Surviving toddler mealtime battles

Dealing with a fussy eater can be one of the most frustrating aspects of parenthood. It is incredibly disheartening when you have lovingly prepared a meal for your child and it ends up in the bin (usually after an initial visit to the floor…). Fussy eating is a source of great anxiety for parents, as not only do you start to dread the inevitable mealtime battles, but you may be worried that your child is not getting the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.

Fussy eating is normally a phase that children outgrow, but below are some basic guidelines you can follow in order to establish good eating habits from a young age, increase nutrient intake and reduce mealtime stress.

Don’t stop offering the rejected foods

One of the biggest mistakes that parents can make, is to stop offering their child the ‘offensive’ food. Research shows that with repeated exposure, most toddlers will eventually enjoy the previously rejected food. By limiting what you offer your child, they could end up with a very restricted diet that may not meet their nutritional needs. So keep offering a wide variety of different foods from a young age, and if your child rejects something, take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and try again next week.

Sneak vegetables into meals

Many parents fear that hiding vegetables in food will mean their children won’t get to recognise and like the actual vegetable. This is a valid concern, but the secret is to do both - sneak veggies into foods, but offer a small portion of whole vegetables on the side. Getting the nutrients into your children is better than not at all, so I am a fan of the covert vegetable! Blitz together mushrooms, carrots, celery and spinach and add it to bolognese sauce, purée cauliflower to add to macaroni cheese or try grating courgette into cheese omelets. Sweetcorn fritters are usually a hit and make great snacks.

Adopt an authoritative feeding style

A lot of research has been done on how parental feeding practices in the preschool years impact a child’s eating habits, and the conclusion is that an authoritative feeding style gets the best result. This means providing a lot of support for your child to eat well and behave well at the table. The main points to follow are:

  • Explain why the food they are eating is good for them (e.g. vegetables contain special fibre to help your tummy work properly, or salmon is good for your brain and will make you even more clever at building lego). Try and relate it to something that matters to the child. 

  • Don’t force your child to eat something that they don’t like. The more force you use, the more likely they are to continue rejecting the food. 

  • Allow children to self-regulate their appetites. By promising a pudding if they finish their dinner, you are encouraging overeating. Allow your children to decide what and how much they eat off their plates and don’t punish them for not finishing a meal. 

Remember that breaking fussy eating habits is a slow process, so it is important to be patient. In some circumstances, there may be more serious reasons why your child won’t eat, such as sensory processing difficulties. If you are concerned about your child’s health or their relationship with food then it is important to seek the appropriate advice. This may be from your GP, a qualified nutrition professional or a child psychologist.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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