5 ways to help your child eat better


5 ways to help your child eat better

Published February 2023 | 7 min read
Expert contributor Dr Jane Watson, accredited practising dietitian from Ethos Health and Healthy Families for Life
Words by Charmaine Yabsley

If you have a fussy eater it can be difficult to know what to do. We asked a dietitian for help on dealing with picky eaters, from the toddler stage to the teenage years.

Whatever their age, good nutrition is essential for children and teens to support their growth, energy, health and development. All kids need to eat a balanced variety of fresh fruit, vegies, protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates, but if you have a fussy eater who only wants to eat the same foods over and over – or who rejects your lovingly created meals – it can be challenging.

Fussy eating is a common issue among kids, but parents play a major role in influencing food choices and encouraging healthy eating habits at home, so don’t give up.

“There are ways to help make mealtimes a more enjoyable experience, while establishing good eating habits that will extend for the rest of their lives,” says accredited practising dietitian Dr Jane Watson, from Ethos Health and Healthy Families for Life. Research shows between six and 13% of adults are fussy eaters too, so instilling good habits in your children means they’ll be more likely to be healthier adults. Here are some strategies to try.

1. Don’t expect perfection at every meal

Just as your appetite and taste in food changes from day to day, so does your child’s. Some days your child may want to eat a lot, and other days not so much, and that’s developmentally normal, says Dr Watson.

“Children go through phases with their eating habits – it’s just another way for them to assert their independence, push boundaries and explore their environment. Most parents will describe their child as a fussy eater at some point.”

Kids also go through growth spurts, from the baby and toddler years right through to teens. Some days they want to eat everything in sight, “and then, for all sorts of reasons, they’ll start to limit what they eat,” says Dr Watson. “It can be frustrating when your child rejects the beautiful food you’ve cooked. That’s where parents need to remind themselves that helping our children be guided by their hunger and fullness is the best way to support them.”

In other words, don’t force or try to cajole your child into eating your healthy muffins if they don’t want them, and allow your child to listen to their own hunger cues. According to Raising Children, as long as kids are growing and developing well, they’re probably doing okay.

2. Get support if you need it

Fussy eating may become an issue if your child continues to have a poor appetite, isn’t growing at the expected rate or can’t handle certain textures or swallowing foods. “Children with sensory issues or autism spectrum disorders may require specialised feeding therapy to help support eating habits,” says Dr Watson. Speak to your GP if you're worried about your child's fussy eating.

If your teen starts to push away previously loved foods, this may need your attention. “Teenagers experience rapid growth, with an initial growth spurt between 10 and 16 years followed by a period of very slow growth, then sometimes another growth spurt. It’s developmentally normal for teenagers to feel uneasy about their changing bodies and to have a heightened sensitivity about body shape. But for some teens, this concern can lead to problematic eating.”

If you’re concerned about your teen’s food intake or body-image issues, seek professional help and advice. The Butterfly Foundation – a national charity that provides support for eating disorders and body image issues – is a useful resource.

3. Let your child decide how much to eat

“It’s the parent’s job to decide which foods are offered and when. It’s the job of the child to decide how much they’ll eat. The way we feed our children is as important as what we feed them,” says Dr Watson.

Dietitian and child feeding expert Ellyn Satter devised the Division of Responsibility (DoR) approach to preparing and offering foods to children, which can be a great guide to family mealtimes. It states that your job as a parent is to:

  • choose and prepare the food
  • provide regular meals and snacks
  • make eating times pleasant
  • show your child, by example, how to behave at family mealtimes
  • be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes
  • not let your child have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times
  • let your child grow into the body that is right for them.

Having a more relaxed attitude can help to avoid frustrations at mealtimes. “Children will learn to respond to their hunger and fullness cues. There will be times when they eat more or less than they need, but supporting them to respond to hunger and fullness is a much better approach than bribery,” says Dr Watson.

And while it’s tempting to offer a reward if your child eats the tomatoes or try to hide them under a hamburger in a bun, Dr Watson says this doesn’t create a relationship of trust. “Of course, add vegetables to pasta sauces and soups, but not in place of offering it in its initial form.”

4. Be consistent

It can be tempting to only serve the foods guaranteed to be eaten by your child or teen – as any food seems better than no food – but this may lead to them eating a reduced range of nutrients.

