The dos and don’ts of feeding fussy toddlers
The dos and don’ts of feeding fussy toddlers

Got yourself a fussy eater? It’s time to brace yourself and hold firm!

From age one to three can be crucial for setting up good eating habits – it’s also the stage children are most likely to become picky.

Having been through the experience twice and come out the other side, I can say that while it can feel like an exercise in futility while you are in the middle of it, a bit of firmness and consistency will see the battle ground return to business as usual around the dining table before too long.

What do they need?

A variety of nutritious foods, plus daily physical activity, are important for the ongoing development and growth of the child. An Early Life Nutrition report explains solid foods should provide an increasing proportion of nutrients after the age of 12 months.

These are the key recommendations for keeping them on the straight and narrow during this crucial time:

  • Special milks for toddlers are not required for healthy children. Water and pasteurised full-cream milk are recommended drinks at this time.
  • Sugar-sweetened drinks and fruit juice should be avoided or limited and diluted. Coffee, tea and other caffeinated drinks are unsuitable for toddlers.
  • Consumption of nutrient-poor foods with high levels of saturated fat, sugar, and/or salt (such as potato chips, cakes, biscuits and confectionery) should be avoided or limited.
  • Parents should also follow healthy eating and physical activity guidelines, as children’s eating and lifestyle behaviours are strongly influenced by parenting practices during this period of life.

How to handle a picky eater

When and if picky eating habits emerge, it’s time to brace yourself and dig your heels in like … well, a toddler.

While you don’t want to make a big deal out of it in front of your child, you do need to remain firm and consistent – giving in for the sake of a few minutes’ peace will make it trickier in the long run, as tempting as it may seem at the time*. (*Comments based on a true story).

Dr Amanda Devine, the chair of Nutrition Australia WA Division and an Associate Professor at ECU Nutrition and Dietetics, says it’s important to relax and not lose your cool at dinner.

At the end of a meal time, remove uneaten food and be careful not to let your kids have a snack an hour later, as this is one of the biggest mistakes parents make to reinforce poor eating behaviours. They won’t starve between meals, but they will learn you mean business!


  • Do set a good example. Eat healthy foods especially vegetables and fruit, and model positive food talk. This means talking about why eating more plant-based foods is important to our health, but also why it is good for the planet. Be careful not to make disparaging comments about foods you don’t like.
  • Do have a meal time routine. Children thrive on routine, so make sure to keep your meal times regular. Once you find something that your fussy eater really enjoys, try serving the same meal a few times a week with a little variation.
  • Do let them have some input too. Kids tend to eat if they are allowed to have some control. Try letting them serve themselves, help with food preparation, set the table, call everyone to the table, or time the cooking with an egg timer.
  • Do get creative. For every food, there is almost always a substitute. If your children hate vegetables, offer them more fruit or legumes; if they won’t drink milk, buy yoghurt or cheese; if they dislike chewing meat, try mince dishes, chicken, fish or baked beans.
  • Do keep offering new foods even if your kids reject them at first (see above). Helping your kids develop their tastes, even for disliked foods, will lead to a broader appreciation for a varied diet.


  • Don’t focus too much on portion sizes. Kids have small stomachs, so small meals with snacks in between (or mini meals) are easier for them to handle than three big meals a day. Try not to pile food onto your child’s plate, it can be overwhelming.
  • Don’t use bribes. Children may consume an unappetising food (or medicine) in order to obtain a reward, but that doesn’t mean that they will start to like the food. Such bribes can in fact cause children to intensely dislike the food they are being bribed to eat, and to increase their preference for the prize food.
  • Don’t fill your kids up on fluid just before a meal. This includes juice, milk, cordial and even water. Their stomachs will feel full and they will not want to eat.
  • Don’t rush them. Fussy eaters are often just dawdlers. Trying to hurry children to eat can cause them to become stressed and put them off their food. Be patient and let kids eat in their own time.
  • Don’t give up on foods that are disliked. It is common for kids to accept foods only after they’ve tried them several times. Keep on trying every now and then – they might surprise you one dinner time!

This article was written by Melanie Hearse for and has been adapted for

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