Fussy eating toddlers is one of the most common things brought up by parents in our clinics. From difficulties getting your toddler to the table, to challenges with getting them to actually eat – meal times can quickly switch from our ideal image of nourishing our offspring, to a stressful nightmare. In this article we’ll cover the difference between a fussy-eater/ picky eating and a problem feeder PLUS our top tips for fussy eaters and our key toddler nutritional tips.
Do I have a Fussy eater or problem feeder?
It’s important to determine whether your child’s fussiness is typical toddler age appropriate independence seeking behaviour, or if there is a real problem.
The Toddler Toolkit has a comprehensive material to identify problem feeders but some common traits include:
- Usually eats less than 20 foods
- Your child refuses eat entire food groups or categories of food e.g. textures, colours or nutrition groups
- Almost always eats different foods to their family
- Cries, screams, tantrums, “falls apart” when new foods are presented; complete refusal
As you work through the material if you believe your child’s fussy eating habits have moved into the problem feeder category you’ll need to engage a Registered Feeding Therapist to work on an individualised approach for your child. If you simply have a fussy eater that’s developmentally normal – the faster you start implementing changes and healthy food habits the less likely it will develop into a problem feeding scenario.
Our Top 5 Tips for Fussy Eaters
TIP 1: Make food fun not fussy
- Don’t approach mealtime with a sense of anxiety, I always say babies & kids drink more than milk – they pick up on everything, if you are anxious when presenting them with food – that anxiety sours everything they taste. They literally ‘feed’ off your mood – so pardon the pun, get silly and be prepared to make some mess!
- Make food attractive/bright & add variety, bento-style kids plates are great for laying out small portions with lots of options with a mixture of finger foods and textures for them to explore with hands and cutlery
- When trying a new food, offer it together with something they are already very comfortable with or favourite foods so it’s not new and daunting by itself
- You can occasionally make faces or characters out of food to make them laugh and be silly
- Allow mess – this is how kids explore food from a sensory perspective which is vital to being able to tolerate eating it
TIP 2: Give toddlers a sense of autonomy
- Like protesting bedtime from about the age of two, fussy eating has a lot to do with their development & their growing desire for autonomy and control
- Just like we discussed in ‘Toddler Autonomy’ – you can support this independence, giving them the freedom to choose – but always within your own boundaries
- allow them to have choices over their food, like presenting two options of your choosing, for them to decide. They may also like to choose where they sit at the table and which cutlery they want to use
- Rather than asking, ‘What would you like for dinner?’ Try to reframe the sentence, with options, like asking, ‘Would you like your fish with rice or with mashed potato?’
TIP 3: Eat ‘family meals’ whenever possible
- This will help model appropriate mealtime behaviours and model how to use utensils and glasses
- Start the meal with a note of gratitude, kids love rhythm & routine…even if it’s just, ‘Bon Appetit!’
- Take the focus off the food and onto conversation & engagement with each other
TIP 4: Eat the same food as your kids
- This doesn’t have to be every night, but it normalises healthy food behaviour
- It also ensures variety and prevents falling into the trap of restricted food repertoires
- It exposes kids to all the flavours in your particular culture
- Remember to take your kids’ portions out before adding salt/chilli etc
TIP 5: Offer ‘share plates’ so your child can help themselves
- This reinforces their sense of control over choosing what to eat
- The aim is to make everything on the share plate healthy so whatever they select is a great choice
- You can purchase little “tongs” at the supermarket, get a few of these and allow your child to serve themselves, they’ll have great fun maneuvering the tongs and build fine motor skills at the same time
Sign up here for the Toddler Toolkit’s full guide to Fussy Eating.
Top Toddler Nutrition Tips for Healthy Eating
Toddlers need a wide variety of healthy foods. As parents and carers, it’s our job to provide them with nourishing food to help them grow but also to teach them how to have a healthy relationship with food to take into adolescence and adulthood.
TIP 1: Think of a toddlers nutrition over a week not a day
- Toddlers don’t always follow the food rules EVERY day – and neither do we
- When it comes to toddler nutritional intake, think about what your child eats over a week, rather than a given day.
- It’s normal for toddlers’ appetites to change throughout the day and from day to day.
- When we are living with and feeding a toddler, it can sometimes feel like their diet is very limited or repetitive.
- Think about writing down what they have eaten for a whole week. It will often help you see that they are having a greater variety of foods than you first thought.
TIP 2: Be careful with the language you use about food
- Help foster a healthy relationship with food by avoiding using language like “good”, “bad”, “healthy”, “unhealthy” etc.
- Talk about the colours of foods, the different ‘types’ of foods rather than putting a value on it.
- Encourage your toddler to have lots of ‘different things’ throughout their day.
- Language like “everyday food” and “sometimes food” may be helpful
TIP 3: Model healthy eating and talk to your toddlers about how you’re fueling your body
- You’ll see in the fussy eating section the importance of eating the same food and enjoying food together
- Family meals build confidence and connection, try to eat at least 1 meal per day as a family
TIP 4: If you are worried, sneak some vegetables in
- When in doubt add grated or pureed vegetables into anything and everything.
- This will help you feel calmer than they are having their vegetables while giving them time to explore them in their own time.
- Add frozen vegetables such as cauliflower florets, spinach, kale, sliced zucchini to smoothies.
TIP 5: Water is the best drink for every toddler
- ….and preschooler, and school age, teen and adult really!
- Hydration is key, toddlers need plenty of water
- The cheapest, healthiest and most thirst-quenching drink. Offer extra water on hot or humid days.
- If you’re concerned about your child’s water intake then encourage hydrating foods as an option such as cucumber, lettuce, watermelon, warm soups or broths.
See the Toddler Toolkit course for more tips and the suggested serves of the Different foods and healthy food groups and healthy snacks.
The aim is to make mealtimes fun and enjoyable – the way it was always intended to be!
Enjoy food as a family, allow autonomy, model healthy eating habits and as much as possible HAVE FUN & MAKE MESS!