When you are feeling at the end of your rope with a fussy eater, take a deep breath, relax and remember this is a normal phase in your toddler’s development and will resolve with time. Your main job is to offer your toddler a variety of whole foods over the course of a day. Her job is to choose how much she eats. She will eat what she needs.
If allowed to do so, toddlers will eat just enough calories for their own requirements. You should always respect your toddler’s decision that she has had enough to eat. Try to resist asking her to eat more. This is probably easier said than done. Keep reminding yourself that it’s your responsibility to offer your toddler nutritious food but to allow her to choose how much she will eat.
What is the best way to cope with my fussy eater?
Most toddlers go through a phase of only eating a very narrow range of foods. This is a normal part of toddler development called food neophobia – being frightened of new foods. Your toddler needs time to learn that these foods are safe to eat and enjoyable. She will learn this by watching you and others eating those foods.
Eventually she will widen the variety of foods she eats but some take much longer than others to do this. To help her on her way, and to keep your sanity, follow these tips:
Eat with your child as often as possible. Toddlers learn to eat foods they are unfamiliar with by watching and copying their parents and other children eating them.
Make positive comments about the food you are eating. Parents are strong role models and if you make positive comments about foods, your toddler will be more willing to try them.
Arrange for your toddler to eat with other toddlers as often as possible. Invite a friend from playgroup over for lunch. Your toddler may eat better when she is with her own age group.
Develop a daily routine of three meals and two to three snacks around your toddler’s daytime sleep pattern and try to stick to it. Toddlers thrive on routine and knowing what to expect. She won’t eat well if she becomes over-hungry, and toddlers who are tired will be too miserable to eat. Don’t expect her to eat a large meal just before going to bed. Give her a small snack or drink and save her proper meal until later, after she has woken up.
Offer two courses at mealtimes: a savoury course followed by a sweet course. Toddlers often get bored with too much of one taste and will be ready to try something new. Two courses also give your toddler two opportunities to take in the calories and nutrients needed and means there is a wider variety of foods at each meal.
Limit mealtimes to about 20 – 30 minutes and accept that after this your toddler is unlikely to eat much more. It is better to wait for the next snack or meal and offer some nutritious foods then, rather than extending a meal trying to persuade your toddler to eat more. Most toddlers eat whatever they are going to in the first 20 minutes.
Praise your toddler when she eats well because toddlers respond positively to praise. If you only give her attention when she is not eating, she may refuse food just to get some attention from you. Toddlers like attention, even if it is negative. If she doesn’t eat well, take the uneaten food away without commenting and accept that she has had enough.
Give small portions. Toddlers can be overwhelmed by large portions and lose their appetite. If the small portion is finished, praise your toddler and offer her some more.
Offer finger foods as often as possible and allow your toddler to make a mess at mealtimes. Toddlers enjoy having the control of feeding themselves with finger foods.
Eat in a calm relaxed environment away from distractions such as the TV, games and toys. Toddlers can concentrate on one thing at a time so distractions make it more difficult for them to concentrate on eating.
Be aware that if you are eating out, your toddler may not be prepared to try any of the food on offer, as it may all be unfamiliar to her. Take something that she will eat with you to tide her over until her next meal or snack.
Involve older toddlers in food shopping and preparing for the meal such as putting things on the table. This will encourage a positive attitude to food and mealtimes.
Involve your toddler in simple cooking and food preparation (if you have the time and patience). By handling and touching new foods without pressure to eat them, your toddler will become familiar with new foods and may be more likely to try them.
Change the venue of your toddler’s meals. For example, have a picnic outside. This will make eating a fun experience for your toddler and will allow them to see others enjoying food.
What shouldn’t I do?
Don’t rush a meal. Some toddlers eat slowly and rushing your toddler will just frustrate you both.
Don’t pressure a toddler to eat more when she has indicated to you that she has had enough. When offered a healthy varied diet of whole foods toddlers will eat what they need over the course of a day or week.
Don’t take away a refused meal and offer a completely different one in its place. A toddler will soon take advantage if you do. In the long run it is always better to offer family meals and accept that your child will prefer some foods to others. Always try to offer one food at each meal that you know she will eat.
Don’t offer the sweet course as a reward for eating the first course. You will make the sweet course seem more desirable than the savoury one.
Don’t offer large drinks of milk or juice within an hour of the meal. Large drinks will reduce your toddler’s appetite. If she is thirsty, give her a drink of water instead. Try to phase out bottles so that all your toddler’s drinks, including milk, are given in cups or sippy cups.
Don’t offer snacks just before or just after a meal. Don’t give a snack soon after a meal if your toddler hasn’t eaten well at her main meal. It is tempting to do this just to ensure that your toddler has eaten something. However, it is best to have a set meal pattern and wait until the next snack or meal before offering food again.
Don’t assume that because your toddler has refused a food she will never eat it again. Tastes change with time. Some toddlers need to be offered a new food more than 10 times before they feel confident to try it.
Finally, don’t feel guilty if one meal turns into a disaster. Put it behind you and approach the next meal positively. Parents also learn by making mistakes.
What should I do if I am still worried?
If you are still doubtful, make a list of all the food and drinks your toddler consumes over a week and then review it. If your toddler’s diet includes foods from all the food groups (read our article on how to feed your toddler for more information) and some variety within each group then you can reassure yourself that the problem is not as bad as you thought.
If you continue to worry about how much your toddler eats or if you think she might be underweight, talk to your toddler’s doctor who may be able to reassure you that there is no problem. Occasionally there are medical reasons why your toddler may not eat and a doctor can assess this.