• Nutrition

Fussy & Picky Eating

fussy child with a plate of vegetables

Eating Problems & Life Stages

Childhood days are often marked by phases of fussiness and tantrums.

You may have noticed that your child, who was once very easy to feed, suddenly has become fussy about food and rejects most of the 'healthy' food items that you give them. They may also take an unusual liking to a certain food and want to have it at in every meal.

At some point, most parents face eating challenges from their children. A child may:

  • Refuse to eat
  • Play with food
  • Eat less than usual
  • Dislike vegetables, fruit, meat or milk
  • Dislike chewing
  • Demand the same food at every meal
  • Prefer 'junk food' to healthy food
  • Make a mess at the table
  • Throw tantrums at mealtimes

These behaviours can surprise and trouble parents who want to ensure healthy eating habits.

3 to 5 years

  • Children frequently develop food fads; they may request the same food for days or weeks and temporarily refuse to eat.
  • Children get distracted easily and may take a long time to finish their meals.
  • They have a tendency to spill liquids and spread food on the table.
  • They may refuse to eat green vegetables, fruits or healthy snacks in favour of fast food.
  • They may neglect mealtime to have more playtime.
  • Children may object to the shape, colour or texture of a food and may decide not to eat certain types of foods.
  • Eating junk food, full of energy and fat but few nutrients, is a big problem for children in this age group.
  • They may develop a dislike for certain types of food and may refuse to eat them.
  • Preschool children may become picky eaters, (also known as 'fussy eaters', 'choosy' and 'problem eaters') and avoid certain foods, or eat only a limited number of foods.
  • Picky eaters seem to show little interest in food and may refuse to consume all the food on their plates.

5 to 7 years

  • Children in this age group tend to focus on personal challenges and may resist parent's insistence on healthy eating.
  • They may refuse to eat some foods, go on binges during which they eat only a certain food, or become classic 'picky eaters'.
  • During this stage, as in earlier development, children are learning independence and one way to be independent is to control their eating.

7 to 9 years

  • For children in this stage, the influence of friends and peers is important and they prefer to eat what their friends eat.
  • Children of this age may favour non-nutritious snacks.
  • Serious eating disorders, although rare, can develop from eating habits established at this age.

Why do children act this way?

Causes may include:

  • A natural tendency to imitate a parent’s (or someone else’s) picky eating
  • Reaction to punishment
  • Reaction to ‘food rewards’ given to ensure food consumption
  • Past history of physical reasons for difficulty in eating
  • Changes in appetite associated with overall growth
  • Extreme sensitivity to taste, smell and texture of foods
  • Dislike for the colour or texture of a certain food

Click here to assess your child’s growth.

Consequences of picky-eating

A father measuring her daughter’s height

Deficiency disorders

The food we eat contains a variety of nutrients all of which have different functions in the body. Different foods have high concentrations of certain nutrients. Milk is rich in calcium; green leafy vegetables are high in iron and meats and eggs are good sources of protein.

If a particular food is missing from the diet, some nutrients may become deficient in the body. For example, if a child avoids milk, they miss an excellent source of dietary calcium. A child who refuses to eat fruits and vegetables in the long run may develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as anemia or vitamin A deficiency, among others. For these reasons it is important to include a wide variety of foods in the diet.

Poor eating habits

Research has shown that the best time to develop healthy eating habits is during childhood. This is the time when the child develops tastes for food. Picky eating at this stage may cause a child to develop poor habits and avoid foods like milk, vegetables, fish, fruits, etc. It may be difficult to get a child to eat these foods later in life.

Picky eaters typically eat small meals and have poor appetite. This may in some instances lead to growth retardation, lack of concentration and mental performance and low immunity.

Low levels of iron and zinc are linked to decreased appetite in picky eaters. Researchers have observed that supplementation of iron and zinc results in improved growth and improved appetite (in terms of both energy intake of the snack and report of appetite).

Parents should therefore encourage their children to eat iron-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, egg yolks, and red meats like beef and lamb and also chicken and fish.

Low Immunity

A child’s immunity is of great concern to parents, especially during winter due to an increased risk of infection.

Click here to learn more about improving your child’s immunity.

Dental care

Once children develop permanent teeth it is important for them to learn extra dental care so that your child’s permanent teeth can last them lifetime.

Picky eater’s preferences for sweets or chocolates may cause dental problems including cavities in teeth. Children should be taught to brush their teeth as soon as the teeth grow in. Good oral hygiene habits will help ensure that the permanent teeth will last a lifetime.

