try pairing the food with a herb, spice or flavouring they may like. For example:

  • cooked carrots with a small amount of honey
  • baked chicken with lemon
  • watermelon and mint.

Exploring by taste

A small lick, nibble, bite or even putting a new food in their mouth before spitting it out is a step forward in trying new foods for your child.  

How a food tastes will change depending on how the food is prepared, cooked or paired with herbs and spices. Try different ways and try them often.

Introducing new foods will be messy, and it will take time.  

Playing with and exploring different textures, smells and tastes of new foods is important for the development of a child’s brain. Using senses to explore helps make new connections in a developing brain and helps increase a child’s understanding of the world around them. It also encourages more adventurous eaters which leads to healthier eating habits later in life. 

Start with simple steps


The food is allowed to be on the main plate without fear or protest from the child.


The child touches the food and explores the texture.


The child brings the food up to, and lets it touch their lips.


The child touches the food to their tongue.


The child puts the food in their mouth. They can progress to taking a bite and swallowing it. 


If your child is fussing over new foods, try using:

  • a plate with divides
  • a pick plate with a variety of different foods
  • foods in or on different bowls or plates to start.

These plates can also be useful for improving fine motor skills through self-feeding. Try to progress towards using an undivided plate over time as this is most commonly used throughout life. 

Managing mealtimes

An infant can control how much food they eat by stopping, sucking or refusing once they progress to solid foods. As an infant grows into a toddler they rely less on their feelings of hunger or fullness and more on their environment. This includes when, where, what and how often they are fed.  

A child’s instinct to feel hungry or full can be overridden. Negative relationships with food can develop if a child is:

  • pressured to finish food or a meal by a parent or carer: “You must eat all your vegetables” or “You must finish everything on your plate” 
  • forced to try a new food: "You cannot leave the table without trying it first"
  • stopped from eating or rushed to finish food: “You are not allowed more of that” or “Hurry up and eat, we need to go” 
  • bribed with food or given treats as a reward or when they are bored, lonely, tired or sad: “If you finish your homework you can have a snack”.  

Negative relationships with food can lead to problematic feeding, poor eating habits and can contribute to overweight and obesity.  

Build positive eating habits

Positive eating habits can be made when a child listens to their hunger and fullness cues.

  • Use a hunger and fullness scale as a tool so your child can recognise physical signs of hunger and fullness to help control when and how much they eat.  
  • Let your child know it is okay to stop eating when they begin to feel full.
  • Gently ask questions if your child says they are hungry.  This can test if they really are hungry or just want your attention.  If your child continues to complain about feeling hungry then it is probably true hunger.
  • If your child says they are full after a meal, you can always cover the meal and offer it to the child if they are hungry later.
  • Try smaller servings of food if your child often leaves food uneaten on their plate.
Hunger and fullness scale

Be persistent

There are many new experiences for a child. Some of these experiences can seem scary because they are unknown. It is important to help children become familiar and comfortable with new experiences including food.

  • When introducing a healthy new food, give it to your child regularly. They may not touch it or even eat it, but regularly exposing your child to the new food will take away any fear they may have.
  • Making one meal for the family can help remove the fear of new foods. If everyone is eating the same meal it will show the food is safe and will allow you to lead by example.
  • Speak positively about food. If your child doesn't eat a certain food don't regularly talk about the child not liking that food. For example, if a child constantly hears other people say they don't like broccoli, they will start saying they don't like broccoli. Children watch and imitate the behaviour of people around them. Try positive language such as "You didn't like the broccoli today but you may like it tomorrow".

Supporting food independence

As infants grow into toddlers, so does their need for independence. Self-feeding is an important developmental milestone and the use of words like ‘No’ or ‘I want’ during mealtimes can become a challenge.   

If your child is stuck on one food or a certain type of food such as:

  • white foods
  • bland foods
  • foods covered in tomato sauce

Don’t feel pressured to only serve these foods. Children have natural instincts to control their food, meaning they won’t starve and they will learn to eat a range of foods. 

Mastering mealtimes

To make mealtimes easier while allowing your child to develop and grow try the following: 

Hands-on experience

Involve your child in the grocery shopping and when possible, meal preparation. These activities are an easy and relaxed way to help your child become familiar with different foods without the fear of having to eat them.  

Allowing children to choose and even wash vegetables can help the familiarity with foods.

Interactive weekly lunch or dinner plan

Use a visual planner with set meal options. This helps:

  • control what food is on the menu for the week
  • allow the family to eat the same meal
  • allow your child some freedom in what they choose.  

Make sure you include at least one or two options that your child likes.  When meal options are chosen and eaten by the family, visually remove them from the weekly planner. 

Weekly meal planner

This or that

Provide your child two healthy options; snacks, foods or meals that you have available. If your child does not choose any then they may not be truly hungry. If they complain of being hungry again offer them the same options and some water.

Using 'their' plate

If your child has a favourite bowl, plate or placemat, get them to choose which new or disliked food will go on it. Try making this plate separate from the main plate and do this activity as often as possible. Your child will be more likely to try the food if they associate it with something they like or have chosen.

New food sequencing

If your child is hungry, present two new or disliked foods as a first option. Your child will be more likely to try something new than to stay hungry. Regular exposure to a new food is proven to increase the likelihood of your child liking and eating it.

Positive comments

Celebrate and praise the small steps taken by your child.  

  • “Well done, you licked the carrot” 
  • “Maybe you will like this food tomorrow” 
  • “You are learning to like this food a litte bit more”.
Last updated Monday 6th May 2024