How to get toddlers to eat without a fight

Toddlers are known for being fussy eaters. It just goes with the territory. Getting them to eat something nutritious would be a bonus but for some toddlers it is just getting them to eat anything at all! And just when you think you have it all sorted and you know what they like, they completely change the rules!

Toddlerhood is a stage where children start to assert their independence from their parents. Along with wanting to dress themselves and not get in the car (along with thousands of other things), eating what they want, when they want, is also where they will start to push back. If you know what your toddler is going through, brain development-wise, then you can be a bit more tolerant of these annoying displays of independence.

Obviously it is important that children learn about meal times and to have routine around them, but I think it is totally okay to go with this stage a bit and offer your child snacks if you are worried about what they are eating. Toddlers are on the go most of the time, so eating on the run can be a good way of topping them up. Morning tea and afternoon tea times are great for offering nutritious snacks that can be given while playing.

Here are my 6 top tips for making mealtimes work better and to avoid a food fight

1. Go back to basics

Don’t go crazy with introducing a lot of new or exotic foods. Stick with what you know they like and introduce new things only occasionally, like once a week. Also make sure they aren’t eating too many snacks in the day so they might not be hungry at mealtimes. Keep at least 60 to 90 minutes snack-free before main meals.

2. Check your routine 

A ‘typical’ toddler’s day for meals/food should go something like this:

7am: Breakfast

12pm: Lunch. This usually happens before the nap (if they are still having one).

3pm: Afternoon tea. This can be just a piece of fruit or something small to get them through the afternoon.

5/5.30pm: Dinner

Also make sure they aren’t drinking too much milk throughout the day. This will impact their appetite for meals.

3. Watch your timing

Children, and adults for that matter, can get very cranky when they are hungry (you’ve heard of the term ‘hangry’!) so it is a good idea to not leave too much time between meals and snacks. If they are starving or too tired when it comes to dinner time, you may find that the wheels will just fall off and that will be no fun for anyone!

 4. Not too much choice

It is also a great idea, if you are asking your child what they want to eat, to not overwhelm them with too much choice. Deciding between two different choices is enough for young children, otherwise they will get confused. Keep it simple. I would also not let meal times drag on for too long. Young children get bored pretty quickly, and if it is dinner time, they will also be tired, so give them a decent amount of time, say 30 to 45 minutes, but after that they will just lose interest.

5. Remain calm

Try to keep emotion out of mealtimes. I really understand how frustrating it is when you have just cooked a beautiful dinner and your child looks at it and says “yuk”. But creating a fuss around meals can cause your child to act out at all mealtimes and not feel relaxed around eating. Be clear about your expectations but try not to be too tough. A lot of the time your young child’s body will be telling them what they do and don’t need nutrition-wise, so allowing them to reject certain things and love other things for a bit is okay.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.