From around the age of 2 (and sometimes even before then), your toddler starts to make up her own mind about what she will and won’t eat.
Her eating habits can become unpredictable – what she happily ate last week will be refused this week. Or the food she rejected outright a few days ago is what she now asks to have for her lunch. Such fussy eating habits can drive you to distraction.
You can’t force your child to eat, no matter how hard you try. You can be sure that if you use threats to try to coerce her into clearing her plate, she’ll think to herself, “The more they push me to eat all of this, the more I’m determined not to.”
That’s why, when it comes to your toddler’s fussy eating, persuasion and encouragement tend to work better than insisting she eats.
If you’re struggling to get your child to eat properly, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone – fussy eating isn’t just common, it’s normal! But here are some ways to cope without starting World War 3 at the dinner table.
A classic time for problems to arise is around the 12-month mark.
“As a child becomes more aware of the world, his natural instincts may make him suspicious of new foods,’ explains clinical child psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin, who works for the NHS and specialises in food and sibling behaviour. “It’s nature’s way of protecting us from eating food that’s potentially harmful.”
Experts agree that the earlier you introduce particular types of food – preferably within
the first year – the more likely they are to be accepted by your children, but there are no guarantees.
Sharing mealtimes is definitely a good idea, even if you just have a sandwich while feeding your child. ‘If children are fed on their own and all the attention is focused on them and their eating, they may see it as the perfect way to hold your attention and prolong meals by playing rather than eating,’ suggests Dr Rudkin.
However, such is life that you can follow the rules religiously and still end up with a fussy eater. While there are very few things more frustrating than watching other children
guzzle organic home-made casserole while your child baulks at anything but nuggets,
the odds are that you haven’t done anything wrong. Children – just like adults – simply have different tastes and appetites.
All you can do is encourage good eating habits by setting an example – if your child sees you eating and enjoying lots of different types of food, he should, eventually, copy you.
Toddlers vs tea time
If you’re one of the lucky few that sailed through weaning, another common time for problems to arise is during the ‘terrible 2s’. Having lulled you into a false sense of security, your tot will wake one morning with dietary requirements
that would make a Michelin-starred restaurant struggle.
But wielding power is what being a toddler is all about, and there aren’t many ways they can do this, apart from demanding ‘red’ jam sandwiches, rejecting everything green or insisting that something is their utterly favourite food one day and yet produce shudders of revulsion when faced with it the next.
Rules: made to be broken?
If the golden rules are never to force a child to eat something he doesn’t want and never to withhold pudding, does that mean we have to cater to every whim? What happens when your 3-year-old refuses his meal for no reason other than he can’t be bothered and then returns 15 minutes later complaining he’s hungry?
‘There’s a great deal of difference between asking a child firmly to eat his meal
and making him sit in front of a plateful of congealing food for hours,’ advises Dr Rudkin.
‘If children refuse to eat and you know that there’s no underlying reason, explain that
they’ll be hungry later and there won’t be anything else on offer until the next meal.’
Another golden rule is to stay calm and never make an issue out of a refusal to eat. But that’s easier said than done when your 2-year-old has thrown her meal on the floor because it wasn’t quite to her liking, or your 3-year-old won’t even come to the table.
And there’s nothing more frustrating than having your offerings rejected
by a toddler who has spent the morning stuffing everything inedible he can find in his mouth.
“I can do it myself!”
“Darcy was weaned on family meals. She sat at the table and happily ate just about everything. But when she was about 1 she became really fussy, refusing food she’d previously enjoyed. I started puréeing again to see if it’d help, but it made no difference. I’d spend most of the mealtime cajoling her to eat with little success, which just made family eating stressful for everyone.
“In the end I decided to let her feed herself, which was what she wanted. She’d pick off her plate the things she wanted, such as pasta, bits of cheese and tiny broccoli florets, and the rest that was left she just dropped. It was messy, but at least she was happy.
“Looking back, I can see it was a big mistake to get so wound up. I still always give her
a complete meal, but I never make a fuss if she doesn’t eat it. I may suggest that she tries something, but that’s as far as I go, and I think this approach definitely works better.”
Joanne, 39, mum to Holly, 7, Mason, 4, and Darcy 18 months
“We’d share snacks”
“From around 7 months I tried Ellie on lots of different types of food, but all she’d eat was porridge and puréed vegetables. When she reached 15 months and nothing had really changed, I was beginning to think she was never going to eat anything else. Eventually, I resolved the situation by encouraging her to share simple little snacks with me. I’d put two pieces of cheese or apple on a plate – and I’d eat one and offer her the other”
Jane, 40, mum to Ellie 1
Keeping your cool
If you’re finding it hard to stay cool, it can help to look at things from your little one’s perspective. Remember, children have a different agenda: from their point of view, eating’s a waste of their playing time, and if we make mealtimes boring by nagging, it’s even worse.
Nor will a child grasp the concept that eating at the table is acceptable, but that running around with a sandwich isn’t; or that ‘greens’ are good and too much sugar is bad.
Some studies say we have to try some types of food at least 10 times before we develop
a liking for them, so if your child’s reluctant to give anything new a go, it’s worth gently persisting. If he won’t eat peas, put a couple on his plate and encourage, rather than coerce him to try.
