Tips for picky eaters of all ages

From toddlers to teenagers, many children will have selective or ‘picky’ eating habits at some point in their development. Here are some strategies to help understand and manage this.

Dealing with picky eaters can be a challenging aspect of parenting. Understanding the reasons behind picky eating and employing effective strategies can help parents navigate this common issue with patience and confidence!


Toddlers are notorious for their fussy eating habits, often preferring certain foods while rejecting others (and even changing their minds the following week!) They are often picky eaters due to a combination of factors, including biological, psychological and environmental influences. Here are some reasons why toddlers might exhibit picky eating behaviours:

Stage of development

Toddlers are at a stage of rapid growth and development, and their tastes and preferences are still maturing. This can lead them to be more sensitive to new textures, flavours and foods.

Fear of new foods

Toddlers may have a natural fear or aversion to new foods, known as neophobia. This is believed to be an evolutionary trait that protects them from potentially harmful substances. Little ones may be wary of unfamiliar foods, preferring those they recognise and are comfortable with.

Sensory issues

Toddlers might have heightened sensitivities, making them more particular about the taste, texture, smell or appearance of foods. For example, they could dislike certain textures, like mushy or crunchy foods.

Independence and control

Toddlers are at the stage of asserting their independence and autonomy, and mealtime can become a battleground where they attempt to gain control. Being picky about food is often one way for them to exert control over their environment.

Parental influence

Parents’ attitudes and behaviours towards food can also impact a toddler’s eating habits. If parents express frustration or stress around mealtime, it can exacerbate picky eating behaviours. Similarly, if parents cater excessively to their child’s preferences, it will reinforce these habits.

Environmental factors

The food environment at home, at daycare or other settings can influence a toddler’s food choices. Exposure to a limited variety of foods, or frequent consumption of highly processed or unhealthy foods can result in a refusal to eat more broadly.

Appetite fluctuations

Toddlers’ appetites can go up and down due to growth spurts, teething, illness or other factors. During these times, they may be more selective about the foods they eat and this is perfectly normal.

Strategies for toddlers

The toddler stage is crucial for establishing healthy eating patterns and experiences, making it essential for parents to have strategies on hand to tackle this issue.

  • Variety: introduce a range of nutritious foods early on, alongside familiar ones, to encourage exploration and acceptance
  • Be patient: understand that it may take multiple exposures before a child accepts a new food
  • Set a routine: establish regular meal and snack times to provide structure and consistency
  • Lead by example: demonstrate healthy eating habits by eating meals together as a family


Preschoolers continue to assert their independence and might display stronger preferences for certain foods. Peer influence and environmental factors can also impact their eating habits. Additionally, children at this age may experience new sensitivity to taste, texture and appearance of food, further contributing to these tricky behaviours.

Strategies for preschoolers

Preschoolers will begin to resist certain aspects of parenting and picky eating is a common result of this. Here are a few tips to keep your little one eating their greens!

  • Involve children in meal preparation: encourage participation in cooking and grocery shopping to increase your little one’s interest in food
  • Make meals fun: use creative presentations and engage your child in themed meals or food-related activities
  • Offer choices: provide limited options to empower your preschooler to pick from a small selection, while ensuring that all the choices are nutritious
  • Avoid pressure: refrain from forcing or bribing children to eat, as this can create negative associations with food
  • Keep calm: it will never help to introduce stress to your young child over food. Keep your cool and remain grounded around food at all times

Primary school

As children enter primary school, their exposure to various foods may increase through school lunches, social events and new interactions, such as eating at a friend’s home. However, picky eating tendencies can still persist, influenced by things like taste preferences, peer pressure and busy weekdays.

Strategies for primary school children

With more outside influence affecting your child’s relationship with food, let’s look at how you can get them back on side.

  • Balance: ensure that meals include a variety of food groups to meet kids’ nutritional needs
  • Education: teach children about the importance of different nutrients, how they support their health and make them grow
  • Independence: allow children to make age-appropriate decisions about their food choices, while guiding them towards healthier options
  • Respect preferences: acknowledge and accommodate your child’s individual preferences, while gently encouraging experimentation with new foods


Teenagers are navigating a period of rapid change, which may influence their dietary preferences and habits. The influence of others, body image concerns and packed schedules can all impact their food choices. Additionally, teens may experiment with restrictive diets or develop disordered eating patterns, further complicating the issue of their picky eating.

Strategies for teens

Maturing through secondary school, our teens are faced with lots of challenges that can have a serious impact on their relationship with food. It’s so important to gently help them to develop and maintain a healthy connection, so that they can stay properly nourished throughout the demands of their week.

  • A supportive environment: try to establish open communication about food and body image, without judgement or criticism
  • Be an example: emphasise the importance of balanced nutrition and mindful eating habits through your own actions
  • Involve teens in meal planning: encourage teens to bring their own ideas and preferences when planning out meals and snacks
  • Seek help: consult with a registered dietitian or healthcare provider if concerns arise about disordered eating or nutritional deficiencies

The healthiest habit

Converting picky eaters into all-round food-lovers requires a calm attitude, patience, understanding and a proactive approach from parents, for all ages of children. By recognising the underlying reasons for picky eating and implementing appropriate strategies, parents can help their children to develop healthier relationships with food and establish lifelong habits that keep them well and healthy.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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