Feeding Your fussy toddler: Top 10 Tips for Success

The solution for fussy eating toddlers – definitely not “one size fits all”.  That means what works for one may not work for the other.  Sometimes, it seems that nothing works!

Step 1 is to make sure our (the food giver’s) behaviour is the best it can be.  When there are eating issues, care givers try different strategies to encourage their children to eat.  However, these strategies can be damaging, leading to children with life-long unhealthy eating habits.  Following are ten tried-and-tested tips to help.

1: Eliminate the threats –   Research in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported on a study about bulimia nervosa (an eating disorder).  The researchers wanted to find out what factors increased the risk that children would develop this eating disorder later in life.  The data pointed to several factors:

  • pica – Pica is a noun describing a condition where people eat things not usually eaten such as chalk. In children, pica can be due to nutritional deficiencies.  That is, the children lack some element, such as iron, in their diet.
  • eating-related family struggles – These are often caused by a power issue, food giver vs. food eater. Who will win?
  • problems in self-control of eating behaviour – The eater does not develop internal control over his or her eating. Questions such as what, when, and how much are always decided by others.

Threats appear to contribute to all of the above.  Threats definitely set up a power struggle.  They also send the message, “You’re not able to control yourself, so I’m going to control you”.  This can lead to eating control issues.  Lastly, the tense situation often means that a picky eating child is not eating the variety of food they should, leading to pica.

2: Be gone food bribes! – Newcomers to food are too young to be bribed.  Their brains, which cannot yet weigh up pros and cons, do not understand the concept.  So, attempting to bribe a fussy eating toddler with sweets in order to get her to finish her vegetables will backfire.  She will just get the message that the “bad” veges are preventing her from getting the “good” sweets.

One of my pet peeves is hearing mothers bribing their fussy kids with ice-cream for good behaviour.  Using food as rewards is problematic in many ways.  Food is for nutrition and enjoyment.  In the same way that we would not reward good behaviour with 10 extra breaths, so too, we shouldn’t use food as a bribe.  Verbal encouragement (Well done!), appropriate physical affection, and extra together time (a walk to the park, playing board game, sensory play, or energetic dancing) are much more effective in the long run.  Exercise is a particularly good as all toddlers need daily exercise for a healthy appetite.  So, it’s win/win!

3: Avoid coaxing – Oh, we know all too well about this one in our household.  Before we changed our meal time behaviours, dinner times were a myriad of theatrics.  To be honest, I’m still struggling with this one.  I still find myself saying things like, “Mmmmmmmmm Mmm, look how yummy those carrots look, better eat them before mummy does.”  Toddlers need to learn independently that eating is a fun thing to do.  They should not have to depend on the theatrics.  In fact, the less you are in their face, the more likely they will explore the tastes and textures of food by themselves.  My suggestion: Serve up the good food and walk away momma!

4: Vegetables for picky eaters – An extremely common strategy is hiding or sweetening up foods.  “I’ll just grill some cabbage under his cheese.  He’ll never notice.” Or, “I’ll just grate some zucchini into this muffin recipe.  She won’t taste it.”  There are varying degrees of this culprit.

Normal: Making a stew packed with vegetables.

Not Normal: Packing undesirable foods into foods they love.

Soups and stews are always mixtures of ingredients.  Therefore, having a veggie-filled soup or stew is not only acceptable but even desired.  Many children will happily eat vegetables in stews and soups which they will not eat when the vegetables are on their own.

Muffins do not usually list zucchini in their ingredients list.  Children, as all people, learn what to expect from different foods.  For example, ice cream will be sweet and not contain bits of beetroot or eggplant (aubergine).  Attempting to hide ingredients is both dishonest and can have the reverse effect.  If children “suss” the hidden ingredient(s), they may start turning against the foods they once loved, fearing that they’re hiding places for “bad food”.

At least once a week, I see child food experts giving tips on how to squeeze vegetables into muffins.  I recoil every time.  I wonder how popular the average muffin will be in the school canteen in years to come.

To add to this mistake, food makers usually supply a sweet vehicle for the bland vegetable, i.e. honeyed carrots, apple puree mixed with pumpkin, or the biggest mistake of all, tomato sauce!  Training toddlers to prefer sweetened foods has dangerous long-term implications.  Global data already shows that this leads to children of a young age having unhealthy weight levels, Type II (adult) diabetes, and dental problems.

