Tips for managing fussy eating in toddlers

As parents it can be frustrating when your “perfect eater” toddler suddenly turns fussy. Toddlerhood is a new chapter in every child’s life where they start developing a personality and becoming more independent. This is a time for exploring and experimenting. So, if your child is throwing their broccoli across the room and smearing avocado all over their face, know you are not alone! It can be overwhelming and incredibly frustrating watching your child refuse the food you put in front of them, so we’ll guide you through our top tips for fussy eating in toddlers.

Tip 1: Don’t delay the introduction of textures, flavours and colours

A large study conducted in the 1990’s by a group of researchers from Bristol University in England called ‘Children in the 90s’, discovered that parents’ who delayed the introduction of lumpier solids to their babies after 10 months were more likely to have toddlers who were fussy eaters. When texture progression was delayed, children were more likely to insist on pureed baby foods well after 12 months of age.

This period is often referred to as ‘the window of opportunity’ when introducing solid foods to your baby. Missing this stage when your toddler was a baby, doesn’t mean your child will never accept lumpier, textured foods. However, they will require more time to become familiar with, try and accept these foods. This will also require your support and patience. It may also be beneficial to engage the support of healthcare professionals experienced in childhood feeding challenges. For more information on starting your little one on solids, click here.

Tip 2: Create a routine

Just because your toddler cannot tell the time does not mean that they don’t appreciate routine, in fact, they thrive on routine! Creating set and scheduled eating events will help punctuate the day and this routine will also provide some predictability.

This includes:

  • Setting a time limit for each meal and snack (approximately 20 minutes is ideal).
  • Stop offering food once the mealtime is over, don’t worry if they’ve not eaten as much as expected, you can offer more food at the next eating event!

Tip 3: Mealtimes should be calm and pleasant experiences

Mealtimes can be an extremely stressful experience for parents of toddlers who are fussy eaters, and understandably so. Not only might you feel overwhelmed, but this can also make your child feel stressed, worsening the mealtime environment. Your child’s willingness to experiment with the food you put on their plate will depend partly on the environment around them, so try to remain calm.

What can you do to make mealtimes less stressful and a more pleasant experience?

  • Be a role model - If you portray fussy eating behaviours around your toddler, it is more likely that they will copy these behaviours.
  • Eat a wide variety of foods around your child.
  • Eat with other people to teach your child important social skills. This includes eating together as a family.
  • Get your child in the kitchen - whether it is baking, cooking, learning about the ingredients or just being in the kitchen while you cook, children are more likely to eat meals that they prepare or help prepare.
  • Create a positive mealtime routine - meals should be given at the table, instead of in front of the television or in the kitchen.
  • Encourage self-feeding from a young age. Allow your toddler to play with their food, despite the mess. Children are curious and this includes their food!

For more mealtime strategies for your picky toddler, see the Better Health Channel website.

Tip 4: Independence is important

We are training our children from a young age to become independent eaters so that they can continue making appropriate food choices when we are not around. These are skills that we want to equip them with from a young age!

As a parent, we need to support our toddler’s journey towards independence. Our top tip is to allow your child to make some of their own food choices, within a range of foods that you have picked out for them. The key here is not to overwhelm them with too many options. Limit to 2-3 options and ask your toddler which one they would prefer, for example “would you like the cucumber or carrot sticks today”? This is known as the Division of Responsibility, meaning that it is your role to provide the food, however your child will decide how much they eat of that food and to an extent, what food they eat. To optimise success with this process, it is always a good idea to include at least one already accepted or preferred food for your child to eat at each meal.

A great way to encourage your picky toddler’s independence is to get them involved in meal preparation. Why not get them to assist with:

  • Washing the fresh ingredients
  • Planting herbs in the garden, or even picking them once they’ve grown.
  • Grabbing an ingredient from the fridge or pantry, for example the bread.
  • Picking a recipe from a recipe book of your choice.

For more toddler recipe ideas, see our toddler recipe booklet.

What if my child doesn’t like the food I give them?

Did you know that it can take up to 17 times of a new food being introduced for a child to accept that new food? So, just because your fussy toddler might refuse a new food once, does not mean that they will never accept it. As with everything in life, something new can be intimidating, and that is no different when offering children new foods.

In some instances, you may feel like you have tried everything, and it can be exhausting! It is important that if your child does refuse a meal, to take a minute to think about the causes. Did they just have a snack? Are they well? Are they overtired? Does their plate look overwhelming to them?

Try to avoid substituting meals that are left uneaten with treats or other foods, such as separate meals, formula or milk. This encourages children to believe that these are rewards for their refusal of meals and will only encourage fussy eating behaviours.

There is no need to struggle on your own! If you are stressed about your toddler’s fussy eating, book in with a Paediatric Dietitian, by visiting Dietitians Australia or checking in with your General Practitioner.

For more information and tips to prevent picky eating in toddlers, visit the Queensland Government Resource or a fantastic article from raisingchildren.net.au.


Article written by Accredited Practising Dietitian, Kaylee Slater

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