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food jags and fussy eaters

Food jags are periods in which children begin to refuse foods that they previously liked. Food jags can also occur when children request a particular food at every meal. This eating pattern is commonly seen in children between the ages of 2 and 6 years.

During the preschool years, children's growth is slower and their appetite tends to decrease. This can cause concern for parents who want to be sure the child is getting adequate nutrition. Children at this age are more interested in exploring the world around them than in the food they eat. Food jags can occur for a number of reasons. The child could be bored with the foods usually served.

He or she may also be testing newfound independence. Toddlers control very few things in their environment. Children soon discover how upsetting it can be for parents when they refuse foods or demand the same foods repeatedly. These behaviours can become a powerful tool for attention.

The best way for a parents to handle a toddler's food jags is to remain low key and not draw attention to the behaviour. The more focus the food jag receives, the longer it may last. It is the parents's responsibility to offer healthy and nutritious foods. It is also their responsibility to plan meal times appropriately. However, the child is not helped by the parents being either too rigid or too accommodating. Also, children cannot be forced to eat foods they do not want. Food preferences develop as a child is exposed to new foods in a calm, non-threatening environment. When a child sits down to eat, the parents needs to step back and allow the child to be in control of what they eat. This will help to develop healthy eating behaviours.

Parents still have control over which foods they offer a child. They should continue to offer a variety of foods from the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating. This will allow the child to make food choices from what is available. It does not do any harm to offer children their favourite foods, as long as other foods are offered as well to encourage variety. After a while, the child will become bored with the same food and begin choosing other items offered.

Preschool children will usually meet all of their nutritional needs over several days time. They may not get enough of certain nutrients and kilojoules one day, because they are being "picky", but they will usually make up for it the next day by eating what they need and more. For this age group, it is best to offer small meals several times a day to try to increase their food intake. They should have 3 regular meals as well as nutritious snacks between meals. Healthy snack choices include fresh fruit, cheese, raw vegetables, whole-grain crackers, or a peanut paste sandwich.

Taste is not the only factor that is important in children's food acceptance. Temperature of food is important. Most toddlers prefer their food lukewarm. The smell and presentation of food are also factors.

To stimulate a good appetite, children should be active. However, children will not eat well if they are tired. Meal times and play times should be scheduled accordingly. Also, if children snack before a meal, they will not eat well at that meal. Children should not be allowed to eat or drink within one and a half hours of a meal.

Other approaches to getting children to try new foods include:
  • offering only one new food at a time. Children should be told in advance if the taste is sweet, sour, or salty.
  • giving small amounts of the food on the first try. This gives children a chance to see if they like the new food.
  • telling children they do not have to swallow the food it they do not like it.
  • offering a new food several times. Many young children have to refuse a new food several times before they finally accept it. Do not give up after the first refusal.
  • being a role model. If the parents ask a child to drink milk or eat vegetables, he or she should be eating those foods as well.
  • seating children with siblings or friends who eat a variety of foods. The chances of a child trying a new food will improve if other children at the table are eating that food.
  • serving a new food along with one of the child's favourite foods.
  • present the food in different ways For example, raw and cooked green beans, mashed and baked sweet potatoes.
  • avoid distractions such as TV, games and toys
Parents need to realise that food jags are a normal part of the child's development and the situation is temporary. However, if the child refuses whole food groups for more than two weeks, a doctor needs to be consulted.

Author: Kimberly Tessmer, RD, LD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 5/02/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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