Don’t despair. It’s normal for toddlers to be fussy eaters, and the behaviour is far more about independence than food. Just be comforted by the fact that things will change…eventually! Meanwhile there are lots of tactics you can use to help get through this exasperating phase.
Lead the way with healthy eating
Set an example of the way you want your child to behave at mealtimes such as sitting at the table to eat, paying attention to your meal (with no electronic devices in sight) and eating and enjoying a variety of good, healthy food. Even if you don’t think your toddler is paying any attention to your good example right now, they are noticing, and your efforts will pay off in the long run.
Cater for little tummies
It’s good to be practical about what suits toddlers meal-wise. Rather than three big meals a day, smaller meals with some snacks in between are better for toddler tummies. If serving sizes are small, you’ll have less waste, and you can always offer seconds. Finger foods are good for toddlers as they love the independence of feeding themselves. This might include lots of playing with food and a fair bit of mess, but that’s all part of normal development too.
Routines are your friend
Toddlers do well with regular routines as they like to know what to expect. You’ll find meals are less hassle if you stick to regular times and familiar places as much as possible. If you find your child is tired and cranky by dinner, you can always make lunch the main meal. Remember that liquids are filling, so don’t let them have lots of drinks just before a meal.
Bribes are out
It’s tempting to resort to rewards or bribery to coerce your toddler eat their vegetables, or whatever it is that you are disagreeing about, but this tactic tends to backfire in the long term. While it may work to get them to swallow that piece of broccoli now, it’s not going to turn them into a broccoli lover. It usually means children will grow up with a long-lasting dislike of whatever item of food you’ve bribed them about.
Let your little one help
Toddlers can be more enthusiastic about mealtimes if they’ve been involved in the process. You can get your little one to help you do the shopping, unpack the groceries, set the table or prepare the meal. Perhaps you can let them make some (guided) choices in what the meal will consist of.
The art of compromise
While you don't want to cater to every toddler whim, it’s fine to offer a little bit of choice – we all have food preferences, after all (mind you, we don’t all change our food preferences every day or even hour, but that’s toddlers for you!). Offer family meals with a range of healthy foods and try to include at least one food in each meal you know they like. If you take away a refused meal and offer something completely different, your toddler will soon learn that they’re onto a good thing and will take advantage of it.
Australian research has found that an individual food may need to be offered to a child up to 10 times before they will choose to eat it. That’s a lot of initial rejection, and many parents give up after two or three attempts. It’s worth persevering, as yesterday’s rejected food item can become today’s favourite when you least expect it!