cildren eat healthy galway
cildren eat healthy galway

Fuss-free food

At some stage, most parents will have to contend with a child who picks at their food. However, there are lots of things that you can do to encourage little ones to eat, writes Dr Colette Reynolds.

Indo image fuss free

Talk to any parent of a young child, and the issue of fussy eating inevitably rears its head. Fussy eating can be defined as eating a limited range of foods, for example, lots of bread and breakfast cereals, and often eating very little or no vegetables. Another pattern is eating only one type of food, for example, strawberry yoghurt and not wanting to try different flavours of yoghurt.

There are many causes of fussy eating; it varies depending on the child, and often there may be a number of factors involved. Eating starts off very well for most babies in the first year of life as they usually eat what is offered. Yet this often noticeably changes; for example, at around 18 months toddlers naturally become much more wary about eating unfamiliar foods that they haven’t seen regularly before. Another common factor is that toddlers are becoming more independent and may assert themselves by refusing to eat certain foods, even those that they previously liked, such as porridge, soup and vegetables.

Most children are growing fine, even those who eat a limited variety of foods. Yet constipation is common among children, partly due to limited fibre, particularly a low intake of whole grains, fruit and vegetables. Children may also have low levels of essential nutrients, especially iron and zinc, as they may eat little fish, meat and leafy green vegetables. Their limited diet may have consequences for their immunity, making them more prone to infections. If the diet has, say, lots of white bread, rather than more nutritious foods, they may be at higher risk of obesity.

So what could happen long-term? While there is a commonly held view that fussy eating is just a phase that children grow out of, for some this is not the case. In addition, some children’s eating habits get worse over time. When we eat a limited variety of food, we eat the same things very frequently. We can therefore get so tired of them that we want to stop eating them altogether. This may explain why some children refuse to eat foods that they previously liked, for example, hummus, avocado and fish.

The good news is there are lots of ways parents can help children eat healthy foods. Here are five of my top tips:

1 Be mindful of snacking, ie, eating between meals. Children can easily fill up on snacks (such as yoghurt, crackers and fruit), especially when served too close to meal times. Ideally snacks would be served at least 1-2 hours before meal times, but of course it depends on the child and their age. The same goes for drinks, especially juice and milk, so try to limit these so they are hungrier for meals. Plan for three meals and two snacks a day. This is a good guideline for most children. This means breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as one snack mid-morning and one snack mid-afternoon. The timing of eating looks different for individual families; for example, some families have their main meal in the middle of the day, others in the evening. Of course there needs to be some flexibility in this plan and it may vary depending if it is a weekend or week day.

2 Continue to offer a variety of foods at snack and mealtimes, including different vegetables, fruits and whole-grains, even if they’re not eaten on that occasion. While it is tempting to ‘hide’ some nutritious foods, including vegetables, this means your child may not get used to their appearance, taste or texture. It is fine to blend veggies sometimes, for example, in tomato sauce but it is better not to always hide veggies.

3 Serve family meals. This involves all the family sitting down and eating together. There are many benefits to this, particularly role-modelling. This means adults showing children that we eat and enjoy a variety of nutritious foods, including different proteins, vegetables and whole-grains. Depending on the schedules of individual families, this may be once or twice a week, for example, on Saturday evening or Sunday brunch. It is best to aim to eat with children as often as we can. It’s often the case that toddlers and children end up eating different meals to the rest of the family but it’s better when everyone is served the same food. This sets up the expectation that the same food is for everyone and there are no ‘special’ foods just for children, for example, fish fingers for children and fish for adults. One way of doing this is serve all parts of the meal separately —for example, with a roast chicken dinner serve the chicken, potatoes and vegetables separately, with optional gravy on the side. Each individual can then choose the foods they wish to eat at that time.

4 If a meal is not eaten at the time, and a child is hungry shortly afterwards, it is better to re-offer some of the meal. In contrast, serving an alternative, such as toast sets up the expectation that there is a ‘back-up’ or other food available, instead of the dinner. This may lead some children to ‘hold out’ for their preferred food such as yoghurt, if they eat little or none of the dinner.

5 Get children involved with food. This can involve very simple tasks like helping with shopping. Young children in particular want to be involved and have more responsibility. While involving children can be messier, it can also be lots of fun. Involving children also allows them to feel more control of what they are eating. Children as young as two years of age can help with food preparation or cooking; once the tasks are age appropriate, such as helping to sort ingredients. One simple way of involving children is by giving them choices, for example, offer two or three choices and allow them pick one. This works best if the choices are quite similar, such as, would you like noodles or spaghetti for dinner? 