Tom, 3, refused to eat bananas until his much-worshipped older cousin, who absolutely loved bananas, came to stay. No prizes for guessing that, by the end of the visit, Tom was banana mad. This certainly suggests that the problem is sometimes in the head and not in the taste buds.
Apparently, 40% of mums resort to arranging food into shapes or patterns in an attempt
to get their children to eat. If it works and you have the time, go for it, but it can backfire.
“I made this really nice smiley face out of broccoli, potatoes and fish fingers,” recalls Helen, mum to Jake, 3. “I was quite proud of it until Jake burst into tears and said it would be spoilt if he ate it.”
The key must be to find a balance. Nourishing, healthy food doesn’t have to mean slaving away on some culinary masterpiece – don’t forget there’s as much sustenance in a slice of ham, a carrot stick and bowl of pasta as there is in a labour-intensive home-made casserole, and it’s much easier to live with a rejected carrot stick than a dish that’s taken hours to prepare.
Don’t battle, just chill
“Although nothing is more likely to cause parental anxiety than worrying about whether or not your little one is thriving, very few children develop a serious eating problem,” says Dr Gill Harris, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital. “If your little one has the energy to run around and he looks fine, then it indicates that he’s getting enough nourishment.”
If you’re genuinely worried, talk to your GP or health visitor. But don’t overlook the idea that we may have unrealistic expectations of how much our children need. Dr Harris notes that, as adults, we’re used to three regular meals a day. For younger children, however, five or six smaller meals may be more appropriate, and it’s better to offer second helpings rather than overfill their plates. Also, ensure milk or juice drinks aren’t acting as meal replacements – don’t forget milk is more like a food than a drink.
If you have a child that happily eats ready-made food, give yourself a break occasionally and think of it as the equivalent of a Friday-night takeaway. And if all that stands between your toddler and food is a dollop of ketchup, well, that’s not a problem, that’s a solution.
Reasons your toddler suddenly becomes fussy
- “It doesn’t look right.” Food has to be eye-catching and attractive from your toddler’s point of view. A meal that looks unappetising – perhaps because it’s piled too high or has wafts of steam rising from it – can instantly kill your child’s appetite.
- “I’m not going to be comfortable while eating.” She wants to be seated in a comfy chair that provides easy access to the food; child-sized cutlery
- also helps to make the eating experience more pleasant.
- “It doesn’t taste nice.” Your toddler tends to be very unadventurous when it comes to taste – she usually likes bland flavours, with minimal seasoning and flavouring and a smooth texture. Anything else can generate a negative reaction.
- “I don’t like eating on my own.” Your child is sociable by nature – she prefers company, even when eating. So don’t be surprised if she isn’t co-operative at mealtimes when she’s expected to sit and finish her meal all on her own.
Refusing food to get attention
Bear in mind that your toddler very quickly learns that refusing to eat is a great way to get noticed. In fact, if she literally does nothing about food (for example, she just sits and stares at her meal without attempting to lift her cutlery), you’ll soon fuss all over her.
In this way, fussy eating becomes a powerful way for her to grab your attention. And the more you become agitated by her behaviour, the more she realises that this is a really effective strategy for winding you up!
That’s why it makes sense to take a calm approach. Don’t over-react when she pushes her food around her plate instead of putting it into her mouth. Persuasion is much more effective than coercion; she’ll eat when she’s ready.
Try not to worry too much about her eating, so long as she gains weight and grows along the expected lines. You’ll find paying less attention to her eating habits is a useful long-term strategy.
Ideas to make mealtimes easier
Make mealtimes relaxing. Allow plenty of time for your child to finish her meal. Her appetite is better when she’s relaxed and comfy.
Don’t take it personally when your food is refused. The fact that she doesn’t clear her plate with enthusiasm doesn’t mean that she dislikes you. It’s important to keep her fussy eating in perspective.
Smaller portions, larger plates. A small portion of food in the centre of a large plate is less threatening to her than a huge meal piled up on a small plate.
Sit with your child while she eats. She enjoys your company, and having you beside her means that she doesn’t need to misbehave in order to gain your attention.
Involve her in food preparation. Whenever possible, involve your child in the preparation of her meal. This increases her commitment to eating it.
“He didn’t like handling fruit”
“Angus was a really good eater. He was always hungry and ate well, so much so that it was quite unusual for him to refuse food. Avocados, orange cheese and cauliflower were about the only things he turned his nose up at. But when he was about 2½, I realised he wouldn’t eat fruit unless it was cooked or cut up.
“This gradually got worse: at one stage, he didn’t even like handling fruit. If I gave him an apple or banana, he’d just drop it. This phobia had probably developed because when he was growing up we lived abroad, and I was really careful about washing and peeling fruit before I gave it to him. He never just picked up fruit himself and ate it. We didn’t have a fruit bowl because the fruit would have just gone rotten.
“By the time he was 3, he wouldn’t even eat fruit chopped up. It had to be cooked in a pie or crumble. I once tried to insist on him eating a piece of apple, but he just gagged and I never did it again. But I made sure he ate more fresh vegetables and I continued giving him cooked fruit.
“He’s 4 now and is very slowly starting to eat some fresh fruit. I put a miniature portion
on his plate but I never refer to it – sometimes he eats it and sometimes he doesn’t.”
Lauren, mum to Carly, 6, and Angus, 4