Blog & Videos

How to Win the Food War with a Picky Toddler

No greater power struggle has ever existed than that between a strong-willed toddler and concerned parents who fear their child isn’t eating a well-balanced diet. As a parent, watching your child turn their nose up at healthy options can be frustrating, and trying to plan and prepare meals they will actually eat feels like mission impossible.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We’ve gathered plenty of tips and tricks you can start implementing today that will de-escalate the conflict and increase the odds your child will try new foods.

A Little Developmental Insights into the Mind of Toddlers

One of the most frustrating aspects of feeding toddlers can be the frequent…and seemingly inexplicable…changes in their food preferences. The peas they loved yesterday are refused today. The meal they wouldn’t touch at your dinner table is happily consumed at grandma’s house. What gives?

It’s important to understand that such erratic behavior is common and expected in a young toddler who is rapidly developing. Their little bodies and minds are working through big changes, and there are days when one hasn’t quite caught up to the other. Growth spurts and activity levels can have a profound effect on a child’s appetite—one day you can’t get them to eat and the next you cannot satisfy their hunger. Other issues that can affect the appetite of a toddler include:

  • Filling up on drinks

  • Missing naps or being too tired to eat

  • Snacking throughout the day

But there are days when, no matter how well rested or hungry your toddler may be, he or she will refuse the food you place before them…and the power struggle ensues. What then?

1. Do Not Force a Child to Eat

For many, this rule will seem counterintuitive, but it is a critical component in diffusing the power struggle. Children may refuse to eat for a variety of reasons, many of which the child may not understand…and they don’t always have to do with the food that is in front of them. But parents often assume the food is to blame—especially if it is something new to the child—and inadvertently get caught up in a struggle that isn’t even about the food in the first place.

When a child refuses food, it is important for the parent or caregiver to remain calm and non-reactive. Often, children are testing the situation and carefully gauging the reaction of adults. Avoid using phrases like, “Just taste it” as they contribute to the struggle.

2. Adopt a Spirit of Food Exploration

When it comes to introducing new (or even familiar) foods, let go of food consumption and, instead, adopt a spirit of food exploration. It’s very important to note that it is through play that children make sense of their environment…and this includes food.

Try introducing new foods alongside current favorites. Instead of asking your toddler to eat or try the new food, allow them to take the lead on how they interact with it. They may stare at it for a bit before asking, “What is this?”. Tell them without commenting on how great it tastes—children will see right through that, knowing you want them to try it, and a power struggle will ensue.

Your toddler may explore further by poking or touching the food. Ask them questions as they do…

What does it feel like? (Ignore comments like yucky and, instead, try to help them make connections. Perhaps risotto feels like mashed potatoes, or cauliflower reminds them of broccoli. Helping children explore new foods and connect them to those that are more familiar expands their understanding of foods and allows them to grow comfortable with the unfamiliar.

Continue including the new food with familiar options at mealtime…eventually your child may become curious enough to try a taste. Once again, instead of saying, “Yum! Isn’t it good?” ask you child, “How does it taste? What does it feel like in your mouth? Does it taste like something you’ve had before?”

3. Be Patient

Rome wasn’t built in a day—and overhauling your child’s interactions with food won’t happen that quickly either. Be patient. It may take days, or even weeks, before a child is willing to taste an unfamiliar food.

Other ways you can expedite the process include:

  • Taking your toddler shopping with you. Allow him/her to help you pick out new foods to explore.

  • Getting them into the kitchen. Toddlers can (with assistance) help you pour, stir, and sort ingredients. Guide them as they experience the difference between how the raw food feels compared to the cooked version. If they are comfortable taking a taste, let them compare the flavor of raw vs. cooked.

  • Serve as a good example. If your children see you trying unfamiliar foods and modeling the qualities of a top-notch food explorer, they will be more willing to try the new foods on their own plates.

When it comes to encouraging your toddler to eat, let cooler heads prevail. Stay calm and encourage your child to explore new food and make connections—doing so will allow them to open the door to a wide variety of foods on their own terms.

For any more information, call Clovel Childcare and Early Learning Centre, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. For any information about our Educational Programs, give us a call at 02 9199 0294 or fill in this contact us form.

Thanks for reading,
Clovel Childcare
1300 863 986