First appeared in the Mothers & Babies Magazine in the Irish Independent 

Fussy eating habits and children

Poor eating habits can develop quite easily and quickly, without us even realising it.
While kids may gravitate to eating  the easiest foods (like white bread) as they are a quick source of energy, this results in frequent low blood sugar levels (ie your child is running out of fuel for both their body and mind). This may result in your child being irritable, losing concentration etc. 

5 changes with big impact for fussy eaters

Today Im going to suggest some changes you can make to have a positive impact on your fussy eaters. 

 fussy eater

Did you know?

Young kids don’t have stable taste preferences. Young kids  are still exploring. They don’t always know what they like, for example, new foods. You can shape your kids’ food preferences; and feeding your kids only their preferences reinforces them.

1 Always ensure there is at least one “reasonable” food served at all times. The reasonable food means that its acceptable to even the most fussy of  eaters . This might be for example, a small portion of fruit, pasta etc 

2 Think more long-term and start looking beyond the immediate meal. For example, if your child eats very little or nothing at all at a given meal or snack then don’t offer an alternative afterwards. If you do offer an alternative, it  can set up the expectation that there is always a ‘back-up’. This means many children can ‘hold out’ for the better option, for example, cereal after dinner isn’t eaten. This works best if you consistently do this. Of course you can re-offer some of the meal at the later time if they are still hungry.

3 Serve the same meal for everyone including fussy eaters.This means less work for you as the cook (yipee) but it also sets up the expectation that the same food is served to everyone and there are no ‘special’ foods just for the kids.

One really simple way of doing this is to ‘deconstruct’ the meal, that means serve all the elements of the meal separately.  For example if its spaghetti bolognese with veg, - serve the spaghetti, tomato sauce, meat (or vegetarian option) and veg all separately. Then let your fussy eater pick the parts they want to eat. This works best if there is one “reasonable” food served as part of the meal.

4 Grazing For many fussy eaters, grazing (that is eating  small  amounts  very  frequently ) is common. This is the NUMBER ONE  REASON children have poor appetites. If children ‘graze’ in toddlerhood the chances are their preferred foods will be ‘picnic’ type foods (that is dry, cold foods). This can make it less likely for them to try other foods, for example, wet or hot foods. Equally, if your child is a grazer, they just won’t have sufficient appetite to eat a meal and the snacking cycle continues.

I recommend setting up times for eating and  times for not-eating.  This means have a ‘no food’ window that is no food or drinks, only water (exceptions include hot weather and illness etc). You decide this…roughly, so there is some flexibility.

 What this looks like varies depending on your kids, and may differ on different days depending on your schedule etc. For many kids the aim is to have no more than 3 meals and 2 snacks per day (plus possible bedtime snack), ideally with at least a 1 hour, if not 2 hour gap between eating.  One way to do this is to start increasing the gap between meals and snacks by a small amount (like 15 minutes) every day until you approach a more ideal schedule. This allows your child sufficient time to get hungry before food is presented again.

5 Rethink snacking. Instead of always serving snack-type foods like crackers, think of snacks as mini-meals and offer’ meal-type food’ like soup and vegetables sometimes. Therefore if you improve the quality of snacks you are improving a significant portion of the day’s nutrition, without even considering meals. In terms of quantity, snacks are meant to tide us over until the next meal rather than fill us up. Finally there should be sufficient time left between snack and the next meal so that your child has sufficient appetite to eat the meal.

This article first appeared on

Why fussy eaters don’t eat better

Many fussy eaters would like to eat better but there’s something blocking them. Other than feeling under the weather, below are some of the reasons why children maybe very selective in their eating or regularly eat very little. 

Rollercoster upset child

Iron Deficiency Iron is essential to your child’s growth and the best foods include animal sources, especially red meat, seafood and eggs as well as plant sources, especially dark green leafy veg. As some children are eating very little of these foods, they may be at risk of low iron levels. Indeed, iron deficiency is relatively common among children, particularly so among those with limited diets. Signs of iron deficiency include recurrent infections and poor appetite.

Zinc Deficiency Zinc is an essential nutrient for growing children and is found in a variety of foods such as red meat, seafood, dried beans, as well as whole-grain breads and cereals. As some children are eating very little of these foods, they may be at risk of low zinc levels. Just like iron, low zinc levels can be quite common in children, resulting in a loss of appetite, as well as a reduced sense of taste and smell. Think of how disinterested we are in appetising foods when we have a stuffed nose.

