Nice also advised encouraging under-fives to feed themselves. Picture: ANA Pictures

London - Toddlers should be allowed to play with their food to encourage them to eat, new health guidance says.

Permitting "messy" eating and creating "relaxed and enjoyable" mealtimes – rather than insisting on rules and tidiness – can help fussy eaters start enjoying food.

Published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the guidance is designed to help families with underweight pre-schoolers.

Professor Gillian Leng, the watchdog’s deputy chief executive, said: "Simple things such as encouraging relaxed and enjoyable feeding and mealtimes, eating together as a family or even allowing young children to be messy with their food can help encourage them to eat."

Nice also advised encouraging under-fives to feed themselves, making sure mealtimes are not too long and establishing regular schedules of three meals and two snacks a day.

It said too many energy-dense drinks, including milk, can reduce a child’s appetite for other foods.

Experts said all parents with picky young children should take note of the advice.

Jane Ogden, a health psychologist at the University of Surrey and author of The Good Parenting Food Guide, said the key was not to be too strict.

"Children naturally make a mess, they drop food, they play with it," she said. "Allowing them to relax, allowing them time to eat when they want to, without hovering around making sure they are eating, can be really effective.

"Just take the focus away from the food, sit around a table as a family, talk, laugh, allow them to make a mess."

But Professor Ogden said certain boundaries were needed: "There is a risk of being too relaxed, of trying to feed children when they are in their buggy or walking around. It’s really important to sit down at mealtimes, ideally as a family."