Fussy eaters: tips for meal times

Fussy eaters: tips for meal times

It’s very normal for toddlers to go through a stage of fussy eating. It can be hard not to worry that your little one is missing out on foods and nutrients. The rate of growth slows in the second year of life, so your toddler’s appetite may also decrease and they may not eat as much food as before.

Some days your toddler seems to live on fresh air alone, and other days they eat a wider range of foods. Healthy toddlers are very good at regulating their appetite, so if they’re hungry, they will usually eat what they need to! Of course it can be frustrating, but the key is to be patient with them.

Here are a few tips to help you deal with a fussy eater in a positive way:


  • Try to plan mealtimes – Plan mealtimes when your toddler isn’t too tired. You might need to have dinner time a little earlier than usual.
  • Ensure they are hungry - If your child isn’t hungry at dinner time, try offering a smaller afternoon snack. Make sure the last snack is at least 90 minutes before a meal.
  • Too much milk - Drinking too much cow’s milk, can fill up their tummies and spoil their appetite for other important foods. From 12 months onwards, your toddler can drink full-fat cow’s milk as their main milk drink. While cow’s milk is an important source of calcium, protein and vitamins, it isn’t a good source of iron and can make little tummies very full.  Limit milk to 2 small cups (around 350mL) per day. 
  • Offer milk or water after or in-between meals so they don’t fill up on liquids before a meal and are hungry at mealtimes.   
  • Spoiled appetites – Don’t let them fill them up on treats between meals. Avoid unhealthy foods and drinks which are high in fat, salt or sugar like sweet biscuits, chips and cordials as these can fill up little tummies and don’t provide any valuable nutrients.

Food refusal

  • Don’t let your toddler decide what’s on offer, but let them explore the foods you have offered, feed themselves and decide when they’ve had enough.
  • Keep portions small and include a variety of tastes, textures and colours where you can.
  • Try, try again – You may need to offer a new food up to 10 times before your toddler accepts it, so continue to offer the same foods regularly.
  • If your toddler is refusing the meal, let them sit quietly for a few minutes before they leave the table. It’s important not to offer treats or a favourite food to replace uneaten food, as children learn that by refusing a meal they get a treat instead.

Set up a healthy relationship with food

  • Fullness cues – Let your toddler decide how much food is enough, as toddlers have an inbuilt appetite for food and know when they have eaten enough. Be responsive to when your toddler has had enough to eat. Signs they are full might include turning their head away, refusing to open their mouth, pushing the bowl or spoon away.
  • Don’t insist they finish their plate - By forcing your toddler to finish what is on their plate you teach them to ignore their own fullness signals which can lead to overeating when they’re older.
  • Praise – Compliment your child when they try a new food and explore new food flavours.
  • Don’t use food or dessert as a bribe or reward for eating dinner, as this encourages unhealthy eating behaviors and foods being labelled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You could use stickers or a reward chart instead.

Make mealtimes enjoyable

  • Provide good family role-modelling at mealtimes. Children enjoy company at mealtimes. Eat together as a family if you can. They will watch and learn from you, often will eat more, or try new foods.
  • Choose how much – Let your toddler (with a bit of parent help) serve themselves, so they can choose how much they want to eat.
  • Let your child feed themselves with finger foods or with a spoon. Provide adult supervision and give help where needed.
  • Let your child get messy and touch, smell and taste the food, this is part of the learning and exploration process.
  • Set clear boundaries, but avoid turning mealtimes into a battleground.
  • Remove distractions – for a more relaxing mealtime, make them screen free and turn the TV off.
  • Keep it low key – Keep meal times relaxed, and don’t let them drag on for too long – 30 minutes is long enough! You can use leftovers as snacks, just make sure you store and heat them correctly.

Download our ‘Helpful tips for understanding your fussy eater’ printable guide here  


Ministry of Health. 2021. Healthy Eating Guidelines for New Zealand Babies and Toddlers (0-2 years old). Wellington: Ministry of Health.


The materials published on this website are of a general nature and have been provided for informational purposes only. Always consult your medical practitioner or a qualified health provider for any further advice in relation to the topics discussed.





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