Constipation Constipation is, unfortunately, a common problem with many children, especially fussy eaters. Eating lots of foods with low fibre including white bread products and little fruit and /or vegetable may contribute to constipation. Constipation can also result in poor appetite, as there is limited space for more food in the body. Some signs of constipation are:

  • Having less frequent bowel motions (for some this is fewer than 3 bowel movements a week)
  • Having bowel movements that are difficult or painful to push or sometimes passing hard stools.

Tiredness Children are especially likely to be more irritable or emotional if they have not had enough good quality sleep. Insufficient sleep may therefore result in disinterest in eating and lack of focus at meals. One of the reasons evening meals are often more challenging than earlier in the day is children’s increased tiredness.

Filling up elsewhere Many of us forget just how small our child’s tummy is and how easily it can get filled. Your child’s tummy is about the size of their fist.Consuming liquids around meal times, in particular juice and especially lots of  milk can easily fill up bellies. Then there isn’t much room left for food. Likewise, children can easily and quickly fill up on sweets and treats, or even lots of fruit, especially around meal times. Then there isn’t much room left for foods served at mealtimes.

Lots of snacking This is often one of the most common reasons why children have poor appetites or are more likely to be fussy eaters. This involves eating small amounts very regularly; often these are mostly snack or ‘picnic’ type foods (for example, crackers) rather than ‘meal type foods’ like some dinner.

This article first appeared on and picture courtesy of


Do you need help for your fussy eater?

To get help or not for your fussy eater? Here’s the lowdown:

Parents with kids who don’t eat well can wonder should they seek expert help and also when should this happen, for example, should help be sought if it persists a certain length of time?

With fussy eating it can be difficult to know if it's going to last. Therefore it’s important to know what to be more concerned about:

  • Your child has experienced weight loss or isn't growing. This is a major concern. Of course multitude causes can be at play here and your child’s medical team need to investigate medical factors. Then a limited diet (in terms of quantity, quality or variety) can be explored.
  • If their list of acceptable foods is short or declining over time.
  • Your child demonstrates a negative response to many foods, including signs of distress or anxiety, such as crying, anger, or tantrums.
  • Your child is resistant to subtle changes in food e.g., if it’s served differently to how “exactly they like it,” or changes in their preferred brands etc.
  • Your child is overweight. It’s a myth to assume all fussy eaters are thin. Some fussy eaters are overweight because they mainly eat ‘other’ foods rather than what I call ’growing foods’ like fruit and vegetables.
  • Your child mainly eats different foods from the rest of the family. The problem with this is that it means more work for the cook. Yet even more importantly, ‘kid friendly’ food is usually a poorer quality than ‘adult food’. Think of most kid’s menus: they’re composed of chips, sausages, nuggets and the likes. Is this just a marketing gimmick to get kids to think they should be eating different foods from adults?
  • Your child doesn’t eat the major food groups, which are: Carbohydrates (Grains or cereals), Protein (Meats, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes), Vegetables, Fruit, Calcium sources can be found in the above (whether dairy or dairy free) and lastly, I would also include good fats (including unsaturated fats and essential fats). 

One simple way of determining if your child has adequate variety is to write down everything they eat for a few days. Then categorise each item according to their food group. Sometimes this can be very revealing for example, you may not realise that your child’s intake is dominated by various forms of carbohydrate (like pasta, cereal, bread, crackers etc). 

Finally you may feel you would benefit from expert guidance if:

  • Meal times are simply stressful.
  • You would like to be proactive, to avoid fussy eating getting worse or continuing long-term.
  • You are unsure how best to handle your child’s eating.
This formed part of an article that first appeared in

Is my child's fussy eating a phase?

1. It is a ‘normal phase' for many toddlers, which happens partly because of their developmental need to exert more independence. Yet just because behaviour is common, it doesn’t mean we have to just accept it (like separation anxiety). While the rejection of formerly ‘preferred’ foods can be viewed like many of the other phases kids go through, research shows that a significant percentage of kids don’t grow out of picky eating and it lasts years for many.

Research has confirmed that the first 3-4 years set the foundation for long-term eating throughout life.  This is particularly with regard to how varied their diet is: if it’s limited in these first years, it will probably remain the same. Research supports this by revealing that the strongest indicator of the number of foods liked at age 8 is the number of foods liked at age 4.  

 2 S/he will outgrow it. Increasingly more and more kids don’t outgrow their limited diets without some change of approach. Often parents think if they persist in what they’re doing that someday things will just improve.  To rephrase Albert Einstein ‘doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting (a) different result’ may not be the best.  

