Is your child a fussy eater or a problem feeder?

We have all heard of or know at least one toddler or young child who won’t eat their vegies or who suddenly decides they won’t eat a food they loved only the day before!

As parents it can be really stressful trying to get healthy foods or a range of different foods into young children. Sometimes it’s a mission getting any food into them at all! But at what point does a normal fussy toddler cross the line into a child with feeding problems?

Around the age of two, it is extremely common for children to become “neophobic”. That is they don’t like anything new or different and this can particularly apply to new foods. The key is to stay calm and keep offering new foods and new experiences with food. At this stage food refusal can also be about control and independence. As a two-year-old, there is very little in a child’s world that they can control, although food (and the reaction they get from you around food) is a biggie. Also, children this age have erratic appetites – some days they will eat what seems like their own body weight in food and the next day hardly a scrap. Children tend not to need as much to eat as we think they do.

However, some children have or can develop a real aversion to a wide range of foods. This can impact hugely both on the child’s health, happiness and on the family as a whole. There can be many reasons for this but when a child’s accepted food list becomes so small that it begins to affect their growth and health it may be time to call in some help….

Here are a few key differences between a fussy eater who, with the right strategies, will come out the other end largely unscathed (apart from perhaps the residual hatred of sprouts!) and a problem feeder who will require more support and guidance to get them back on track:

  • From 2 years onwards children will generally be eating more than 30 different types of foods. If your child has less than 20 different foods they will eat, there may be a risk of limited nutritional intake.
  • It is important that your child eats at least one food from each ‘category’. That is grains (bread, rice, pasta), fruit or vegetables, milk (includes yoghurt, cheese), meat or Iron protein (includes, lentils and dry beans) and Fat (butter, oils)
  • If your child eats one food from each texture group (purée, mashed, soft finger foods, hard finger foods – when they are developmentally ready and able) then they will develop and maintain the physical skills in the mouth needed to manage foods and speech. Problem feeders tend to stick to foods from only one of these groups.
  • Many young children will go through phases of stopping eating a food that they used to like. They will tend to start eating this food (or something similar) again after a 2-3 week break.

If however, foods lost from your child’s diet are not eaten again, even after a break, you may want to seek help. Particularly if it happens to many foods in an already limited diet.

  • Even fussy eaters should be able to tolerate new foods being presented on their plate or on the table. They can usually even touch or taste a new food without too much effort. However those children who have real food aversions will ‘fall apart’ and become distressed when presented with a new food.

If your child struggles in more than one of the areas listed above, you may want to contact your local dietician, GP or Plunket nurse for further advice and help.


Mel Street is a mother of three young children and a qualified speech language therapist with expertise in child feeding disorder. Find Mel at


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