How do I get my fussy toddler to eat?

If your dinner table feels like a battleground, you’re not alone – fussy eating in toddlers is surprisingly common.

“Depending on which study you look at, around 40% of children go through a fussy phase according to their parents and around a quarter will refuse at least one food every day,” says registered dietitian Lucy Neary of The Early Years Dietitian, who works with babies and children.

It tends to start around the age of 15-18 months and peak at around two years explains Lucy.

“Lots of children start to refuse new foods and they might refuse dishes at home that they’ve eaten elsewhere like nursery or a café. They might also start leaning towards certain textures and safe, processed foods.”

You want your child to eat well and be healthy, so their fussiness can be incredibly emotional and stressful. “Parents tend to blame themselves,” explains Lucy. “Cooking is wrapped up in love so if your child doesn’t eat your food, it’s natural to take it personally.

Then there’s the added stresses of ‘What do I give them now? Will they be OK? Are they growing properly?’. You get swept up in this vicious cycle and mealtimes become increasingly negative experiences. One of the first things I do with people is try help them to understand why it happens and how it's not their fault.”

Fussy eating in toddlers is surprisingly common... you're not alone!

Weaning wins: heading off fussy eating

Although it’s not possible to completely prevent your child from becoming a fussy eater, there are preventative steps you can take during weaning to lessen the impact, says Lucy. “There’s a critical window during weaning up to around 10 months when children eat anything.”

“One of the things I suggest during the weaning process is to allow your baby to eat until they're full, as babies are born knowing how much they need to eat. Give them lots of different colours and textures. And I recommend two weeks at the very start of weaning when they eat primarily green vegetables. Children have a naturally sweet tooth and green vegetables can taste bitter so get them used to the flavour with things like broccoli, spinach, kale, courgettes and green beans. After this age, they tend to be less accepting and there’s research to show that this approach can help them become less fussy as toddlers.”

There are steps you can take during weaning to lessen the impact of fussy eating.

If your toddler is already a fussy eater

All is not lost if the weaning window has passed – there are plenty of ways you can encourage your toddler to develop a healthy attitude towards food and keep your cool. “You might want magic, instant answers but handling fussy eating is largely about taking it back to basics,” explains Lucy.

Don’t pressure them

If you’re having a stressful dinner, it’s second-nature to try some hard ‘Go on, just one more bite!’ negotiation. But this is counter-productive and can fuel fussy eating, explains Lucy. “It can make your child afraid of mealtimes, which is why when they get to the dinner table, they might say ‘I'm not hungry’. We all know that when we’re stressed as adults, about interviews or tests for instance, our appetite tends to drop. Finishing what’s on your plate is engrained in us from our childhoods but children should be in charge of how much they eat.”

Monitor their weight and height

“If you weigh and measure your child regularly and log these, it can put your mind at ease because you’ll see that they’re growing well,” advises Lucy. If you have any concerns about your child’s growth, then be sure to bring it up with your health visitor or GP.

"Just one more bite?" Added pressure on eating can be counter-productive and help fuel fussy eating.

Eat as a family (when you can)

It’s a great opportunity to talk and interact but it also gives you the chance to be a positive role model, explains Lucy. “Children learn by copying. So sit down with your children, eat with them, show them that you are enjoying eating. If you don’t, then children can think: ‘Well, why am I doing this?’.

Get your children involved with meals

“There’s a reason that people who like cooking like eating – it’s because they're interested in food, they've learned about it, they understand flavours and where things come from,” explains Lucy. “Let’s be realistic, we’re all busy and you won’t be able to do it every day but as much as you can, get your toddler involved: washing fruit and vegetables, getting things out of the cupboard, cracking eggs. The more they have food in their hands and they're interacting with it, the more it will break down their fears and worries.”

Interacting with food can help toddlers overcome their fear and worries about it.

Talk positively about food

“Avoid negative language around food and your body,” say Lucy. “Throwaway comments like ‘I can't eat that!’ stick in a child’s mind and communicate they shouldn't eat certain things.”

Teach them that all food is just food

“Avoid putting certain foods on a pedestal and using them as a bargaining tool. For example, ‘If you eat your broccoli, you’ll get ice cream’. We know from the research that this makes fussy eating worse, because you're telling that child that broccoli is bad, and ice cream is good. Your message should be that all food is tasty and is there to be enjoyed.”

Have set meal and snack times

“Get into a routine and avoid grazing if you can help it,” says Lucy.

All food is just food. Try to avoid using certain foods as a bargaining tool.

Interact with food outside of mealtimes

Try creative activities like potato stamps, painting with broccoli brushes and food guessing games using touch and smell, says Lucy. “Any activity that gets food in your child's hands or near their face is a massive step towards getting them to eat it. Sounds really silly, but that's exactly how it works. It helps children understand that, for example: ‘This banana isn't going to harm me, it’s been in my face, it’s been in hands, I now feel safe eating it’. Compare that to when they’re presented with something new at the dinner table and they've no idea what it is. They’re much less likely to eat it.”

Be realistic

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and remember that lots of families are dealing with the same dinner battles as you, says Lucy. “Sometimes this reassurance can help you feel more positively about feeding your little one.”

So, fussiness is normal, but when should you be worried?

“If your child is extremely fussy and by this, I mean it’s been going on for months, or years, rather than just weeks and you’re looking at a really quite limited diet, avoiding whole food groups,” says Lucy. “And perhaps it's affecting them in another way, for example they’re constipated, you’re worried about their growth, they seem to be very tired and lethargic, or they don't sleep well. Then see your GP. From here you can get a referral to see a dietician.”

For more advice on fussy eaters, check out the NHS guide.

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