If you’ve tried different ways of feeding your kids and they haven't worked, it might mean you haven’t found the right strategy…yet. 


This formed part of an article that first appeared on

Proven changes to try with your fussy eater

While fussy eating can be complex and varies with individual kids, how we interact with food around our kids can be very influential. Having said that, I always say to my clients “what’s done is done” so regardless of what has happened in the past, it’s important to focus on what we can do in the present and into the future.

  1. Lots of focus on nutrients

While we may think that focusing on nutrients helps our kids eat better, it may not be the case. Some kids are particularly sensitive to this perceived pressure and the result may have unintended consequences, including reduced appetite or negative feelings towards a certain food or meals in general.

Try: Focus less on the nutrients and more on fostering a healthy relationship with food. One simple way of doing this is to lighten the atmosphere at mealtime by chatting, being silly, telling jokes, labelling the food with cool names like ‘x-ray vision carrots’. Even small, simple changes like relabeling food can positively change kids’ views.  This is particularly important for eaters who maybe somewhat anxious and need to take their time to learn about different foods. Research supports this by showing that fun meals reduce picky eating. Think simply in terms of   whether everyone including yourself is enjoying eating together.  And of course; as kids relax more, they are more likely to eat better and consume more nutritious food.

  1. “Just two more bites of food please”. 

This is a line many of us use to ensure our kids eat particular foods like veggies. However, this may not be the most ideal way to get our kids to eat. One reason for this is that we (as ‘external bodies’) are dictating how much our kids should eat, rather than allowing our kids to learn to self-regulate their own food intake.

Try: One alternative to this is to serve a small portion of each of the various foods on their plate and encourage your child to have a bite of each of the foods before they look for more of one food. This ensures that your child isn’t filling up on their favourite like pasta first and then having no room for the less preferable foods. 

  1. Asking ‘What would you like to eat?’ 

While most kids crave more control, starting usually when they’re a toddler, research shows that  kids  who  are  given too  many  food choices don’t  choose  wisely. Its better if children are  given  some guidance, yet still ensuring they have some freedom.

Try: Choices are a great way to give the ‘much-sought after control’, for example, let your child pick one of two foods. This works best if you always ensure there are at least one or two “reasonable” foods served at all times.  The reasonable food means that it’s acceptable to even the most fussy of eaters, for example, a small portion of fruit, pasta etc.

Kids can also be involved in picking other aspects of the meal including what cup they use etc. However, adults are in the best position to plan meals and snacks, both in terms of timing and what is served. Obviously some flexibility is necessary, for example, you can ask if your child is ready to eat now or in 15 minutes? 

  1. Keeping it too clean. 

While we may not appreciate messy eaters, research shows that kids benefit from exploring food, whether its touching, licking, smelling of the food etc. This helps fussy eaters in particular develop more tolerance for new foods or foods that they are wary of.  

Try: Encourage your kids to play with food and explore the different properties of foods including trickier-to-eat wet, hot or mushy foods. For  some,  food  exploration  happens  best  away  from  the  table  so  there  is  no  expectation  of  eating.  Getting your kids involved can happen in lots of ways including food planning (like picking 1 recipe out of a choice of 2) shopping, food preparation and cooking etc.

  1. Not offering foods once they’re rejected

Often we do not continue offering foods that have been rejected by our kids. Research  shows  that  children  have  to  be  exposed  to  a  new  food  around  10  times  before  they’ll  actually  eat  it;  though,  the  number  varies  depending  on  the particular food. Research  also  shows  that  most  of us  give  up  after  4  or  5  attempts.  

Try:  Young kids don’t have stable taste preferences and are still exploring. They don’t always know what they like, for example, new foods. Therefore it’s vital to keep exposing kids to a variety of foods and the same food in a variety of ways so they can become more accustomed to the food and more comfortable with it.

Don’t take what your child says about food so seriously. Don’t assume that once rejected that food is always rejected. A food might be rejected at a certain time for a number of reasons other than not liking the food including not being hungry, wanting to play instead etc.

This article first appeared in

The above information is general only and does not apply to everyone. Contact Dr. Colette on +353 868347569 or email to discuss personalised, healthy eating support or your fussy eating concerns.

 Dr. Colette Reynolds, PhD 

Nutrition & Childs Healthy Eating Coach

BA (Psych), MSc (Health Psych), PhD (Health Promotion), BTEC (Nutrition & Health Coaching), Member of UK Health Coaches Association, IINH Certified

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