Do you have a picky eater?

Date Published: 13/04/2023

Toddlers are notoriously fussy eaters, to the point where generations of parents have often felt a sense of despair over how to best manage this behaviour. And although we’ve all heard the old mantra of “children eat when they want to”, this isn’t particularly helpful when our own toddler seems to be eating very little. Read on to understand more about fussy toddler eating and what can help.

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Why are toddlers’ fussy eaters?

Toddlers are fussy for lots of reasons. Mostly because they’re trying to exert some independence and learn about what they can control. Eating is one of only a few behaviours which, as individuals, we can control. Toddlers quickly learn they get more attention when they don’t eat than when they do. When you’re a small person, any attention is worth getting, even if it’s not always positive.

From an evolutionary perspective, toddlers need to be suspicious about new foods. Although most foods are fine these days, your toddler’s brain doesn’t know this. In days gone by, a toddlers very survival may have relied on being cautious about unfamiliar foods which may have been unsafe to eat. Young children often need to be exposed to a new food multiple times before they’ll try it.

Toddlers aren’t growing at the same rate as when they were babies. In the first year of life, their growth is rapid and needs to be fueled by energy giving foods. After their first birthday, their growth slows down. It won’t be until your toddler becomes an adolescent that their body will have the same high demand for kilojoules to fuel their rapid growth.

Will my toddler grow okay?

What’s important is that your toddler has the opportunity to eat regularly and is offered healthy, nutritious foods. It can be helpful for parents to remember that their role is to be responsible for the what, when and where their toddler eats. How much and whether they eat is up to the child. This Division of Responsibility helps children to set the pace when it comes to mealtimes. It also respects the child’s choice to decide what is right for them and their body.

Healthy, well toddlers who are growing and reaching their developmental milestones are able to decide for themselves when they are hungry and how much to eat. If they are ‘filling up’ on water, milk and/or snacks, they won’t be hungry at mealtimes.

As well as their diet, a child’s growth is also influenced by their genetics and environment. It can be helpful for toddlers to have regular health checks so their weight, head circumference and height can be measured and plotted. What’s valuable is to look at a toddler’s growth over time, rather than having irregular weighs and measures. It’s the pattern of growth which is valuable in assessing a toddler/child’s growth. Check here to understand more about percentile (growth) charts.

Are there particular foods my toddler must have?

Toddlers need foods which contain iron, zinc and protein to fuel their growth. These nutrients are high in meat, fish, eggs, lentils and beans. They also need vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates, fats and oils to meet their body’s growth needs. These nutrients are supplied in foods such as fruits and vegetables, bread and cereals, rice, pasta and noodles (ideally wholegrain), milk, yoghurt and cheese.

Toddlers under the age of two years need to drink full-fat milk. There are benefits in continuing to breastfeed for as long as a mother and her toddler are happy to keep going.

Toddlers need to eat these foods, in these amounts each day:

  1. 1-2 years: ½ serve fruit, 2-3 serves of vegetables, 1- 1 ½ serves of dairy, 4 serves of grain, and 1 serve of lean meat, eggs, nut or seed pastes like peanut or almond butter or tahini or legumes.[1]
  2. 2 to 3 years: 1 serve of fruit; 2½ serves of vegetables; 4 serves of grains; 1 serve of meat/poultry; 1½ serves of dairy.[2]
Toddlers also need to be offered water. Avoid soft drinks, cordial and fruit juices which are high in sugar.

What can I do about my toddler’s picky eating?

It often helps for parents to have confidence that their toddler knows when they are hungry and when they are full. It can also be useful for parents to try not to invest too much emotional energy into their toddler’s fussiness with food. There’s always going to be another opportunity to eat in a few hours’ time.

It can also help to not offer too many choices around foods and to keep things simple. The amount of time you invest into preparing special meals is not a guarantee that they’ll be eaten, so think about what’s important to you and focus on what’s going to preserve your energy.

Simple foods, offered regularly with minimal fuss tends to the best strategy for fussy eaters.

Ten top tips to manage picky toddler eating

  • Role model healthy eating. Where possible, sit down together and eat as a family.
  • Bring your toddler’s highchair right up to the table, so they feel they’re part of the social group.
  • Place your toddler in their highchair just before they’re ready to eat. Little people become bored easily, especially if they need to wait for food to be heated and served.
  • Allow a maximum timeframe of 30 minutes for your toddler to eat. Most toddlers have eaten what they’re going to within this period of time.
  • If your toddler is refusing to eat, try placing serving bowls on the table, rather than plates with individual serves. Encourage everyone to serve themselves and ask your toddler what they would like you to place on their plate.
  • Avoid overloading your toddler’s plate or highchair tray with food. Sometimes small children can feel overwhelmed by choice – smaller amounts at a time can make a difference.
  • Turn off the television and have a rule of ‘no screens’ at the table. Talk to each other and remember that mealtimes are an opportunity to feed our children’s brain as well as their body.
  • Consider how much milk your toddler is drinking. If they’re over 12 months of age and are still having night feeds, try reducing the amount and frequency of their breastfeeds or formula. Ideally, stop all bottles from 12 months of age.
  • Offer milk after main meals, once your toddler has eaten.
  • Reduce the frequency and amount of snacking between meals. Toddlers have a very small stomach and it doesn’t take much food to fill them up Remember, morning and afternoon tea is just a light ‘fill-in’ between lunch and dinner.

If you need more information about your toddler’s eating, speak with your Child Health Nurse. Dieticians are highly trained health professionals who provide expert guidance in managing diet and nutritional health. Check here for how to find a dietician, or speak with your GP about a referral to your nearest children’s hospital.

Written for BabyU by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, March 2023.

[1]Dietary guidelines & food groups 1-2 years | Raising Children Network

[2]Healthy eating for children | healthdirect