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Fussiness and managing toddler mealtimes

Boy refusing food at meal time
Credit: iStock.com/Daisy-Daisy

Nicole Bentley is responsible for the management of the Nutrition Services offered at Nutrition Australia Qld. In this article she looks at dealing with fussiness and helping toddlers to make healthy food choices.

Mealtimes with toddlers can be a challenging time of day for parents. While parents want to provide the best food choices for their young children, sometimes toddlers don’t agree with the choices – that can be trying!

The toddler years are a key time in the development of lifelong healthy eating habits and a child’s sense of autonomy. Encouraging toddlers to choose healthy foods at this time can make all the difference to their lives in the future.

The toddler years are a time of change. Once your child has turned one year old you might notice that they:

  • Start to show some food preferences e.g. preferring different textures, tastes, and colours
  • Like to feed themselves and be more independent
  • Suddenly change what foods they like and dislike
  • Are less interested in trying new foods (hang in there, this usually improves as they approach five years of age)

Sometimes these changes make life a little frustrating for parents as they continue to try to provide a healthy balance of food for their children. Here are some tips to help keep family mealtimes, happy and relaxed for toddlers and the rest of the family.

Be a good role model and eat together as much as possible

Eat together as a family as often as possible – toddlers learn by watching what and how parents and siblings eat.  Be a good role model by letting your child see you and other family members enjoying healthy foods every day. Comment on how delicious your fish is and how it will make you big and strong. Talk about the colour, texture and taste of the tomato you’re eating and even try getting your toddler involved in growing some vegetables.

Parents provide, children decide

As a parent you decide which foods to provide, but it helps your toddler develop their independence if you let them decide how much to eat.  As a parent, one of your many jobs is to provide nutritious meals for your child. Meals don’t have to be gourmet or made up of expensive “superfoods”- a nutritionally balanced meal based on the five food groups (grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy and lean meat/alternatives) will provide all the nutrients a child needs. Serve it up and let them decide if they eat it or not. A lot of the time they won’t but if you keep offering it, one day they just might.

Children are born with ‘neophobia’ (fear of the new). This means they may prefer to be a bit familiar with a new food before they are ready to accept it. Letting children experience new foods using all their senses including seeing, touching, smelling, and then finally tasting food, can help decrease their anxiety and increase their food acceptance.  Remember it might take 10 times or more of trying a new food before your child can really decide if they like it or not – don’t give up the first time they refuse a new food, offer it again soon, at another mealtime.

Sometimes it can also help when introducing new foods to keep something familiar on the plate. Toddlers like familiarity. Whenever offering a new food always pair it with at least one thing you know they like. This can help them with the fear of the unknown and hopefully get them to try something new. 

Another helpful tip could be to use a ‘learning plate’. This is an empty plate in the middle of the table where your child (and even us adults) can put food on there that we ‘are not quite sure about’.  This will still allow the foods being refused to be on the table which provides exposure to the child. At the next meal time, you could ask your child to try the food before putting it on the learning plate.

Eat together as a family as often as possible – toddlers learn by watching what and how parents and siblings eat. Be a good role model by letting your child see you and other family members enjoying healthy foods every day.
Nicole Bentley

Have a meal routine and get your child involved in preparing for mealtimes – e.g. setting the table; helping to prepare food; washing their hands.

Ensure your child feels comfortable and secure

I definitely don’t enjoy a mealtime if I’m not comfortable; this is the same for children. Whether in a highchair, booster seat at the main table or at a small child’s table and chair, make sure they are comfortable and feel secure.

A foot rest is important for them to easily rest their feet if they can’t yet reach the ground. A pillow behind their back will help if they are not sitting straight up in the chair. Providing side support including arm rests will also help to create a secure environment for your child to feed.  It is surprising how eating patterns can change when the seating arrangement is correct.

Stay calm

When a child refuses to eat, allow enough time for them to try their meal, then acknowledge their wish to not eat and let them know that it will be available for them later if they would like it. Most problems only become big issues when an adult reacts and a power struggle begins. We’ve all been there!

What do children aged 1-3 years need to eat?