5: Respect food preferences of a picky eater:  Author Julie Mennella PhD, a developmental psycho-biologist has been quoted as making the following comments,”The sense of taste is an important determinant of what children eat.  We know that young children eat what they like.  We also know that many picky eaters do not like bitter tastes, thereby interfering with vegetable consumption and potentially limiting intake of important nutrients.”

On average, a toddler has twice as many taste buds as an adult (we lose them as we get older).  For this reason, children tend to find the blandest of foods quite tasty. At mealtimes, be aware of foods that your child dives for first and try to introduce ‘like’ foods to expand his or her array of tastes and colours.  That is, “play around”.  For instance, if your child likes baked beans, perhaps he may be open to trying cooked black beans in a tomato sauce, therefore disassociating beans to a certain size and colour.

6: Adapt the mealtimes:  Little tummies have a very immature digestion system.  Children’s stomachs are roughly the same size as their clenched fists.  Think about how much food can actually fit in there comfortably.

If your little picky eater isn’t eating much, why not plan six small servings of food timed throughout the day?  Begin by setting the three main meals – morning (breakfast), noonish (lunch/dinner) and evening (dinner/supper).  These three meals will be “formal” – in the high chair, at the table, with the family.  Between these mealtimes, plan “snacks” – some cut up fresh fruit or veg, a pot of yoghurt, one or two nutritious biscuits.  Note: When thinking about timings, make sure to leave at least 1.5 hours free of snacks and sugary drinks prior to a main meal. 

Where will your child eat these snacks?

Some food givers will prefer to put their child into the high chair even for a snack.  However, it is possible to more flexible.  One great idea came from my good friend, Heather.  Heather knows how particular I am about mess.  Before we decided to have kids, she told us, “Buy a 2nd hand sofa that can be wiped down, pleather (fake leather) or leather!”  Another idea is to have a “snack mat”.  About the size of a bathroom mat, this is the place where the child eats his or her snack.  The mat can easily be popped into the washing machine for easy cleaning.

7: Meals for fussy children:  Of course, you want to take your child’s food preferences into account when meal planning.  However, it is best if your child learns to fit in with what the rest of the family is eating.  When taking your child into account, plan what you wish to serve your child and be consistent with how you serve it.  There’s nothing quite like an appetite for encouraging us to try other foods.  You may wish to cook one of your child’s favourite foods.  If you do, bring it out towards the end of the meal when he or she is least hungry.  In a later article on meal planning, I’ll show you how I manage to get more food in by leaving your young one’s favourites last.

8: Never give up on a picky eater:  Food discovery is more than just about the taste.  Food has so many textures and smells.  Consider it a great achievement if your picky eater pops the food in his mouth, tastes it and spits it out.  At least he liked the smell and look of it.  It may just take a few more tries to get him to eat it. Some experts believe that toddlers need to try a certain food up to 20 times before it can be ruled out as a “no go”.  Try offering the food again on its own when your child is most hungry and not tired.  He’s most likely to give it another shot

9: Encourage young chefs:  Toddlers see you cooking and are eager to be involved in the process too.  Yes, it’s difficult to get a meal out when you have a toddler at your ankles trying to get up and see what you’re doing.  Rather than turning on the TV, pop them into their high chairs or up at the breakfast bar and get them involved in your preparation.  Depending on their ages and coordination levels, children can help by snapping a few beans (perhaps even eating one or two raw in the process), stirring the pasta sauce (with an adult hand on the pot and spoon) or sprinkling on the grated cheese.  Cooking together reduces the chances of power struggles because children are more likely to eat food they have helped to prepare.

10: Reduce milk intake:  Milk is often seen as a fail-proof way of feeding children if they are refusing solids.  Yet, the solution could also be your problem.  If your little one is 18 months old and eating at least one portion of calcium rich food each day, then perhaps it’s time to start weaning him off the milk to make room for real food.  You can incorporate milk in other ways by making a banana smoothie in the morning if he’s refusing cereals.

It is natural that parents and other caregivers cherish their children.  Through food, adults nourish their children physically to help them develop and flourish.  Following as many of the above tips as possible will help turn problem eating into successful eating.  Remember that new methods take time to become habits.

Do you need help getting your child to sustain a healthy diet? are mealtimes a battle or have you given up the fight? Our online therapy courses will be launched to the public on the 1st of August. There’s a course for all ages and types of Little Fusspots. Click here to watch a sneak peak of the course, also fill in your details in the enrolment section to receive updates and early-bird discount codes.