Coping With Toddlers Who Are Fussy Eaters


One of the most common parental concerns is a fussy or picky eater.  Sometimes, the food is spat out immediately.  Other times, your child refuses to swallow despite an eternity of chewing, keeping it in the mouth long enough for you begin wondering if your child has discovered the art of making wine.

If it happens once in a while or only with certain food items, you know you can afford to look the other way.  But if every meal is refused, and meal time soon turns into an occasion where you end up pitting your will against your child’s, then you know you have an issue on your hands, and it certainly is not a pleasant one.

Possible Reasons For Refusing Food

Most children, believe it or not, go through a phase of not eating well.  In fact, almost every other child fits this description, so it is no surprise that experts recognise it as a normal part of a child’s development. The world has become an exciting place for the growing child, and food becomes a secondary concern when there are so many other interesting things to do.

In some cases, it is a statement of independence.  Showing independence is part of normal toddler development.  From around 18 months onwards, toddlers want their own way whenever possible, and meal times are often seen as an opportunity to assert some control over their lives.  In this instance, when food is refused, the child may not be objecting to the actual food but is testing the effect of refusal on people around them.

Other reasons a toddler may refuse food include:

Slower growth
As growth starts to slow in the second year, toddlers need less food to sustain their energy levels.  Toddlers generally have small appetites, and the amount eaten from day-to-day can vary.  Changing activity levels during the day can result in a large appetite for a while, followed by small and picky eating soon after.  Although this can be worrying, it is all part of the normal growth phase.

To suit small tummy sizes, toddlers may go for small and regular snacks.  This provides them with the energy to keep moving all day.  As a result, the amount eaten at mealtimes, in particular the evening meal, may be smaller than desired.  In this case, it is important to have healthy snacks available to help provide the energy and nutrition your child needs during the day.

Attention seeking
This often occurs at a time of change; for example, when a sibling arrives.  You should ask for professional help if mealtimes are causing lots of stress and anxiety.

Sometimes, picky eating follows an illness and can last a few weeks or months.   Teething, a sore throat, blocked nose or an upset tummy can affect your toddler’s appetite.  Be alert and look out for symptoms of an infection as a possible cause for your child’s refusal to eat.
All in, there is no doubt that this can be a very worrying and upsetting time for parents of fussy eaters.

So What Can You Do?

Firstly, if food refusal is causing you great concern, seek professional advice from a nutritionist or a General Practitioner.  They will be able to check your child’s growth rate and reassure you that, despite the poor diet, your child is still healthy.  The health professional will also be able to offer helpful advice on alternative meal plans for your child, or steps you can take to encourage your child to eat.

No two children are the same, so there is no clear way to resolve this particular situation.  However, there are some things you can do which may help avoid tension and tears during mealtimes:

Introduce your child to ‘lumpy’ foods early

According to researchers at Bristol University in England, delaying your baby’s introduction to ‘lumpy’ foods may contribute to fussy eating habits.  ‘Lumpy foods’ refer to semi-solids like small bits of cooked soft vegetables or food that is semi-pureed, not hard food that could be a choking hazard.

The study looked at the eating behaviour of around 10,000 children.  Of the group of babies who were not given lumpy foods until they were 10 months or older, one in five were fussy eaters by the time they were 15 months old.  So expose your baby to a wide variety of lumpy or chewy foods between the ages of six and nine months to broaden your child’s appreciation for food, and reduce the likelihood of fussy eating later on.

Offer small, well placed meals

Children need to eat frequently to sustain their high energy levels and keep their bodies growing.  As a general rule, they should have 3 meals daily, and 2 well-spaced snacks.  Snacks can be as important as regular meals in obtaining needed nutrients, but don’t allow your child to snack all day.

Ideally, children should eat the same food as the family, with a variety of textures and flavours for balanced nutrition.  If your child doesn’t eat much at one meal, he or she will probably eat more during the next.

Quality over quantity

What’s most important to your child’s health and growth is not the quantity, but the quality, of the food provided.  So be sure to put nutritious food in front of your child, without over-emphasizing portion sizes or is the amount eaten.

Toddlers need a variety of foods daily for good health.  If you are concerned about raising obese children, you can offer your child low-fat dairy products after your child has turned two.  Strict diets are not recommended before this age, as they may limit the energy and nutrients needed for growth and development.

Watch the liquid

Consuming too much liquid can reduce your child’s appetite.  Keep liquid consumption to 3 to 4 cups daily.  This will ensure your child is hungry enough to eat solid food.

Also, limit liquid intake in the hour or two before meals.  Give them a drink of water so as not to detract them from their appetite, leaving milk drinks to the end of a meal.  Try to avoid giving fizzy drinks because the carbonated gases tend to induce a ‘full’ feeling.

Give your child a choice

As your child gets older, offer your child lots of opportunities to make his/her own food choices from a variety of balanced foods.  Ensure the portions are small, so as to not overwhelm your child with too much food.

Push your creative skills where meal preparation is concerned.  Try presenting rejected foods separately from other dishes.  For example, if your child doesn’t like broccoli, place them in a separate bowl on the table, and allow your child the choice of whether or not to have them.  Also, cutting vegetables in fun shapes may turn previously rejected vegetables into food that’s fun to eat.

Watch out for iron deficiency

Iron deficiency can occur if your child refuses to eat red meat, one of the best sources of dietary iron.  It can be difficult to find alternative iron rich foods but some snacks to offer in this case would be:

  • beans on toast
  • iron fortified breakfast cereal and milk
  • brown bread and soup

Pure orange juice (diluted with water) is the best drink to have with these snacks as it helps with the absorption of iron.  A vitamin supplement with iron is also helpful during this period.

Child care centres and food

Child care centres provide your toddlers with an opportunity to eat with others and experience new food and tastes they may not have at home.  You can learn about your toddler’s eating habits from the staff as well as share with them your food concerns or problems at home.  Working together with the childcare staff can positively reinforce healthy nutritional messages and eating in your toddler.

Keep your cool

Handle frustrating situations with patience, a positive attitude, and firmness – without being aggressive or emotional.  Also, avoid struggles, force-feeding, pleading, bribing your child, or making him/her feel guilty.  Make mealtimes relaxed and positive, free of family conflict, tension and distraction (such as TV, toys or games).  If food is rejected, simply remove uneaten food.  You may offer it again later, but make sure you don’t let your child snack in between.

Children are generally good at getting what they need, even if it doesn’t seem like much to you.  According to one study, even though 49 percent of mothers considered their children ‘picky eaters’, all of the children in the study actually consumed a wide enough variety of food to meet their nutritional needs.
So, as long as your toddler is growing and gaining weight, the food fussiness phase won’t be life-threatening, and will hopefully pass soon enough.


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