5 min read

How to deal with picky eaters

It’s hugely frustrating when after a long day’s work, you put a load of planning, time and effort into a meal only to be thanked with a furrowed brow and “That looks gross. I don’t like that. Can I have nuggets and chips instead?”

A little girl, presented with a plate of vegetables, hides her face.

Most children develop fussy eating habits at one stage or another. This fear of new foods is what psychologists call ‘neophobia’. Psychologist John Prescott says ”from about two years of age, up to six or seven, or sometimes older, food neophobia is common enough to be seen as a stage of childhood development.” [1]

In fact, up to a third of children around the age of two could be described as fussy eaters. [2] For some, it’s a short-lived phase of only eating cheesy pasta and beans three times a day. For others, it can turn into an enduring family battle that plagues meal-times and becomes a really divisive issue.

There are ways to try and get children to eat new foods, but it’s about trying new methods of persuasion and deception until you find something that works in your household. Here are a few ideas to try:

Don’t make a big deal out of it

Try not to make a fuss – it’s annoying when kids don’t eat their meals, but the more tension you build up around the matter, the more likely you are to build it into a bigger issue. Try to keep a calm exterior – the last thing you want to do is to turn mealtimes into a battleground.

If your child tries something and they don’t like it, remain neutral and move on.

Make sure they’re hungry at mealtimes

Avoid snacking for a couple of hours before meals.  The hungrier your kid is, the more likely they are to try something new.

Involve them in the process

One of the best ways to get kids to embrace new foods is to make them excited at the prospect of eating it.

Get them to help you pick out loose fruit and vegetables in the supermarket, or better still try growing something simple like lettuce plants or herb pots.

If they’re old enough, get them to help out in the kitchen with handling and preparing the food.

When they’ve put effort and enthusiasm into making it, they’re less likely to reject it when it’s on a plate in front of them.

Variations on a theme

If you know they love cauliflower cheese, try broccoli cheese. The sense of familiarity and positive association is confidence building when it comes to trying new things.

You can also try adding their favourite ingredient into a new recipe. It might be enough to make them enjoy the whole thing – or at least give it a go.

Start small

When you’re introducing new foods, it’s not realistic to expect your child to delightedly chomp their way through a whole bowlful of Brussel sprouts. Start with a small quantity on the side of their plate and insist they try it. Even if they don’t eat every single last morsel, the fact that they’ve tried it is a small victory.

If you’re introducing something new, try serving it with something you know they like. One new food per meal is probably enough.

Disguise new ingredients

Sauces, soups and purees are a great way of introducing new flavours and ingredients without setting the alarm bells off at the sight of something new and unfamiliar. That blender your in-laws got you for Christmas that has been left at the back of the cupboard for months might soon become your new best friend.

What if they point-blank refuse to eat it?

Don’t offer to swap the food

If your child tries something that they don’t like, whatever you do, don’t offer them a substitution. You’ll be making a rod for your own back. If you keep some plain pasta without the sauce as a back-up plan, you’ve lost all hope of them embracing new foods.

If they really are hungry an hour later, offer them a healthy, not particularly exciting snack that will fill them up, but is not a treat. They won’t starve.


Studies show that kids need to try new flavours 8-9 times before they start to enjoy it. [3]

If your child dislikes something once, don’t abandon it. Keep serving it to them periodically in a variety of ways. Eventually they’ll accept the food – and maybe even learn to like it.

When should you start to worry?

If your child starts losing weight, is weak, feverish or seems lethargic, it’s best to seek medical advice as there may be an underlying medical problem.

Most kids will grow out of fussy eating – it’s a very natural stage of growing up. In 20 year’s time, they’ll probably look back with total bemusement at what they used to refuse to eat.

Note: Whilst we take care to ensure Talking Finance content is accurate at the time of publication, individual circumstances can differ so please don’t rely on it when making financial decisions.

1 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/9305723/Fussy-eater-or-food-neophobic.html

2 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pamela-druckerman/picky-eaters_b_2768810.html

3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20541572