01 September 2017

How to feed a fussy toddler

by Anna Sloan

Forget about ‘Big Brother’ if you’re the mum or the dad of a toddler. What you can be sure of is that it’s your ‘toddler’ that’s watching your every move and, not only does he or she miss very little, they may take many of their food cues and preferences from what they observe.

Meal times are the one time when, as a parent, you may feel the most helpless because you can take a toddler to the food, but you know that getting him to eat is a whole different ball game, particularly if it seems that he is a fussy eater.

New Zealand registered dietitian, director of Nutrition Connection and expert in infant, child and adult nutrition, Anna Sloan, says that cultivating an awareness of your behaviour and your toddler’s behaviour can make healthy eating an enjoyable activity for the whole family.

 Anna offers the following four tips to help turn healthy mealtimes into an enjoyable experience for the whole family:

1. Recognise who is responsible for what

Anna refers to international authority on fussy eating Ellyn Satter’s ‘Division of Responsibility’ to describe the roles between parent and child at the meal table.

“You, the parent, decides when your toddler eats, but your toddler decides whether he eats at that opportunity, as well as how much he eats. If he decides he doesn’t want to eat at that time, put the food away because you know that in an hour or two you'll offer him another nutritious snack when he is hungrier.

“Parents get into difficulty when they offer one food type after another to get their toddler to eat something there and then. When that happens, your child will quickly learn that he has the power to say ‘no’ – and he will exercise that power because it’s one of the few things he has control over,” says Anna. 

2. Avoid making meals a battle

“From about 18 months to two years, your child will also begin a neophobic phase (fear of new things) that can last until about the age of six. Being aware that it is natural for her to be more anxious about new things, you can use language and role modelling to normalise trying new foods. Turn it into a positive adventure.

“Try engaging her in adventures with questions like ‘Look at all these vegetables! Let’s count them,” or ‘What are all these colours? Let’s see; we have yellow, green…’ and ‘What does this taste like? Is it crunchy?’ "Let language around food and meal times be a natural positive part of the process,” says Anna.

Toddlers are also learning to be independent, so encourage them to eat with their own spoon or fork. This helps develop gross and fine motor control.

“It’s important to understand that mess is part of the process, so use a large splash mat (or shower curtain) under the high chair, and don’t worry if at first more food seems to end up on your toddler’s face than in their mouth. Let them get messy and sticky,” says Anna.

3. Swap things around

Who says your toddler has to eat meat and vegetables at dinner time?

“Breakfast may actually be the best time for dinner type meals. Overnight is the longest gap without food that your toddler will experience, so she’s going to wake up feeling hungry. Some children start the day with a big meal and taper off towards the end of the day, which means you can try changing things around.

“Working parents especially may appreciate a routine that ends with some light sandwiches at 5.30pm, because your toddler is getting the meal you want her to eat in the morning.”

Anna also suggests limiting meals and snack times to no more than 30 minutes. “Once your toddler goes over 30 minutes she’s actually using up more energy than she’s taking in from the meal.”

4. Use role models to influence behaviour

“Try and eat together as a family or with a peer group so that your toddler begins to learn from role model influences. Research shows again and again that children who eat with a peer group, or their family, are more likely to eat a wider range of foods.

“Toddlers and children just starting on solids are influenced by what they see around them. You want him to see that his dad doesn’t really like the taste or texture of broccoli, but he’s eating it anyway because he knows it’s good for him,” says Anna.

By understanding that meal times needn't be a battle; that there are going to be times when your toddler just isn’t hungry, and by turning meals into an adventure, you can take the anxiety out of feeding for both toddler and parent.

ABOUT Anna Sloan: NZ Registered Dietitian BCApSc, Dip Diet (Otago),

An expert in infant, child and adult nutrition, Anna has extensive experience from working in the UK, and at the Waitemata and Auckland District Health Boards (including seven years at Child Development Units).

In addition to being a highly sought-after dietitian, you may recognise Anna from the TVNZ children’s show “Activate” and other media roles including “What’s Really In Our Food” series 1, 3 and 4.

As a mother of two, (both allergy children) Anna understands the need for practical advice that fits in with the rest of the family. She now offers private consultations in Red Beach, Hibiscus Coast.

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