How to cope with feeding a fussy toddler

toddler boy in highchair refusing breakfast from his mother
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When mealtimes are more about tantrums, screaming and bribery than healthy eating, you may feel at the end of your tether.

Rest assured that most parents of toddlers are having just the same experience as you. Fussy eating is a normal phase in your toddler's development. It will get better with time.

Try not to get anxious about mealtimes. This may make the problem worse, particularly if you are expecting your toddler to eat more than he needs.

If allowed to do so, your toddler will take in just enough kilojoules for his own needs. So you should always respect your toddler's decision that he's had enough to eat.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. But although you decide what goes into your toddler's diet, it's up to him to choose whether he will eat or how much he will eat.

You'll probably experience bad days, when your toddler refuses foods he usually likes. Try not to fret too much about what your toddler eats at a single meal, or in a single day. Instead, think about what your toddler eats over a week.

What is the best way to cope with my fussy eater?

Most toddlers go through a phase of eating a very narrow range of foods. This is a normal part of their development.

It's partly because of something called food neophobia, which many toddlers experience. This is a fear of new foods, which, naturally, leads to a reluctance to try them. Most children will experience neophobia around the age of two. Rest assured that it's a phase that will pass.

Your toddler needs time to learn that unfamiliar foods are safe and enjoyable to eat. He will gain confidence by watching you and others eating the foods he is unsure about.

It'll also help if you make sure your toddler gets plenty of exercise. That will help him to have an appetite for his meals.

Try these tips for making mealtimes run smoothly:

Eat as a family when you can
Eat with your toddler as often as possible. If you and your partner both work full-time, it might be hard to arrange shared mealtimes, but try to make time if and when you can.

At shared mealtimes, eat the same foods as your toddler. Don't add any salt to your toddler's meal, though. Toddlers learn to eat new foods by watching and copying their parents and other children eating them.

Stay positive
Make positive comments about the food you are eating. You're a role model for your toddler. If you make positive comments about foods, such as "These are yummy!", your toddler may be more willing to try them.

Praise your toddler when he eats well, because toddlers respond positively to praise. If you only give him attention when he is not eating, he may start to refuse food just to get some attention from you. Toddlers like attention, even if it is negative. If he doesn't eat well, take the uneaten food away without commenting. Accept that he has had enough.

Make mealtimes relaxed and enjoyable
Arrange for your toddler to eat with other children as often as possible. Perhaps your toddler has a friend at child care or preschool who enjoys his food. Invite the friend over for tea. Your toddler may eat better when he is with his own age group.

Eat away from distractions such as the TV, pets, games and toys. Distractions will make it more difficult for your toddler to concentrate on eating. Try to make mealtimes a happy occasion and chat about things other than eating.

Offer finger foods as often as possible. Allow your toddler to touch his food, play with it if he wants to, and make a mess at mealtimes. Toddlers enjoy having the control of feeding themselves with finger foods.

Make mealtimes consistent
Work out a daily routine of three meals and two or three snacks that fits around your toddler's daytime sleep pattern. Toddlers thrive on routine and knowing what to expect.

Your toddler won't eat well if he gets over-hungry, and if he's tired he may be too fed up to eat. Give your toddler a small snack or drink before naps. Save his proper meals until after he's woken from a nap.

Limit mealtimes to 30 minutes and accept that after this, your toddler is unlikely to eat much more. Don't sit at the table trying to persuade your toddler to eat more. Wait for the next snack or meal and offer some nutritious foods then. Most toddlers eat whatever they are going to eat within the first 30 minutes.

Ask everyone in the family, and anyone else who feeds your toddler, such as childcare staff or your family day carer, to follow your approach and routine.

Keep your toddler interested
At lunch and dinner offer your toddler a savoury course followed by a sweet course. After one course, he might be bored with too much of one taste and ready to try something new.

Two courses also offer your toddler two opportunities to take in the kilojoules and nutrients he needs. Plus, he'll experience a wider variety of foods at each meal.

But never bribe your toddler to eat the savoury course with the promise of the sweet course. This will only make him want the savoury course less.

Give small portions. Toddlers can be overwhelmed by big platefuls and lose their appetite. If your toddler finishes his small portion, praise him and offer him more.

For a little extra variety, you could have a picnic outside when the weather's nice. It'll be fun for you both, and less messy. If you've taken your toddler to a cafe or restaurant, take a nutritious snack in case he doesn't want to eat anything on offer.

Involve your toddler
Involve older toddlers in food shopping by helping you to find things in the supermarket. Your toddler can also help you set the table. This will encourage a positive attitude to food and mealtimes.

Your toddler could also help with simple cooking and food preparation. Let your toddler handle and touch new foods without being under pressure to eat them. He may then be more likely to try the food when it ends up on his plate.

