Understanding and helping 'fussy eaters'

Why children become fussy or picky eaters in their second year - and how you can make foods more familiar and more easily accepted.

Girl staring at apple and banana with milk bottle


Until about halfway through their second year, most babies are reasonably enthusiastic eaters – happy to eat a wide range of different foods and willing to try something new. Then almost overnight, well-liked foods start being rejected, and anything unfamiliar is treated with the utmost suspicion. What scientists call ‘neophobia’ has set in and it is very common indeed. Meaning literally ‘fear of the new’, neophobia together with a general pickiness, tends to emerge when children are between 18 months and two years of age.

Some scientists believe that this behaviour evolved when humans were still cave-dwellers because it would have protected toddlers from accidental poisoning from eating unfamiliar plants and berries. In fact, research has shown that it is the types of foods that we most want children to eat – fruit and vegetables – that are most often rejected at this stage.

But knowing this is not much help when your child has flatly refused to eat anything green or nutritious, and is existing on a diet of plain pasta and orange juice...

Parents resort to all sorts of strategies to persuade their children to eat healthily, but some of these may make the situation even worse. For example, if you offer your child a chocolate button for eating peas, the message you give is that peas are so horrible that you are prepared to offer a reward for eating them. The result is that your child will probably go on hating peas and will grow to like chocolate buttons even more!

It’s much better to introduce new foods (or re-introduce rejected ones) by offering very tiny pieces at first. Just ask your child to have a taste and if they do, praise them or give them a sticker reward. Do this again every day for 10-14 days and by then the food will be familiar and your child will be much less likely to reject it in future.

Finally, children will be much more willing to taste things if they see you eating and enjoying them first, so eat with your child whenever you can and tell your child how delicious healthy foods are.

How CBeebies can help

Why not try out some delicious but healthy dishes from ‘I Can Cook’ and ‘Big Cook Little Cook’? There are hundreds of different recipes to choose from on the CBeebies website.

Click on ‘Make & Colour’ and select ‘Cooking’. Let your child browse through the recipe pages and pick one they’d like to try making with you. The dishes in Big Cook’s Recipe Book are especially tempting – many come in imaginative shapes and have fun names – anyone for Aubergine Spectacles, a Cabbage Butterfly or a Cauliflower Cloud?!

How to make a magic moment

Getting children involved in shopping, preparing or cooking foods is a good way to make foods more familiar and more easily accepted.

Another good thing to do with your child is to grow something that’s good to eat – herbs, mustard and cress or tomatoes can be grown very easily (even on a window sill).

And you can make the containers you grow them in fun and exciting – a cress head (made from an old yoghurt pot with a face drawn on the side), a cress caterpillar (made from an old egg carton cut lengthways so you have two long pieces each with three compartments) or paint a small pot in bright colours and patterns.

by Dr Lucy Cooke

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Top tips

  • Try
  • to eat with your child as often as possible.Be
  • a good role model – show your child how much you like eating healthy foods.If
  • your child rejects a food at first, try again another day.Try
  • not to offer ‘treat’ foods as rewards for eating healthy foods.Involve your child in
  • all food-related activities.

Expert opinion

Children like foods that are familiar and are wary of new foods. Repeatedly offering only very small amounts of new foods can help to expand the range of foods your child will accept.

Dr Lucy Cooke, Psychologist (specialising in children’s eating behaviour)