Instead, Dr Watson recommends taking the “whole-family approach”. “Avoid singling out a family member for a different meal, or specific ingredients – unless food allergies or other needs are involved.”

Dr Watson says it’s a good idea to serve your child the same food you’re having. “Respect that there may be some foods they may not want but continue to offer these alongside foods they will usually eat."

A parent’s eating habits have a huge impact on how a child eats. Dads, in particular, have a huge impact on children’s eating habits. Research from Deakin University found that children as young as 20 months old are influenced by their father’s diet, eating takeaway foods, sugary snacks and drinks based on their dad’s intake.

5. Lead by example

What you stock in the cupboards and fridge can have an impact on your child’s eating habits, as well as the way you talk about food and healthy eating.

“I would never say, ‘Never eat any junk food’,” says Dr Watson. “All food is part of the enjoyment of life. Instead, set the boundaries for what works for your family. If you keep foods in the house – such as soft drink, sweets or chips – but don’t allow your child to eat them, this can send a confusing message.”

Instead, Dr Watson advises only keeping these types of food in the house if it’s a party or special occasion. “It’s important to lead by example,” she says.

When children feel pressure to eat a specific way, they’ll often push back. “If children feel limited in what they are allowed to eat, they may be more likely to eat more when they have an opportunity, such as at their friends’ houses or at parties,” says Dr Watson. A healthy relationship with food allows for flexibility and not labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

It’s most important of all to take the opportunity – when you can – to enjoy mealtimes together. Research shows that teenagers who eat with family are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugary drinks.

Other research has found that regular family dinners are associated with less issues with eating disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts in adolescents.

While it may feel like a big responsibility to future-proof your child’s health with the meals they eat, remember that mealtimes are a shared family experience and are also a time to connect and tell stories. If someone pushes their plate away after barely touching a vegetable, let it go and try again the next day.

Parents of fussy eaters share what works for their child

“I ask my children to help me with dinner. This gives them a voice to give feedback on what they liked and didn’t like.”
– Emma, mum of two.

“I always try to serve the healthiest possible version of what my kids like, so if they don’t eat a lot at least I know what they have eaten is decent. They love rice, so I serve brown rice. Brown bread instead of white bread. Dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate, and so on.”
– Michael, dad of two.

“My child is very picky, so I’ve resigned myself to not getting stressed. At some point his palate will change. I always encourage trying something over dismissing it.”
– Andrea, mum of two.

“I’ve brought my air fryer into use – my kids will eat air-fried kale, sweet potato and broccolini, but not when I cook them in other ways. It’s been a game changer!”
– Cherie, mum of three.

“My youngest daughter will pick at meals rather than eat a full plate, so I serve up the ingredients we’re having in a separate ‘platter-style’. Little by little her taste is changing and she’s becoming more adventurous.”
– Julie, mum of two.

“My kids love a healthy dressing I make that has apple cider vinegar, mustard, olive oil and a dash of honey in it. I’m happy to let them pour it over whatever they like as it makes them eat things they otherwise wouldn’t!”
– Mark, dad of three.

“My kid loves smoothies, so I add extra healthy ingredients into them such as a handful of spinach leaves, a scoop of avocado or some Greek yoghurt. If he drinks that first thing then I feel like we’re doing well.”
– Ariane, mother of one.

A helping hand with kids’ nutrition

Nutrition is important at every stage of kids' development but we know setting up healthy habits and supporting kids to eat a healthy balanced diet can be challenging.

That's why we’ve partnered with Ethos Health to bring you expert-led resources to help you support your kids' nutritional needs. Created by accredited practising dietitian, Dr Jane Watson, this hub of easy-to-read articles is packed with evidence-based advice, tips and tools to help kids from birth to 12 years develop positive eating habits and reduce the risk of chronic conditions later in life. Learn more about Healthy Families for Life.

Related articles

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How parents play a key role in encouraging healthy eating habits from a young age.

Plating up for picky eaters

Why some kids are fussy eaters and what mistakes to avoid.

Family meals

The importance of eating together regularly.

Healthy snacks for kids

Avert a junk food feeding frenzy by being prepared.


* All HCF members with any HCF health insurance product (excluding Overseas Visitors Health Cover) are eligible to access the Healthy Teens for Life online resources.

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