How do I know when my toddler is full?

Your toddler is telling you he has had enough to eat of a particular food, course or meal, if he's:
  • keeping his mouth shut when offered food
  • saying "no"
  • turning his head away from the food being offered
  • pushing away a spoon, bowl or plate containing food
  • holding food in his mouth and refusing to swallow it
  • spitting food out repeatedly
  • leaning out of his highchair or trying to climb out
  • crying, shouting or screaming
  • gagging or retching

I'm desperate for my toddler to eat, but is there anything I shouldn't do?

It's easy to fall into traps that can rack up the tension at mealtimes. Here are some tips to help you keep mealtimes positive and stress-free:
Don't coax, bribe or plead with your toddler
A little gentle encouragement is fine, but never insist that he finishes everything on his plate. Similarly, once your toddler has had enough to eat, don't start to spoon feed him, or force spoonfuls into his mouth. This can make him anxious and frightened about food. It can also encourage him to eat more than he needs.

Don't take away a refused meal and offer a different one in its place
Your toddler will soon take advantage if you do! In the long run, it is always better to offer family meals and accept that your toddler will prefer some foods to others. Always try to include in each meal one food that you know he will eat.

Don't offer dessert as a reward for eating the first course
This is easier said than done. But by doing this, you'll make the sweet course seem more desirable than the savoury one.

Don't offer large drinks of milk an hour before a meal
Large drinks will reduce your toddler's appetite. If he is thirsty, give him a drink of water instead.

Keep fruit juices to mealtimes only as they are linked with tooth decay. Make sure they're well diluted (one part juice to 10 parts water).

Fruit cordials, even the low-sugar variety, can encourage a sweet tooth. You'll keep your toddler healthier and save yourself trouble if you keep cordial off your shopping list.

Make sure your toddler isn't drinking too much milk during the day. Large quantities of milk can spoil his appetite. Your toddler needs between 350ml and 500ml of milk a day.

Try to phase out bottles so that all your toddler's drinks, including milk, are given in cups.

There's no need to give your toddler follow-on formula or toddler milk. He'll get all the nutrients he'll need from a varied diet.

Don't offer snacks just before or just after a meal
If your toddler hasn't eaten well at his main meal, don't offer him a snack straight afterwards. It's tempting to give your toddler a snack, just to make sure he's actually eaten something. But it's best to stick to a set meal pattern. Wait until the next snack or meal before offering food again.

Don't assume that because your toddler has refused a food once he'll never eat it again
Tastes change with time. Some toddlers need to be offered a new food between 10 and 15 times before they feel confident to try it.

Don't feel guilty if one meal turns into a disaster
Put it behind you and approach the next meal positively. You and your toddler are both on a learning curve. Your toddler is learning to try new flavours and textures, and you're learning to cope with tricky mealtimes.

What should I do if I'm still worried about my toddler's eating habits?

If you're really concerned about your toddler's eating habits, make a list of all the food and drink he has over a week. Check that your toddler has had foods from the main groups. These are grain foods, protein, dairy produce (or calcium-rich alternatives), fruit and vegetables. If you know your toddler has eaten foods from each group, you don't need to worry.

But if you're still worried about how much your toddler eats, talk to your child health nurse or GP. She can check your toddler's weight and height, and is likely to reassure you that there's no problem. If there are any issues, she'll give you plenty of support to help you get back on track.

More tips and advice


Bernard-Bonnin A-C. 2006. Feeding problems of infants and toddlers. Can Fam Physician. 52(10): 1247–1251. [Accessed August 2012]

DH. 2009. Healthy child programme: the two year review. London: Department of Health. [Accessed August 2012]

GOSH. 2009. Fussy eater (two-year-old). Great Ormond Street Hospital, expert FAQ. [Accessed August 2012]

Harris G. 2008. Development of taste and food preferences in children. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 11(3): 315-9

Infant and toddler forum. 2006. How to manage simple faddy eating in toddlers. Toddler factsheet 2.2. For healthcare professional use. [pdf file, accessed August 2012]

NHS Choices. 2012. Fussy eaters. Pregnancy and baby, health A-Z. [Accessed August 2012]

Patient UK. 2011. Constipation in children. [Accessed August 2012]

Scaglioni S, Salvioni M, Galimberti C. 2008. Influence of parental attitudes in the development of children eating behaviour. Br J Nutr. 99. Suppl 1: S22-5. [Accessed August 2012]

Wright CM, Parkinson KN, Shipton D, et al. 2007. How do toddler eating problems relate to their eating behavior, food preferences, and growth? Pediatrics. 120(4): e1069-75
Megan Rive is a communication, content strategy and project delivery specialist. She was Babycenter editor for six years.

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