When should I be concerned about a fussy eater?

By Penelope Henderson, MSc, RNutr/ 06/15/2022
little boy not wanting to eat his dinner

It’s perfectly natural to worry about your child not eating much or only eating certain foods. This can become particularly stressful when they enter this fussy eating stage. However, how do you know what is typical fussy eating and when should you be more concerned about a fussy eater?

This blog explores this in more detail along with the differences between a fussy eater and problem feeder, what to do if you’re concerned about your child’s eating and food ideas for fussy eaters. 

What is a fussy eater?

Unwilling to eat familiar foods and not try new foods. Strong food preferences, resulting in little variety in the diet e.g a particular colour/texture (1)

Food neophobia (a fear of new or unfamiliar foods). Limited range/variety of foods in the diet. Early start group. (1) 

Toddler fussy eating phase

This typical fussy eating phase can begin at around 1 year and goes on until about 3 years of age. (2)  It can often carry on beyond this depending on the child and how it is dealt with. 

¼ to ⅓ of all children will go through some feeding difficulty between birth to 10 years. However only about half of children will outgrow their fussy eating/picky eating. (3) 

Why is my child so fussy with food?

There are lots of reasons why your child may be fussy with food and refusing to eat. The common reasons are discussed in my blog – 7 reasons why your child refuses to eat and how to master eating better. It talks in more detail about neophobia, sensory issues, tiredness, taste, appetite, medical issues and pressure to eat. 

7 reasons why your child may refuse to eat infographic for when should I be concerned about a fussy eater.
7 reasons why your child may refuse to eat

If you can pinpoint exactly what the issues may be then it helps to work out what to focus on to help your fussy eater become a better eater. 

Fussy eater vs problem feeder

Fussy eater

Fussy eating typically occurs for most children to different degrees but how do you know if this is typical or ‘normal’ phase that they will outgrow or if there is something else going on that is a problem and needs further investigation.

That’s why I created a FREE must have checklist for you which will identify if your child is a fussy eater or problem feeder, what you can do and where to go next to overcome it. Get it here

Problem feeder

A problem feeder can also be known in other terms depending on the exact nature of the problem. Other terms used include; food aversion, extreme fussy eating or ARFID (Avoidant, restrictive, food intake disorder). So what are the differences? 

Food aversion – this is having a strong fear, dislike or even anxiety around a food making you feel sick or even gagging. It could be the smell, look or taste of the food. (4) It could be triggered by an event such as choking or an unpleasant illness from food.

Problem feeder -a problem feeder is a child with severe difficulties with feeding such as eating a restricted range of foods (usually less than 20). Extreme reactions when presented with new foods like crying. (5) 

ARFID stands for Avoidant, Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. It has also been known as an selective eating disorder. Someone with ARFID will avoid certain foods or food groups entirely and and/or will eat smaller amounts. Those with ARFID will not restrict food for the purposes of body image or wanting to lose weight. (6) 

The difference between a fussy eater and one with ARFID (problem feeder) is that a fussy eater won’t starve themselves to death but a child with ARFID will. (6)

When should you seek help for picky eating?

If your child is a healthy weight and is eating a variety of foods from the four food groups (fruit and vegetables; potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates; dairy or dairy alternatives; and beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins) then you shouldn’t need to seek further help. (7) 

If you’re concerned about a fussy eater and the limited number of foods they are eating then I can help with improving their diets. Check out my services or book a free discovery call to see how I can help you. 

However, you should seek help from a doctor or eating specialist when they have a suspected problem feeding (food aversion, ARFID or problem feeding) or when its affecting your child’s health for example:

  • Weight issues (not gaining weight or weight loss) (8)
  • Ongoing physical issues with eating (choking, gaging, vomiting, more than one incidence of nasal reflux, respiratory issues) (8)
  • Not able to transition through the stages of weaning (8)
  • Digestive problems
  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Seems weak or irritable

You could keep a food diary for 3 days which involves writing down everything your child eats and drinks so that it gives a better picture of what your child is eating and how much.

How do I stop my child from being fussy to eat?

concerned about a fussy eater picture

You simply can’t stop your child being fussy overnight. It takes time and persistence. 

If it is typical fussy eating then there are loads you can do at home to help improve their eating.  

Strategies to try

The main strategy to try is exposure. Sounds simply enough but actually this is where most parents get stuck. You have to keep exposing them to new and old or safe foods in order for them to try them and get used to them. 

Exposure to new foods is great to try outside of mealtimes because your child is likely to be more relaxed, not hungry and more agreeable. 

There are lots of ways to expose them such as starting with small portions, even a crumb size amount. Let them help in the kitchen in small ways with food prep or just washing vegetables. 

Try different food based play activities appropriate for their age. For example role play for younger kids and cooking or baking for older.

For more strategies on how to support your fussy eater you might like to check out my fussy eating strategies mini guide. It guides you through 10 key strategies that are proven to help overcome fussy eating. 

Food ideas for fussy eater

There is no one size fits all with what fussy eaters will eat. It can depend on alot of factors but particularly textures and taste preferences. 

In my experience keeping meals quite simple and plain are usually what most kids prefer. 

If you’re looking for lunchbox ideas check out my blog: How to make healthy lunchbox ideas for toddlers to delight them. 

Family meal ideas

food ideas for fussy eater - chickpea and carrot burger
chickpea and carrot burgers

For dinner or evening family favourite meals that everyone can eat you could try some of these ideas that tend to be popular with fussy eaters.

  • Pasta recipes (simple tomato sauce with cheese or Tomato, chicken, spinach, & cheese pasta bake
  • pizza/bread type recipes such as pitta pizza with raw veggies
  • Breaded meat or fish with potato wedges and vegetables.
  • Sausage tray bake with roasted vegetables of your choice. For example sweet potato, peppers, red onion, courgette, tomatoes.
  • Homemade burgers in a bun, using beef mince or with lentils & beef or try chickpea and carrot burger


It’s normal to be concerned about a fussy eater, it will no doubt happen at some stage. Particularly from the ages of 1 – 3 years as neophobia sets in (fear of new). Its hard to say when this phase will end but some strategies will no doubt help. 

However if they eat a limited range of foods (less than 20 foods) and/or show signs of problem feeding as discussed then it would be worth further investigation. Or if your child is showing any red flags affecting your child’s health you should also get it checked out with your GP or feeding specialist. 

If you would like a more in depth look into fussy eating, strategies including food language and more check out my online e-course called Master your mealtimes.

Whats included in Master your mealtimes e-course


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Author Penelope Henderson

Hi I’m Penelope Henderson RNutr Registered Nutritionist specialising in children’s nutrition and responsive feeding therapy.

I am a mum of 2, with over 15 years of experience in nutrition. I support parents to feel confident in how and what to feed their child. I hope you find my recipes and nutrition posts useful, so you can enjoy stress free cooking and mealtimes.

More about me

free guide to 6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes

6 steps to calm and happy mealtimes

Say goodbye to dreaded mealtimes and hello to stress-free meals, where you can enjoy family time without the fuss!

Inside, you’ll discover:

> How to set up successful mealtimes

> Easy ways to get them exploring and eating a wider variety of foods

> How to get them eating more, so you’re not throwing it away!

Yes I need this!


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