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As our children develop from babies to toddlers, we’re usually prepared for the changes that come with it. The terrible two’s, tantrums, dropping naps… we expect and are ready for all of these. But one change that often takes parents by surprise is the sudden shift from a baby who eats everything to a very fussy toddler.
Having spent a year or more weaning your baby and watching them happily eat a wide variety of food and flavours, it can be frustrating and even worrying to suddenly be faced with a toddler who refuses most of the meals that you make for them.
If you are currently in this phase and dealing with a picky eating toddler, then here’s my top 10 tips on why it is happening and what you can do to help.
1. It’s totally normal!
My first piece of advice is to let you know that this sudden change in eating habits is very normal. It doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong so please don’t blame yourself.
Toddlers are going through enormous developmental leaps from the age of 18 months. They realise they can have control of situations, such as the clothes that they wear, the toys they play with and, of course, the food that they eat.
They naturally want to exert some independence, and refusing foods that they would have previously eaten with no issue is very much a part of that.
2. Give options
One way to try to counteract this natural instinct of control is to give them options and choices. Allow them to choose between two different snacks, the shape of the pasta you are going to cook, the plate that they eat from. This will satisfy their budding sense of independence before the food even reaches the table.
When dealing with a particularly frustrating mealtime, try to keep calm and don’t react to your toddler’s behaviour around the food. If they are outright refusing to eat or are throwing food, then remove it and serve it up a little later when they are in a calmer state of mind. The aim is to keep any stress or anxiety around mealtimes as low as possible.
As toddlers grow and develop it’s very natural that their tastebuds will change also. If they are refusing foods they enjoyed a few weeks ago, allow them to refuse that food but don’t remove it from their diet completely. Persevere and continue to offer that food at least twice a week. Their tastebuds will continue to develop and you may find that they suddenly enjoy that particular taste again.
5. Little and often
Toddlers’ tummies are still very small. It can be tempting to give them large plates of food in an attempt to fill them up and ensure they are getting enough calories and nutrition. But smaller portions of meals are a lot less overwhelming to young children and they can always have seconds if they are enjoying it.
Also, don’t underestimate the importance of snacking for toddlers too. Three substantial snacks a day can go a long way to boosting their food intake. Try to offer one portion of carbs, one portion of protein and some fruit and veg with their snacks. It will keep their energy levels steady and help to ensure that they are getting enough of what they need without having to solely rely on main meals.
Timing plays a big role in fussy eating. Evening meals are not the best time to serve up unfamiliar foods to toddlers. They are mentally and physically tired by the end of the day and are much less likely to try new foods. Front load their food to breakfast and lunch instead. It takes the pressure off us as parents as we know they have already eaten a good balance of foods and nutrients before it even gets to dinnertime.
This is something I still use to this day with my children, even though they are no longer toddlers - 80% of their plate is foods that I know they like and will eat and the other 20% is new foods or foods that I know they don’t enjoy as much.
Having most of their plate filled with familiar foods reduces the initial anxiety that often comes with mealtimes. It’s a lot less overwhelming and your toddler is much less likely to refuse the whole meal if they recognise some of their favourite foods on the plate.
Making meals visually appealing to toddlers can have a big impact on the way they react to their food. Try separating elements of the meal into sectioned plates.
If they suddenly decide they don’t like sauce on their food, then try serving it separately in a small pot. One of my children went through a phase of just wanting plain pasta but I served up a very small portion of the sauce on the side and encouraged them to dip the pasta in.
9. Hidden veggies
Some of my most popular recipes are hidden veg recipes. It’s a great way to sneak them into meals and get your toddlers to eat a wider variety of nutrients. However, it’s still important to serve up vegetables in their whole form. We don’t want to completely remove veggies from their sight!
This dual approach will take the stress away from mealtimes whilst also continuing to expose your child to the foods you want them to eat.
10. Have fun with food
If you are finding mealtimes particularly stressful then try to create some fun activities around food instead. Put a blanket on the floor and have an indoor picnic or invite some friends around for a toddler tea party. You may be surprised at the foods they choose to eat when you change their environment up a bit.
Mum of two Ciara Attwell is the founder of My Fussy Eater, one of the UK’s leading family food websites, where she shares easy recipes to feed your family along with her tips and tricks for dealing with picky eaters. With a combined social media following of over 500,000, Ciara has helped thousands of parents and carers around the world to feed their families with simple and delicious kid-friendly recipes. Her bestselling debut cookbook My Fussy Eater was published by Bonnier in 2018, followed by her second cookbook We’re Hungry in 2021.