How to Support and Manage Fussy Eating Behaviours in Childcare
Updated: Sep 28
Having a fussy eater on your hands can make mealtimes stressful, challenging and seem like a chore. Whether it be refusing vegetables, a fondness for only sweet foods or colour discrimination, picky eating habits are frustrating; but did you know they are a normal part of toddler development?
While it might seem like a headache to the feeders, mealtimes and eating are an important social part of a child’s day. In the early childhood space, mealtimes are seen as a learning experience, an opportunity for social interaction with others, a time for sensory development, asserting independence and connection with family/friends. Often a cause for concern, it is natural to worry about what your child/children is/are eating, however if they are active, growing, gaining weight and happy, chances are they are likely meeting their needs. Let’s take a deeper look into picky eaters, how picky eating habits are formed and how to introduce new foods to combat picky eating.
Fussy, picky or choosy?
Used interchangeably, fussy, picky or choosy eating is defined as an unwillingness to eat familiar foods, to try new foods and/or to have strong food preferences.
Fussy eating is often portrayed by inconsistencies with food choices. Sometimes children will reject familiar foods or only eat them occasionally. They might also be particular with how their food is presented to them (e.g., don’t like coloured vegetables mixed up, will get upset if their food is touching on the plate etc.).
Picky eating is the term used to describe a child who has very little interest in food. They might be a slow eater and their overall intake is generally inadequate.
Food refusal is also common where children may consistently refuse a range of foods (e.g., doesn’t eat vegetables, only eats white coloured foods etc.). In this case, generally overall food intake is adequate enough to continue to support growth and development, however this is where we might see a micronutrient deficiency.
Development and cause of picky eating behaviours
More often than not, children will become picky eaters at some point during their childhood on background of a number of factors, including social, physical and environmental.
Physical factors causing of picky eating
Each child will have a unique sensitivity to tastes, smell and textures which sways their food preferences (e.g., some children might find broccoli bitter whereas others not so much). It may also stem from early physical feeding difficulties or late introduction to solids/different textures. Children’s appetites also fluctuate day-by-day depending on their physical activity level and rate of growth.
Social factors causing of picky eating
Food preferences and eating behaviours are often modelled by parents and caregivers – children are assertive and are easily influenced by others eating habits. If they see you avoiding peas at dinner, they probably will too!
Picky eating habits are more likely to foster from unhealthy behaviours such as strict parenting, forceful eating (e.g. must finish a meal before you leave the table), punishment when not trying a new food or finishing a meal, rewarding/bribing (e.g., if you finish your vegetables you can have dessert) and the treat system (offering a “treat food” for good behaviour). A child’s individual personality traits and mental health can also impact their eating behaviours (e.g. if a child has high anxiety or trouble controlling their emotions).
Environmental factors causing of picky eating
Numerous studies have linked picky eating behaviours with a poor mealtime environment such as food insecurity (unable to source a variety of fresh foods), poor parent/caregiver knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating, low socio-economic status, parent isolation (e.g., leaving children to eat on their own in front of TV), peer influence (e.g., children modelling their peers fussy eating behaviours during lunch at childcare) and media influence (e.g., food advertisements and packaging).
I think a child is a picky eater. Should I be concerned?
Young children are very good at regulating their appetite and can tell you if they are hungry or full. If a child is hungry, they will not starve themselves and will likely actively engage in mealtimes to fuel their bodies. It is difficult to ascertain what a child has eaten in a day as intake patterns and acceptance of foods changes day-by-day. A weeklong snapshot of their overall consumption is a good way to analyse their intake and can be used as a basis of improvement to exploring and trying new foods. Generally, if your child is eating at least 1 food out of the 5 core food groups (vegetables, fruit, grains, meat/alternatives and dairy/alternatives) and is energetic, thriving, growing and happy there shouldn’t be cause for concern.
Always look out for signs and consequences of undernutrition such as failure to thrive, poor energy, high fatigue/lethargy, stunting, weight loss or inability to gain weight and seek medical and nutrition advice from a GP and Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).
Combatting picky eating
Tips and tricks to combat fussy eating behaviours
There are many ways parents, caregivers, siblings, friends and early childhood educators can help combat fussy eating behaviours. Here are some top tips to help you turn mealtimes into a positive experience for both you and your children!
Be sure to acknowledge the Division of Responsibility in Feeding at mealtimes. This concept highlights autonomy for both caregiver and child, allowing caregivers to set boundaries around food provision whilst encouraging children to listen to and trust their instincts about their own hunger and fullness.
The caregiver controls what food is provided, when it is provided and where the mealtime will be.
The child controls whether or not to eat the food and how much of it they want to eat.
Asking children what they would like to eat at a mealtime or giving them the choice between 3 foods (e.g., carrot, sweet potato or pumpkin with lunch) is another good way to exercise this concept.
Research has shown that a pleasant mealtime environment is key to promoting healthy eating behaviours. A relaxed parenting style in conjunction with an environment free from distractions (e.g., toys, TV, loud music), stress and peer pressure, eating together as a family or eating with peers (e.g., when in care) has been found to reduce the likelihood of fussy eating behaviours. Keep the mood calm, don’t force feed or bribe with their favourite foods and model positive eating behaviours on your own plate.
The best way parents and educators can teach children about food is to get involved in food play! Yes, I know, it is messy, time consuming and downright frustrating for busy families, but it is such an important way for children to explore new tastes, textures, colours, smells and shapes. Encourage children to pick up, touch, squash, tear apart or crush new foods and ask them what it might look and feel like. Over the course of each meal after they become familiar with this food, you can work up to taste and smell by encouraging sniffing, licking, nibbling, chewing, spitting out or swallowing the food.
Encouraging children to get involved in mealtimes is imperative in building healthy relationships with food. For example, having kitchen garden programs at childcare centres is a great way for children to plant and grow their own food, pick it, prepare it and therefore they are more likely to be interested in eating it. Involving children in meal preparation is a great way to learn about new foods and encourage consumption.
It is also important to get the conversation going about food; where it comes from, its health benefits and different ways we can cook and prepare foods. For example, when potatoes are served at a mealtime, discuss their journey from paddock to plate (e.g., potatoes grow in the ground, they take about 90 days to grow, when we eat them, we get lots of energy so we can go out and play).
Repetition vs variety
It is an important part of a healthy diet for all people young and old to consume a variety of different foods each day. Offer a variety of different fruits, vegetables, meats and grains at each mealtime in different colours (e.g., a green, a red and an orange vegetable on the plate), and shapes (e.g., broccoli trees, carrot sticks and potato wedges) whilst using various preparation and serving methods (e.g., steaming, roasting, grilling, serving things on skewers, in muffin shapes, on sticks etc.). It is not unusual for a child to like carrot sticks but not round slices of carrot so mixing things up can be useful in encouraging new foods.
Don’t be disheartened if a child refuses to try a new food. It can take up to 10 times for a child to accept a new food after being exposed to it so therefore it is important that even if unsuccessful, you try and try again – one day they might surprise you!
Where to go for more information:
For more information on picky eating behaviours and how to combat them or if you are worried about your child’s nutritional intake, speak to an OSCAR Care Group Dietitian. For seasonal menu reviews and development within your childcare centre, our Dietitians are here to help!