Understanding ‘Fussy’ Eating

Five reasons why children might be ‘fussy’ eaters and how to encourage ‘trying’.

If your child is a picky eater and often refuses to eat certain foods, you’re not alone. Research shows that some children need to be served foods as many as 15 times before they decide that they like something, and many parents understandably struggle to fight this long battle as it requires time, space and patience – not something that’s always available.

A good parental goal is to encourage exploration of new foods without fear, and to avoid stress and ongoing arguments around meals and food. It can be worrying if your child won’t eat certain foods, but, try to remember that it's common for toddlers, in particular, not to eat well for at least one meal a day and there are many reasons why this is the case. We take a look at a few below:

Fears and Dislikes

Everything that children do throughout their day is a learning process and trying something new can be worrying for a child. Think of how you respond to trying something new - do you feel anxious, nervous or fearful?

This is how a child can feel hundreds of times a day. Colours or textures can put children off - they might find the food is slippery, slimy or lumpy, or it might be that it smells funny, it’s bitter or sour. They may dislike the sight of foods mixed together on the same plate, especially if they are foods they haven’t yet grown to like.

  • Avoid times when they are tired to present new foods to try. When you do want them to try something new, offer them a choice of ‘a’ or ‘b’ to try – giving them a sense of ownership of their learning process.


A child's focus is easily diverted and multi-tasking is tough because they put so much attention into each individual task while they are learning. Try to maintain their focus on the task of eating. If there are distractions, such as a TV screen in their line of sight, turn it off or turn your child away from the distraction.

  • Get children to engage with new foods before they’re set on their plate by letting them be part of the preparation process through stirring, mixing or chopping ingredients as and when they are old enough to do so. Ask them to pick a recipe from a book or website and making it together is often a great way to try a new dish.

Observed Behaviour

Your child will learn from the role models around them, whether that’s their siblings, parents, friends or others. If you or siblings refuse certain foods, you can expect your child to similarly decline them.

  • Try eating with your children and eating the same foods as them. Encourage those around you to do the same - some families find a reward-based pact with older siblings primed to positively react to new foods helps, ensuring their reaction doesn’t influence younger siblings.

Control and Attention

It’s natural for children to push the boundaries, and early learning includes discovering what you can and can’t get away with. If your child is refusing to eat a certain food, throws it on the floor or cries - as hard as it may be - try to remain calm, the way you respond can make a big difference.

  • Instead of scolding bad behaviours, try to focus on rewarding positive ones with praise and attention, for example when they eat a food for the first time.

Labelled Foods

Referring to biscuits as ‘yummy’ or ‘treats’ and carrots as ‘healthy’ can send your child the message that vegetables don’t taste as good and are something we ‘have’ to eat.

  • Trying not to label certain foods as treats will help your child to decide what sounds good to them.

Remember, if your child is being ‘picky’ and refuses to eat anything but bananas, they won’t live on bananas forever! Children often eat one type of food for a period of time and then switch to another when they find something else they like.

There will always be some foods that they will genuinely not like, but that’s okay, simply find an alternative and try again at a later date. It’s important to keep offering a variety of foods and encouraging their interests.

Extra Resources

  • ‘Fussy Eaters’ advice from the NHS, including what to feed young children, baby and toddler meal ideas and a video on ‘Managing a Fussy Eater’