By Raising Children Network
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Toddler refusing food

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Children learn about what’s safe and yummy by watching what their parents eat.
  • You can set a good example by eating the kind of food youd like your child to eat – if you aren’t eating any vegetables, your childs not likely to, either.
Many children are fussy eaters. But fussy eating isn’t always about food – it’s often about children wanting to be independent. Here are some ideas to help with your child’s fussy eating habits.

Get into good habits

There are some things you can do throughout the day to help stop your child’s picky eating habits. For example, it can be a good idea to make sure she gets her meals and snacks at regular times each day. If she isn’t hungry in between meals, you can even try to get rid of snacking.

If your child is really hungry at meal times, you can encourage his appetite to work properly by offering him more food. On the other hand, if he’s not interested, it’s OK if he eats less – he might be hungry again at the next meal or at snack time.

It can help to set time limits for meals, and to explain that once mealtime is over there’ll be no other food available. When mealtime is finished, take the plate away then remind her that there won’t be any more food until the next meal or snack time.

Try to limit discussion about your child’s fussiness. This can make mealtimes and eating more stressful for everyone.
Have realistic expectations – for example, you can ask that your child tries all the food on the plate, or takes a certain number of mouthfuls.

Create a pleasant atmosphere at meals

Your child’s food acceptance will depend partly on the eating environment. It can help to create a pleasant atmosphere at mealtime:

  • Make mealtimes a happy, social occasion. Try not to worry about knocked-over drinks or food on the floor, and give positive feedback on the habits you want continued. Try not to just focus on the negatives.
  • Make healthy foods fun – you can cut sandwiches into interesting shapes, or let your child help prepare the salad or whisk eggs for an omelette.
  • In general, if your child sees you enjoying food, it will encourage him to do likewise.
  • It’s a good idea to turn the TV off and to talk to each other instead.

Sometimes toddlers are too distracted to sit at the family table for a meal. If this sounds like your child, you can try having quiet time before meals so she can calm down before eating. Even the ritual of hand-washing can help.

You could also encourage your toddler to sit at the table with the family for most meals, but only for 15 minutes or so. You can build this time up as he gets older.

You can can read more about mealtimes with young children in our article Eating with your toddler.

Give your child independence with food

Let your child make choices within the range of healthy foods you offer her – but try to keep options limited to two or three different things, or she could become too confused or overwhelmed to eat. For example, instead of asking her to pick what she wants from the fridge, ask, ‘Would you like grapes or carrot sticks?’

It can be a good idea to support your child’s need for independence when it comes to food. For example, it doesn’t hurt to take the crusts off bread if that’s what he wants. If you give in to a few demands or preferences, you’ll help him feel more in control.

Introducing new foods

  • Put a small amount of each food on the plate so your child isn’t overwhelmed.
  • If you keep offering a particular food, your child is more likely to try it and eventually like it – in fact, she might have to see a food on the plate 10-15 times before accepting it. Even if your child doesn’t take the first step in accepting the new food, continue offering it at other times and on other days.
  • When possible, have your child share meals and snacks with other children – he might be more willing to try a food if other children are tucking in.
  • Serve your child the same meal the family is eating. If your child doesn’t eat it, say something like, ‘Try it, it’s yummy’. If she still doesn’t want it, calmly say, ‘OK, we’ll try it another time when you’re hungry’.
  • Serve new foods along with foods your child already likes – for example, a piece of broccoli alongside some mashed potato.
  • Encourage your child to touch, smell or take a lick of the new food, then praise him for having a go. Then encourage him to take a bite. Again, offer praise for trying it.
Eat a variety of nutritious foods at each meal. And go for variety yourself – show your child that you’re willing to try new foods and that you enjoy them, too.

Avoid unhealthy foods

It’s tempting to offer your child food treats just so she ‘eats something’. But if you offer fatty, sugary or salty snacks as substitutes, your child might start refusing healthier foods – after all, she’ll know there are tastier options!

Offering unhealthy treats as bribes – for example, ‘If you have a carrot, you can have some chocolate’ – can also make your child more interested in treats than the healthy foods.

Fussy eating facts

Fussy eating is very common. It can help to know why children sometimes fuss about their food:

  • Children’s appetites are affected by their growth cycles. Even babies have fluctuating appetites. Between 1-5 years, it’s common for children to be really hungry one day and picky the next.
  • Children have different taste preferences (or palates) from grown-ups.
  • Sometimes life for children seems too exciting to spend time eating.
  • Children learn by testing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. They can be very strong-willed when it comes to making decisions about food (to eat or not to eat, and what to eat). It’s all part of their social, intellectual and emotional development.
  • Sometimes your child will refuse food just because it gets an interesting reaction – from you! If children refuse to eat a food, it doesn’t necessarily mean they dislike it (after all, they might not have even tasted it yet). They might just be putting on a show of independence to see what you’ll do. Try to stay calm when this happens.
  • Children – especially toddlers – have a strong need for rituals and for what’s familiar. If your child asks for pasta without the sauce, this might just be a way for him to get simple, easily identifiable foods that boost his sense of security.
The good news is that the tendency to reject new foods fades as children get older. Remind yourself that one day your child is likely to eat and enjoy a whole range of foods, even if it’s very frustrating now!
  • Last updated or reviewed 14-10-2011