Once children are over 12 months of age they will have developed to a stage where they can eat family food – it just needs to be chopped up into small pieces and then they can manage to feed themselves with child-friendly utensils. While you might still need to help your toddler a little at mealtimes it is important to encourage them to feed themselves.

Young children need foods that help their bodies to grow and thrive to ensure they will be healthy and happy. The types of food a child needs are the same as for adults. If we look at the Australian Dietary Guidelines it becomes clear that just like adults, children need foods from the 5 food groups every day, and it’s important to limit the intake of foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt – what we often call ‘sometimes’  foods – which means not every day.

Here is a guide on how much and what types of foods they should be having each day. Please remember this is a guide only, each child is different and will differ in how much they eat each day

Food and meal ideas for toddlers 1 to 2 year

The table below shows the recommended dietary intake for toddlers aged 1 - 2 years.

Food Serve Size Serves a day
Vegetables and legumes/beans

 
75g

 
2 - 3
 
Fruit
 
150g
 
½

 
Grain (cereal) foods
 
40g bread equivalent
 
4
 
Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu
 
65g meat equivalent
 
1
 
Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/ or alternatives 250 mls milk equivalent 1 - 1½
1 – 2 year olds Option one Option two
Breakfast
 
¼ cup (dried) porridge or 1 ½  breakfast wheat biscuits with ½ cup (125 mls) full cream milk

 
1 slice raisin toast with spread  & 
½ cup (125 mls) full cream milk
 
Morning tea

 
½ small pita bread pocket with spread & ½ medium tomato, sliced
 
½ banana
 
Lunch
 
½ cup baked beans (reduced salt) with 
1 slice wholemeal bread
 
1 slice wholemeal bread with 
1 heaped tbsp cream cheese & 
1 cup grated carrot, lettuce, tomato, corn & celery
 
Afternoon tea
 
Small tub (100ml) plain unsweetened yoghurt with
¼ cup canned unsweetened diced fruit
 
1 pikelet with spread
 
Dinner
 
1 small piece lean meat (65g) with 
¼ - ½ cup mashed pumpkin, sweet potato, beans & broccoli with 
1/3 cup  cooked rice
 
Tuna & pasta bake (made with 
1 small/100g can tuna & ½ cup cooked pasta shapes) served with 
½ - 1 cup cooked vegetables e.g. cauliflower, broccoli & corn.
 
Throughout the day Optional: extra ½ cup (125 mls) full cream milk as a drink Optional: extra 100 mls plain unsweetened yoghurt

Food and meal ideas for 2 to 3 years

The table below shows the recommended dietary intake for children aged 2-3 years. 

Food Serve Size Serves a day
Vegetables and legumes/beans

 
75g
 

2 ½
 

Fruit
 
150g
 
1
 
Grain (cereal) foods
 
40g bread equivalent
 
4
 
Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu
 
65g meat equivalent
 
1
 
Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/ or alternatives 250 mls milk equivalent

 

2 to 3 year olds Option one Option TWO
Breakfast

 

1 ½ breakfast wheat biscuits with ½ cup (125 mls) of milk

 
2/3 cup breakfast cereal flakes with ½ cup (125 mls) of milk
 
Morning tea
 
2 thin wheat crackers with ¼ avocado (mashed) & 1 slice cheddar cheese
 
1 crumpet with honey

 
Lunch
 
½ small pita bread made into 2  pockets, filled with 20g grated cheese &½ cup lettuce & sliced tomato
 
Egg (1) & lettuce sandwich
(on 2 slice wholemeal bread)
 
Afternoon tea
 
2 kiwi fruits, chopped
 
100g tub plain unsweetened yoghurt & 1 cup mixed fruit salad
Dinner A serve of Spaghetti bolognaise (made with 2/3 cup cooked spaghetti with 65g meat) & ½ cup seasonal salad e.g. beetroot, corn, lettuce, carrot ½ baked potato with
1 medium slice of lamb roast &
½ cup steamed vegetables
½ cup (125 mls) milk to drink

 


National Health and Medical Research Council (2012) The Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.