Managing Fussy Eating
Our page on weaning babies explains the first steps in feeding your child solid food. It stops at the age of about 12 months, when most babies are eating the same food as the rest of the family, albeit in smaller portions.
There is a world of difference, however, between the year-old baby in the high chair and the four-year old eating at the table with the rest of the family.
This page addresses some of the challenges and issues in moving from one to the other, including some ideas for developing healthy eating habits and managing picky eaters.
A Word About Toddlers
The ‘toddler’ stage is generally considered to be between the ages of about 12 months and 2½ years.
During this stage, children come to an understanding about who they are, and how they fit into the family.
As many parents will attest, reaching this understanding often involves tantrums and difficult behaviour as children assert their independence.
You may find our page Dealing with Tantrums useful.
Feeding is no exception to this rule. This is why many children, previously entirely open to new tastes and textures in their food, suddenly refuse to eat anything except one chosen food.
Young children do not have control over much of their lives; food is one area over which they can exert some control and many choose to do so.
If you can bear this in mind, it may make managing ‘picky eating’ and other feeding issues much easier.
What to Feed Toddlers
Like both babies and adults, it is important for toddlers and young children to eat a balanced diet.
This means it needs to contain:
- Fruit and vegetables;
- Starchy foods such as bread, rice, and potatoes;
- Non-dairy sources of protein such as meat, fish, eggs, and pulses; and
- Dairy products such as milk and yoghurt.
They will probably be eating three meals a day, like the rest of the family. Be aware that small children have very low energy reserves, and spend a lot of time moving about. They are also growing extremely fast. You may find that you need to provide snacks between meals. If so, these should be healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables, or simple, non-sweetened items like breadsticks.
It is important to avoid over-sweetened foods or foods with too much added salt. Preparing your own meals, as for adults, can help with this.
For more about a balanced diet, see our pages on Diet and Nutrition.
Tips for encouraging good eating habits
There are a number of things that you can do to encourage good eating habits in young children.
- Try to eat meals with your children on a regular basis. If possible, eat family meals together, at least at weekends.
- Don’t bring your phone or tablet to the table. Instead, show your children that they have your attention, and that meals are times for social interaction.
- Don’t rush mealtimes. Children need time to eat, especially when they are small, and still struggling to use utensils.
- Do not force anyone to eat more than they want. If you have given your child too much food, and they do not want to eat any more, that should be fine.
You may, however, decide that if they do not finish their main course, then no pudding is provided to avoid problems with refusing main course and stocking up on pudding.
- Provide small portions, and offer second helpings, rather than load up plates. Many children find a plateful of food very daunting.
- Praise behaviour that you want to see, such as good use of knife and fork, or trying not to use fingers. Ignore the behaviour that you don’t want.
- Provide a wide variety of tastes and textures, encouraging children to try new foods without penalty if they do not like it. Children may need to try new foods several times to acquire a taste for them.
It is not at all unusual for a baby who has previously eaten anything to suddenly start to refuse certain foods, or to be very changeable about what they will eat and when.
It is, however, important for parents to remain calm about this.
Children value attention, especially parental attention.
They will do whatever they need to do to gain it. If this is throwing food, or refusing to eat, then that’s what they will do.
Unless you want mealtimes to turn into a battleground, your best course of action is to appear not to notice the picky eating, and certainly not to react to it.
In practice, this means that you should:
- Continue to provide your toddler with the same food that is being eaten by the rest of the family;
- Do not prepare special meals for them;
- Do not offer an alternative if they do not eat the food provided, particularly if it is something that they have previously eaten and liked;
- Be calm about their behaviour. Simply say something like “Don’t you want it? I think you’ll be hungry later” and remove the food.
Be aware that sometimes the child may be struggling with utensils, or just getting bored because it takes so long to get the food into their mouth.
It may be enough to help them to load their spoon or fork, not least because they then know that they have your attention.
In looking at your toddler’s diet, and whether it is balanced, it is important to look over a long period.
On any particular day, your child may refuse to eat certain foods, and you may start worrying. Try instead to look at what they eat over a week. Some days they will be hungrier and will eat more. It should balance out.
The important issue is whether they are active, healthy and gaining weight. If so, there is probably very little to worry about.