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Fussy Eating in Children

Now here is a topic that is driving a good percentage of parents mad- fussy eating or picky eating in their children. It can change a family meal into a battle zone, send a sane parent into despair and can create deep concern about a child’s development and growth.


Fussy or picky eating, or straight refusal to eat certain foods is usually confined to the early years and is at its peak between 18 months and 4.5 years.


We refer to two concepts- food neophobia (" reluctance to eat or the avoidance of new foods") and fussy/picky eating ("rejection of a substantial number of foods that are familiar as well as unfamiliar to the child"). Picky/fussy eating can also include not eating enough food in total to meet their body's needs, or rejection of certain textures.

Child refusing to be spoon fed

However, there is clearly a large area of overlap and they are quite related.


Food neophobia occurs at about 18 months and after about 4.5 years declines gradually. By age 13 it should be pretty much gone.

Picky eating can start earlier,  at four to six months old (so as soon as they start solids!)

In research, 19% of mothers of four to six month olds considered their babies to be picky eaters. By age 19-24 months 50% of mothers felt their toddlers were picky.


Young children seem to mainly use vision more than touch or smell to decide whether their attitude towards a food will be positive or negative.

It has been suggested that certain colours are more agreeable than others as green seems to be a common dislike! Orange, red and yellow fruits and vegetables are generally more liked.

Children under one year will usually accept any food that they have been exposed to a number of times, as well as any other food that looks similar. Early introduction of solids increases food acceptance.(But don’t introduce solids before four months old minimum). However, when they do start to eat solids, offer a wide variety of different things in order to increase acceptance.

The big thing that seems to underlie why children start rejecting foods at about two years old is recognition and categorisation. Below two years they have the ability to categorise something as edible/non edible based on its looks.

At age two to three years they start to create a more complex 'filing system’ or scheme in their brains. If an item is a food it tends to be categorized by colour, if a non-food then more likely by shape.

Child refusing to eat food
Food neophobia

Foods will also fit into their idea (based on their daily experience) of where they fit- eg weetbix fits at breakfast time, milk is for before bed...and so a food might be rejected if it appears at an unlikely time of day!

Foods are easier to recognise if they are not mixed in together. Thus if you want your child to eat salad, present it neatly cut on a platter with each vegetable/food separated from the others. This may create visual appeal and also reduce anxiety over non-recognition.

You could get them to select what they want on their plate, or maybe put a tiny piece of each food on their plate and encourage them to just taste it.

Don't force them to eat, it will only create lifelong aversions to certain foods. (who like me was forced to eat liver and still cannot bear it?!)



Vegetables separated on a plate
Separate vegetables to make selection easier

It can take up to 15 exposures to a food before it is accepted. Despite the frustration which you will no doubt feel, just keep on offering the food- not necessarily every day but certainly perhaps three or four times a week.

Encourage trying it, but don't force. Make portions tiny until it is acceptable.


Can a food actually be 'disgusting'?

Actual feelings of disgust seem to be uncommon before about age four to seven years.

When children encounter a bitter taste or a texture they don't like you can see by their facial expression that it is unpleasant to them.

A child's level of anxiety (unrelated to food) can increase neophobia and so try to remain calm and positive at meal times. If forced to eat something they don't want to then anxiety and feelings of disgust and neophobia can increase which only exacerbates the situation!

Some people actually have a genetic disposition to be more sensitive to bitter tastes and these people are likely to have more dislikes and rejections than others.

(Don't tell your child about this or they will probably insist that they have those genes!!! )


In summary, after 18 months old it is usual to see some food aversions coming up.

Keep on offering small portions of many different foods. Multiple exposures should increase acceptance.

Don’t force, be patient.

Model good eating behaviours.


Unless a child is not reaching their growth and development goals, they are probably still eating enough even though it seems impossible.



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