Fussy eaters

Fussy eating in children



Key points about fussy eaters

  • Fussy eating is common in tamariki, and it’s common for them to dislike certain foods.
  • Tamariki will gradually eat and explore new foods as they get older.
  • Providing healthy food and an enjoyable eating environment for your child will help them enjoy mealtimes.
Boy with plate of vegetables refuses to eat
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  • Fussy eating is common in children – most tamariki will eat when they’re hungry.
  • It's common for them to dislike some food.
  • Most tamariki gradually eat and explore new foods as they get older.
  • It can be useful to let children choose from a range of different healthy foods
  • Low-stress regular mealtimes can help with fussy eating behaviours.
  • Getting your child involved in preparing and making food can help with fussy eating.
  • If your tamariki is growing and has enough energy to play, learn and explore, they’re probably eating enough.
  • If your child loses weight or stops gaining weight, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Fussy eating is common in tamariki, and it’s common for them to dislike certain foods. Children’s appetites change as they grow and develop. For young children aged 1–6 years, their eating habits can change from day to day. Things like being tired may make them less interested in eating.

It’s important to remember that children often prefer different tastes to adults. Also, they are often too busy exploring the world around them to spend time eating.

Part of the way tamariki learn is by testing their boundaries. They may show strong-willed behaviours towards eating, eg, whether to eat or not eat, or choosing what to eat. This is a normal part of their development. 

Children’s appetites can go up and down for a number of reasons, including:

  • how active they are
  • how much they’re growing
  • how they’re feeling, eg, how tired they are.
Toddler in highchair reluctant to eat food offered on spoon

Image credit: Canva

If your child is a fussy eater, making mealtimes pleasant can make them more willing to try foods. Having healthy food options for your whānau and an enjoyable eating environment will help your child enjoy mealtimes. 

Some tips for creating low-stress mealtimes.

Remove distractions and set a time limit on mealtimes

Remove distractions, turn off televisions and screens so you can focus on your meal. Set a time limit on your meals, as it can be stressful if it drags on. If your child hasn’t eaten the food during that time, take it away without fuss. We eat the most in the first 10 minutes of a meal, so aim to finish the meal within 20–30 minutes.

Try to stay calm

Never force your child to try a food. If your child is fussing, try to remain calm so mealtimes feel relaxed and enjoyable. Try not to worry about any mess that’s being made. It can take a child 10–15 times for a new food to be offered before they will accept it. Don’t assume your child doesn’t like a particular food after a few attempts, stay calm and offer the food again another time. 

Let tamariki eat to their appetite

Offer your child 3 meals and 2–3 snacks per day. Tamariki need a gap of at least 2 hours without eating before they will feel hungry again. If your child doesn’t eat at every opportunity you provide, that’s okay. A child’s appetite can vary from day to day. Try to avoid your child filling up on drinks, offer drinks halfway through and at the end of a meal instead. 

Provide a range of healthy food 

Start with small amounts of food on your child's plate. Offer a range of nutritious foods from all the food groups at each meal. The 4 main food groups are:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • grain foods such as rice, pasta, cereal and bread
  • milk and milk products, including calcium-enriched plant-based milks such as almond milk
  • meat, chicken, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. 

Make food fun 

Make healthy food fun. Prepare food in a way your child can manage. You could try cutting sandwiches into fun shapes or use fruit and vegetables to make a funny face on the plate –  eyes, a mouth and a nose. Include a variety of colours, shapes and textures – a cookie cutter helps make fun shapes.

Lead by example

If the whānau is eating a range of different healthy foods, it shows your child that everyone is willing to try new foods and enjoy them. 

Keep treat food for special occasions 

It can be tempting to offer your child treat foods when they won’t eat something. Or you may use it as a way to get them to eat something healthy first. But this can make your child more interested in the treat food. You could try to use rewards that aren’t food based such as an extra bedtime story, if you want to praise your child for their positive eating habits. It can help to praise your child for at least one thing they do at every meal. This could be good chewing or biting, good sitting, good food exploring, and so on.

Try to make mealtimes regular and social 

Make mealtimes regular, social occasions. Look for opportunities for your child to share meals and snacks with others. They might be more willing to try a food if they see others eating it.

Video: Eat together as a family whenever you can

Take a look at this video by KidsHealth for more reasons why shared meal times are great for the whole family. This video may take a few moments to load.

(KidsHealth, NZ, 2013)

Supporting your child to be independent with food can help with fussy eating. Food independence is when you let your child decide how much and what they will eat when you provide healthy food options for them. It's best to limit their options to 2–3 different foods so they don’t get overwhelmed. 

Another way to encourage food independence is to involve your child in preparing meals. Young people are more likely to eat something if they have been involved in making it. You could let them try things like:

  • picking a recipe
  • washing fruits and vegetables
  • getting food out of the fridge and pantry
  • setting the table for a meal 
  • planting and picking herbs and vegetables at home
  • mixing things together.
Smiling girl crouching in vegetable garden with gardening tools


Image credit: Canva

Most tamariki will gradually eat and explore new foods as they get older. It's common for tamariki to dislike certain foods. But, some tamariki with an eating disorder may show the following behaviours:

  • A deep dislike toward food and eating. 
  • Fear of eating because of possible outcomes such as vomiting or choking.
  • No interest in food and eating.

These could be signs of an underlying condition called avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Because tamariki with ARFID restrict the quantity and variety of food they eat, they can lose weight and become unwell. Children with ARFID need a lot of support to try new foods and to eat enough food for good development.

If you are worried your child may have ARFID, or your child's eating behaviours cause them to lose weight or stop gaining weight, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Read more about ARFID on the KidsHealth page(external link).

If your child is healthy and has the energy to learn, play and explore , they are probably eating enough. But, if you have concerns, don’t wait. If you are worried your child isn’t eating enough or they only eat a small range of foods, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

If you are finding mealtime really difficult with your child, reach out for support. Seeing your healthcare provider is a good starting point. They may arrange for you to receive extra support with your child's eating behaviours.


eating or healthy babies and toddlers 0 2 moh nz

Eating for healthy babies & toddlers

Health Promotion Agency and Ministry of Health, NZ, 2013

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Reluctant eaters

Heart Foundation NZ

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Supporting young children to eat well

Health Promotion Agency, NZ, 2021

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Credits: Content shared between HealthInfo Canterbury, KidsHealth and Healthify He Puna Waiora NZ as part of a National Health Content Hub Collaborative. Healthify is brought to you by health Navigator Charitable Trust.

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