Parenting a fussy toddler can be challenging, especially at mealtimes. Whatever food your dearly loved child gobbled down one day without complaint is often flat-out rejected the next! Rest assured, this is a very normal phase for toddlers as they assert their growing sense of independence and learn about the joys and curiosities of food. In the meantime, we have put together our five top tips to support your picky eater and to encourage positive, healthy eating habits for the long run.
1. Understanding the ‘Division of Responsibility’ at Mealtime
It can reduce a lot of tension at the dinner table to start by understanding your responsibilities at mealtimes versus your child’s responsibilities.
- Parents and caregivers are in charge of deciding what food is available, at what time of the day and where the food is eaten.
- Children are in charge of deciding what to try from what is on offer and how much they eat.
Importantly, this system allows your toddler to feel in tune with their body and learn the important feeling of being ‘full’. Children are also given opportunity to try new or unfamiliar foods in a pressure-free environment and have an element of control over this process. Bribe and reward tactics with food rarely pay off in the long run. If your toddler chooses to eat all their rice, two of their peas and none of their carrots – this is ok. Move on and trust that over time these food preferences will evolve as they continue to experience positive mealtime environments.
2. Set Up a Mealtime Routine
Toddlers are developing rapidly and a consistent, structured routine helps young children to manage the ‘newness’ that each day can bring. In terms of eating, this means having a clear and familiar mealtime routine that sets positive boundaries around when food is served and where or how it is eaten. Consider what rules and expectations are going to best support your child and suit your family – for example, sitting down together when eating, placing unwanted food in a certain place (rather than on the floor!), set snack times to avoid grazing all day. Of course, there are going to be days when life happens and routines need to be thrown out the window. But as much as you can, try to offer the same number of meals and snacks every day, at roughly the same time, in a similar place.
3. Exposure, Exposure, Exposure
Children often require dozens of exposures to a certain food before they will choose to try it themselves. An aversion to new and unfamiliar foods is quite typical for a young child’s developmental stage. For this reason, stay in it for the long haul and keep offering your child the chance to try a wide variety of tastes, textures and ingredients – even after they have been rejected multiple times. It may be a matter of years before your child finally chows down on that piece of broccoli, but they never will if broccoli stops being served altogether.
4. Prepare and Serve Foods in a New Way
As well as frequent exposure to foods, it is also helpful for children to have the chance to try the same food in a new way. You and I know that a single ingredient can be prepared and eaten in lots of different ways; for example raw, steamed, roasted, mashed, grated, sliced, peeled, cubed or fried. For our toddlers, it can be quite a breakthrough when they realise that a hard, crunchy carrot can become deliciously soft and sweet when steamed. Or that a cucumber could also be cut into a round shape instead of a stick shape. You will be surprised at how changing the shape, size or cooking method of a certain ingredient sparks your toddler’s interest
5. Practise What You Preach
Toddler see, toddler do. Dietary inclinations and habits are largely learned behaviours and you are your toddler’s most influential teacher right now. If your child is observing you eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, wholegrain foods and healthy snacks on a regular basis, then naturally they are going to gravitate towards a similar diet. The reverse is also true! So, if there are particular foods you would like your child to try, include these foods in your own meals on a consistent basis and before you know it, your toddler will probably be reaching for them right off your plate out of curiosity.
Supporting a fussy toddler isn’t easy but you are doing a wonderful job – much better than you give yourself credit for. Hang in there – it does get easier!