By: Kelly Barry, R.D.
My good friend and I were recently talking about how her five-year-old used to eat just about any food she would offer him, but who now wholeheartedly refuses some foods he regularly ate when he was younger.
Whether it’s a control issue, a taste issue or the influence of peers when a child starts to go to school or eat meals at a friend’s house, fussy eating is a challenge for most parents at some point in their child’s early years. Eating what appears to be very little; eating a lot some days and very little the next; refusing to even try new foods or going on food jags where a child wants the same food over and over again: all these instances naturally cause a parent to be concerned that a child isn’t getting all of the nutrients he or she needs to grow up healthy and strong.
In most cases, however, there is no need to worry. Most children exhibit some form of fussy eating — and it is generally considered a normal part of development. Young children especially are quite good at eating according to their appetite. Picky eating is usually more of an issue for parents than it is a health issue.
Just like adults, children naturally have likes and dislikes for certain tastes and textures. Their preferences will change and they’ll generally become more adventurous as they grow.
While fussy eating is just another one of the challenging stages of your child’s growth and development, there are some tips and suggestions you can follow to help you cope with your fussy eater. If, however, you are worried that your child’s intake is a health concern or you need more specific tips and advice, seek help from a professional like your family doctor, paediatrician or a registered dietician. (To find a dietician in your area, go to www.dietitians.ca).
Feeding your fussy eater
• Offer a variety of foods from all four food groups in three meals and two small snacks. If your child seems healthy and is growing well, focus on the quality of the food you offer, not the quantity.
• Space out the meals and snacks so your child has time to work up an appetite between meals.
• Offer new foods with foods that you know your child likes. If your child refuses, don’t make a fuss and try again in the future.
• Avoid empty calories (foods with energy but very few nutrients) from foods like pop, candy and other “junk foods.” This will interfere with your child’s appetite and limit his or her intake of nutritious foods.
• Limit even unsweetened fruit juices. There is enough natural sugar in fruit juice to ruin the appetite of a young child. For example, a child who sips on juice all morning will quite likely have no appetite for lunch.
• A child who is very sedentary will have a smaller appetite than a child who is engaged in active play, so turn off the TV and encourage your child to play instead.
• Nutritious foods like fruit will satisfy a sweet tooth instead of cookies or chocolate. Frozen blueberries alone or with vanilla yogurt are a sweet treat my children always love!
• If your child doesn’t eat much at one meal, don’t worry. Just offer nutritious foods again at the next meal. Remember, young children especially are generally very good at eating according to their body’s needs.
• Food jags are very common in young children and as long as the preferred food is a nutritious choice, it is okay to indulge this. For example, my daughter wanted cottage cheese and corn for lunch every day for months and even though I suggested other foods, she was adamant about this choice. Then one day she refused to ever eat it again!
• Some children prefer vegetables cooked and some prefer them raw, so try different forms of foods.
• A plate of cut-up vegetables with or without dip can be a staple if your child won’t eat salads or dishes with vegetables mixed in.
• Look for recipes for baked goods that include vegetables, fruit and other nutritious ingredients like milk products so your child is getting nutrients inadvertently.
• Make more homemade foods such as pancakes, waffles or crepes, as this helps you ensure your child is getting good quality, nutritious ingredients.
• For smaller children, large portions can be overwhelming. Keep portions smaller and offer second helpings as necessary.
Healthy behaviours for your fussy eater
• Eat as a family at the dinner table and avoid distractions like the TV while eating meals. This is a good family behaviour for so many reasons beyond helping your fussy eater learn to eat a variety of foods. It helps to strengthen family communication and helps parents develop a strong connection with their children, so try to eat as a family at least three or four nights per week!
• Children learn by example, so eat a variety of healthy foods yourself. Your kids will pick up on this.
• Encourage your child to help plan meals and shop for foods. Picking out fruits and vegetables and allowing your child some input in the decisions at the grocery store helps to provide that sense of control and independence children seek as they develop.
• Have your child help you prepare meals by doing age-appropriate tasks like washing fruit, tearing lettuce or tossing a salad. An older child might grate cheese or pour milk.
• Start a small vegetable garden and get your child involved in planning, planting and harvesting. Many vegetables grow very well in containers so even very small patios or apartment balconies can support a little crop. Cherry or grape tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and fresh herbs all do well in containers.
• Don’t become a short order cook! Offer foods that are reasonable for a child to eat (a very spicy dish might be a challenge for even an adventurous eater) and expect that your child will at least have some of what is served. If your child refuses, don’t make a big fuss; just let him know that he is expected to eat what the rest of the family eats. Going to bed hungry one night will not be harmful and he will most likely come to the next meal with a good appetite.
• Don’t force or bribe your child to eat a food. This only causes power struggles and negative feelings towards food and eating.
• Some fussy eaters may be seeking control or attention. Don’t let your child manipulate you.
Source for this article: Bake It Up, Tasty
Treats for Healthier School Bake Sales,
Ontario Public Health Association,
October 2010. For more recipes go to
Kelly Barry is a Registered Dietician who has a passion for food and all things related.
She has spent many years helping individuals and families along the road to healthier eating and understands the challenges parents face when choosing
to make healthy foods a priority.