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Feeding Fussy Toddlers

Food demands, refusing food, throwing food, wandering off from the table and leaving a trail of mess….food battles and fussy eaters is a common challenge for parents.

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As a mum I have full empathy for this - just because I am a nutritionist does not mean I am immune to such behaviour. I have had to hold back my own frustrations and even tears at some of the behaviour exhibited by my toddler. However, I am a big advocate for encouraging healthy eating habits from the beginning. Here are my top five strategies for doing so:

1. Routine

This is one of the strategies that I really encourage from as young as possible. Babies and children do respond to routine feeding and if you start this young it is a lot easier to implement rather than trying to break habits of 'grazing'. Children will eat best when they are hungry and by having a routine this enables them to learn when food will be coming. Try to limit snacking as much as possible as this is the most common reason children are not hungry. This is not to say you need to have a strict feeding schedule, however a general routine is important (the same goes for adults by the way!). As an important aside, this is actually something that I personally rely on daycare to help teach, and I believe that it helps it is not just mum and dad that are setting a routine.

2. Atmosphere

Eating food as a family stimulates important feelings of connectedness and belonging. It is important to set a very positive atmosphere around meal times. I do know that this is not possible for every meal and some days are just about survival. However, it is about what you do most of the time and this will really help to cultivate positive meal times. Children will also struggle to eat on their own, and for many first time parents or parents with one child this can be a challenge. I always encourage parents to think about how they like to eat – on their own in a chair is probably not one of them and yet a lot of infants and toddlers start eating this way. If your child is eating at a different time to you, you can still sit with them, talk or read a book (this is my personal favourite). It can also help to shift the focus from watching every spoonful that they eat.

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Creating a positive environment around food and meal times plays a MASSIVE part in eating well. This starts right from when babies are really young. Not only do they learn how to eat but as they grow they will also learn to listen, discuss and debate as a family. When life gets really busy it can be easy to forget this but it can just be a few simple things that make the difference.

Shortly after I met my husband we began a family tradition to start each meal we had together by saying what we are grateful for. Even on our wedding day in front of all our guests we stood and together shared what we were grateful for before dinner. To us, the time we spend enjoying food as a family is something to treasure and no matter what sort of day we have had this tradition helps us see the good in the day, and just how much we really do have to be grateful for – I will openly admit some days it can be a struggle but there is ALWAYS something no matter how big or small to be grateful for in a day. This is a habit we have passed on to our children - our toddler now also says what he is grateful for at the dinner table (often its "for chicken" or "for mum and dad!"). We hope that the dinner table will be a place they can rely on to feel like they belong and are looked after – no matter how old they are!

Other traditions that can be helpful to set a positive atmosphere are:

  • Saying Grace

  • Having each family member share something from their day

  • Making sure all electronic equipment is turned off and put away

  • Having a nice bunch of flowers at the dinner table

  • Lighting some candles

  • Encouraging all family members to be involved in preparing the food/setting the table

  • Acknowledging another family member for something they have done

  • Having one night a week where everyone is at home and you all eat together

  • Friday night pizza night where you all mix and match toppings on home-made pizza bases

  • Pot-luck dinner night with friends once a week

3. Teaching Manners

Children do need to learn what is acceptable behaviour at a meal time and what is not. Everyone will have their own parenting style here but consistency is very important. Maybe have a talk to your partner about what behaviours are important to you and what behaviours you are not willing to allow. In our household we have a firm line around throwing food, playing inappropriately with food or being intentionally disruptive at the dinner table. Our toddler is very spirited and strong willed and I know that for us personally if we did not put in some firm guidelines here we would have a battle almost daily. How we manage this is that for such behaviours we give a warning and then if the behaviour continues our toddler is immediately moved into ‘his own space’. We also do not allow ‘free-range’ of the pantry, food needs to be asked for, with please and thank you also needing to be used. Something else that is taught at daycare which we love is that children sit down to eat (and the floor is fine here) but no walking and eating. Both my husband and I are consistent in our parenting with these behaviours which as times can be hard for us but the payoff is worth it. These are just some example for what works for us – they may or may not work for you but if you are finding a behaviour at meal times is not working, it is worth trying something new. Just remember children will not ‘know’ what is ok, without being taught.

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4. Involvement

This is probably my favourite strategy of all and again something well worth teaching from a young age. Involving children in the preparation of a meal will help bring about feelings of belong, create opportunity for learning and it is often a special time to talk as a family. Most importantly it will teach children skills and understanding around the preparation that is involved in a meal. This is actually one of the aspects of ‘takeaways’ and ‘fast-food’ that negatively impacts learning in this area. Again, as a busy working mum I know that it is not always easy to do this, and certainly even trying to do this every day may not be possible, but if you create the opportunity on days/times when you are not so busy (for us it is a Sunday) and make it fun – you may just be surprised how much your children enjoy it!

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5. Keeping it Fun

I mentioned fun in my last point and though it was worth emphasising. Food does need to be fun for children! Try to keep your own stress about the meal times at bay as much as possible (guilty as charged). It can often be the little things that count here:

  • Cutlery and plates which are fun

  • Water with fruit such as strawberries, lemon, lime or orange for flavour

  • Straws

  • Using fingers or food feeders (great for starting solids)

  • Food which is cut into shapes

  • Decorations at the table (we often use dinosaurs and lions!)

As a final tip – for parents that are really struggling and are worried about what their child is eating – actually write down what they are eating for about three days. You may be surprised to see what they are eating and when! This can help you identify some potential issues or things that are worth changing.

Above all do what works for you as family and remember and if meal times are not working for you just try something new!


xxx Dr Julie Bhosale

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