Healthy Eating for Kids: It’s not a war

Many young children go through phases of being faddy or fussy eaters. It’s often an attempt to get attention and escalates at the same pace as your anxiety! Don’t panic, as even limited diets for a few weeks can deliver all the nutrients your child needs. A varied diet can be achieved over the course of a day or even a week. Time, encouragement and patience (yours, mostly) will produce gradual but significant improvements.


Only buy the foods you want them to eat. If favourite foods are not in the house, over time they will eat what’s available.

Encourage your child to help with shopping and preparing meals.


Food should not be a reward for good behaviour or a punishment for bad. It’s not a substitute for time and attention nor a pacifier to calm an angry, tired or bored child. Healthy snacks are important for children as they

have small stomachs and need small frequent meals. Avoid filling them up with sugary, fizzy drinks before a meal.

When they come in from school, have a bowl of low-sugar and non-chocolate flavoured cereal and milk or a slice of brown bread or a soft roll

with mashed banana available. These handy healthy snacks will keep them going until dinnertime.

Children love finger food. Sticks of raw carrot, slices of apple or any fruit that they like; cherry or halved tomatoes are a good way to get them to eat fruit and vegetables and may be preferred than cooked vegetables.

So your child won’t eat fruit and veg?


  • Blending vegetables into soups, stews, pasta sauces
  • Stewed fruit in yogurt
  • Mashed cauliflower or turnip in mashed potato
  • Tin of tomatoes in mince meat
  • Roast parsnip with roast potatoes or wedges
  • Freezing orange juice in ice cube containers with a cocktail stick
  • Frozen vegetables, such as carrots, peas and sweetcorn mixture – they contain all the nutrients of fresh vegetables and provide great colour
  • Extra topping on pizza such as mandarin, pineapple or mushroom.


Try to eat together as a family as often as possible and lavish praise if your child tries something new.

Avoid making mealtimes a power struggle. If you battle over your child’s eating, he/she will stop eating to demonstrate his/her willpower.

Avoid negotiating with your child about food choices e.g. ‘Will you eat eggs?’ If your child doesn’t like boiled eggs, try them scrambled or in an omelette with different fillings.

Never say: ‘If you finish your dinner, you can have some biscuits/sweets’. This encourages the notion that the main course is something to be endured while sweets are the ‘prize’ worth waiting for.

It’s got a name! Food neophobia is an unwillingness to try new foods. If your child is afraid to try, say, chicken, keep offering it to him, either cooked or presented in different ways, so that he gets over his fear of it. If he doesn’t eat it the first time or the fifth time, don’t panic. It can take up to 10 tries before a child will try something new.

If your child refuses to eat, accept it with more grace than you feel! Remove his plate but do not offer a replacement food until the next mealtime.

Keep portions small or buy smaller dinner plates so that the amount of food on offer isn’t intimidating.

Invite a friend – with a good appetite – for dinner and offer the same food to both. Your child may be more tempted to eat whatever his friend is eating.

Encourage your child to realise when they are full. This may mean not telling them to always clear their plate. This is important as they may lose their natural ability to regulate their appetite and not recognise when they’re full.

This can lead to eating a little more than needed at every meal, which over time leads to overweight.

Colourful pictures with food appeal to children

  • Smiley face pictures – cut out ham shapes as eyes, nose and mouth on a child’s mini pizza.
  • Vegetable shapes on a round slice of chicken, turkey/ ham or cheese – for example cucumber rings as eyes, raw carrot triangle as nose and tomato wedge as mouth.
  • Shapes like boats and castles are also easy to make – and they can be very simple shapes – just call them a boat / castle and children’s imaginations will do the rest!
  • Mention the current popular children’s character and how they love this food – and see what happens!

Food is emotional

Good nutrition is not just about putting food on the table, it is a very complex and emotional topic. If  you are faced daily with a child who will not accept the nutritious food you are so willing to give them, you will feel frustrated, stressed and powerless.

Toddlers do go through a stage of development where power struggles rule the day – not called the terrible 2’s for nothing! For example, today, little Johnny will only eat wheat cereal and juice; tomorrow, it may be something different, or he may stick with his cereal and juice for weeks.

While the habits of fussy eating usually appear in the pre-school years, some children will continue to pose challenges in terms of their eating habits well beyond the pre-school years.

The general advice of keeping mealtimes relaxed is very good advice. 

  • While it is important that your child does try new foods, parents of a faddy eater have to be very careful not to get too obsessed by this. (To ensure that key nutrients are included refer to the section across for ideas)
  • It’s a good idea to look at and list all the foods your child will eat, which is usually more than you think, and develop menu plans around these.
  • Another area that can affect eating habits is the child’s senses. When it comes to food, some children will look for very strong-tasting food and will really enjoy spicy foods, other children will like very bland foods.
  • The texture of the food is also another factor – one child may enjoy crunchy, chewy food while another will much prefer smooth, almost puréed, food. Parents will have to adjust what they offer their child based on these preferences.

Anne O’ Connor Child Clinical Psychologist, parenting website.

Taken from “Your Child’s Heart” magazine published by Irish heart Foundation ( ‘The Irish Heart Foundation is the national charity fighting heart disease and stroke. We support, educate and train people to save lives, campaign for patients, promote positive health programmes, fund research and provide vital information. We need your support through donations, as a volunteer or on our training courses’