Low levels of energy

Childhood is time for learning and exploring. To be able to explore new things a child needs to be healthy and active. To be active, the child needs an adequate supply of energy, which can be provided by good nutrition.

A child who doesn’t eat right may be inactive and sluggish. They may tire easily and lack interest in sports and activity. Studies have shown that children who eat a healthy breakfast are more active and alert than children who do not. Give the child a good breakfast and healthy snacks and lunch to provide enough energy throughout the day.


Picky eaters may prefer foods rich in fat and energy and may be more prone to become overweight and obese.

Obesity results from consuming more calories than are used and is epidemic in the modern world. Obese children often become obese adults, which may lead to many associated diseases later in life.

What is the solution to fussy and picky eating?

Stop arguing with your picky eater over their untouched plates. Discover delicious Vanilla or Chocolate PediaSure® Complete all-in-one nutritional drinks.

Children sitting together drinking a PediaSure shake

PediaSure® Complete gives your child all the nutrients they need so you can watch them grow up healthy and strong:

  • Contains 28 vitamins and minerals
  • Provides essential Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids
  • Favourable oil blend: easily absorbed and well-tolerated even in those with impaired fat digestion.
  • Iron: supports rapid growth and promotes catch-up growth
  • Growth support:
    • contains all the vital macronutrients in correct proportions
    • contains protein
    • provides adequate carbohydrates and calories for energy and healthy weight gain
  • Immunity: A healthy balanced diet is pivotal to good health
    • PediaSure® Complete, with synbiotics (pre and pro-biotics), has been scientifically proven to show a reduction in absenteeism1,2.MBR 20.8 No: 029988
    • Daily Dietary supplementation with probiotics (as included in PediaSure® Complete) is a safe and effective way to reduce cold and flu-like symptoms in children1.
    • Fevers reduced by almost 73%1
    • Coughing showed a reduction of 62%1
    • Incidence of runny nose was reduced by almost 59%1
    • Use of antibiotics was reduced by 84%1
    • PediaSure® Complete is also:
    • Halal and Kosher
    • Lactose* and gluten free
    • Not suitable for galactosaemia

Click here to learn more about PediaSure® Complete.

  • MBR 20.8 No: 029988

Need help feeding your picky eater?

Mealtimes should be relaxed and fun both for you and your family. This helps ensure that your child gets the nutrition they need, but also brings you closer as a family.


  • Step by step: Introduce only one new food at a time instead of serving a completely new meal. For example, if you want your child to eat an unfamiliar or new food, try to introduce it with something familiar.
  • Small to big: Serve small portion sizes when introducing new foods. Gradually move on to bigger portions.
  • Be positive: Some children have negative associations with some foods. Try to alter the form and texture of that food to change the association into more positive ones. For instance, some foods remind children of 'hospital food' or 'hotel food' and they refuse to eat them.
  • Make meals healthier: Try to improve the nutritive value of the food that your child enjoys. For instance, if your child likes pasta or pizza try whole-wheat varieties and add vegetables. You may also add a slice of tomato or cheese to sandwiches, fruit to cereal or vegetables to pasta to increase the nutrient density of foods.
  • Do not bribe: Resist giving your child sweets and fried foods to encourage him to eat. You may be doing more harm than good.
  • Make mealtimes relaxed and fun: Avoid watching TV and other distractions that may lead to overeating or losing interest in food. Talk to your child about the day and share your own experiences so that your child looks forward to mealtimes.
  • Encourage children as they grow: Encourage self-respect and self-acceptance. Never criticise a child's body type.
  • Involve your child: Involve the child in buying food by taking him to the supermarket or letting him choose the menu for 1 day a week. This not only teaches decision-making, but also increases involvement in the preparation of meals. Let your child set the table or help you clear it.
  • Make a schedule: Serve meals at consistent intervals and times. Discourage eating at unscheduled times; work with your child to establish the mealtime schedule.
  • Set a good example: Eat healthy foods with enthusiasm. Never talk about disliking healthy foods when your child is present.
  • Educate your child: Look for opportunities to teach your child the benefits of healthy eating and an active lifestyle.
  • Keep a watchful eye and stay calm: If you notice your child is preoccupied with being 'thin', introduce discussion of the hazards of eating disorders. If the problem persists, see a doctor.


  1. Leyer, GJ, Li S et al. Probiotic effect on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children. Pediatrics. 2009; 124;e172-e179.
  2. Fisburg M, Maulen- Radovan IE et al. Effect of oral nutritional supplementation with our without synbiotics on sickness and catch-up growth in preschool children. International Pediatrics. 2002. 17 (4): 216-222

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