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Toddlers and fussy eating

Toddlers are full of fun and energy but they as they grow, develop and explore they can really test your patience to the limit.

Find out where to get advice, guidance and support to help you respond to and deal with the challenges and demands of looking after a toddler.

Toddlers and fussy eating

Read time: 3 minutes

If you're worried that your toddler is fussy about food, you're not alone. The good news is that it's actually normal for toddlers to be picky about food!

Toddlers begin to understand that they have choices as they become more independent. They can show this independence by refusing to eat certain foods. And it's not always because they do not like the taste!

You may find your toddler not wanting to eat foods because of the texture, the colour or even the shape! This is a normal part of development. Our ancestors had to decide which foods were safe based on texture, smell and colour. Your toddler has this wariness of new foods built in. It takes time, patience and a good role model to introduce new foods!

Gradually introduce new foods. And keep going back to the foods your child didn't like before. Try preparing them in a different way. Your toddler might not eat cubes of cheese but find grilled cheese on toast delicious!

Keep offering a variety of foods – it may take lots of attempts before your child accepts some foods. And try to keep calm. It can be frustrating when you have worked hard to prepare a meal and your toddler won't even try it. But if you're able to stay positive it will be better for both of you! Games and stories about food can help your toddler overcome their fear of new foods. And make sure they are not snacking too much between meals! They still have a little tummy and snacks could fill them up and make mealtimes hard work.

Remember that your toddler's appetite may be less when they're less active. So don't expect them to want to eat the same amount every day!

The trick is not to worry about what your toddler eats in a day or if they don't eat everything at mealtimes. It's more helpful to think about what they eat over a week.

If your child is active, gaining weight and they seem well, then they're getting enough to eat!

Top tips for fussy eaters from the NHS

Read time: 2 minutes

  • Give your child the same food as the rest of the family, but remember not to add salt to your child's food.
  • The best way for your child to learn to eat and enjoy new foods is to copy you. Try to eat with them as often as you can.
  • Give small portions and praise your child for eating, even if they only eat a little.
  • If your child rejects the food, don't force them to eat it. Just take the food away without saying anything. Try to stay calm, even if it's very frustrating. Try the food again another time.
  • Don't leave meals until your child is too hungry or tired to eat.
  • Your child may be a slow eater, so be patient.
  • Don't give your child too many snacks between meals – 2 healthy snacks a day is plenty.
  • It's best not to use food as a reward. Your child may start to think of sweets as nice and vegetables as nasty. Instead, reward them with a trip to the park or promise to play a game with them.
  • Make mealtimes enjoyable and not just about eating. Sit down and chat about other things.
  • If you know any other children of the same age who are good eaters, ask them round for tea. But don't talk too much about how good the other children are.
  • Ask an adult that your child likes and looks up to to eat with you. Sometimes a child will eat for someone else, such as a grandparent, without any fuss.
  • Changing how you serve a food may make it more appealing. For example, your child might refuse cooked carrots but enjoy raw grated carrot.

Look after yourself

It can be both frustrating and upsetting when you have spent ages preparing a meal and your toddler refuses to even try it. If your toddler finds it hard to try new foods it doesn't mean the meals you are preparing are no good – preferring foods they already know is a normal stage of development! Remember, parenting is a tough job, so don't forget to be kind to yourself!

If your toddlers fussy eating is getting you down and unsure of the best approach to take, don't worry. There are many helpful websites and support services. Try to stay positive, and if you feel you need a helping hand, reach out. And remember to look after yourself.

Information from external websites

Action for Children has a helpful section with clear information from the British Nutrition Foundation on the best way to cope with fussy eaters.

Barnardo's Family Space offers a useful article reminding us that a healthy lifestyle is about more than a healthy diet and exercise!

Be Your Best Surrey has resources for parents that include information on food and diet.

CBeebies have some fun tips for handling fussy eating and a link to recipes to cook with your toddler.

Family Lives have some useful tips on encouraging your child to eat.

The NCT have a 10 minute read on mealtime tantrums and food refusal, offering helpful tips from parents on how to cope.

First Steps Nutrition Trust has a range of downloadable PDFs on eating well in the early years, including advice on snacks, portion sizes, good food choices, packed lunch suggestions and a family foods recipe book.

The NCT has a seven-minute read on gently stopping breastfeeding your toddler.

Struggling and need to talk?

Action for Children offer 1:1 chat with a parenting coach (Mon - Fri). If they are closed you can leave a message and a parenting coach will get back to you within 3 working days.

Family Lives has a free, confidential helpline, offering emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life. Call the Family Lives helpline on 0808 800 2222 (Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm and on weekends from 10am to 3pm).

NSPCC has a free, confidential helpline for parents looking for advice. Call 0808 800 5000 (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends).

The Surrey Children and Family Health Advice Line is available from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). They can provide support on all aspects of child health, development and parenting for families with children from birth to 19 years old. Call the Surrey-wide 0-19 Advice Line on 01883 340 922

Face-to-face support

You could also talk to your health visitor or your GP.

Useful videos for managing fussy eaters

Family Lives share this video on healthy eating for children aged 3 - 5 years old.

Family Lives have a video on healthy eating for 3-5 year olds.

Scroll down to the bottom of the NHS webpage to find a video explaining how to manage a fussy eater.

The Families Under Pressure video collection offers a great series of short top tips videos on managing behaviour and help with negative emotions. Perfect for when your family leave you feeling frazzled!

Helpful tools and apps

The Child Feeding Guide is a free digital support resource from Loughborough University. You can look at the information on the website or sign up for personalised information and strategies.

The NSPCC has a great guide on positive parenting with a helpful section on setting boundaries.

Surrey's Early Support team suggest keeping a food diary. It's a handy resource for you to learn about your child's eating habits. You might want to see if anything they are eating triggers sleep issues or behaviour issues too. It is really helpful to take this to the GP if you have concerns about your child's eating (or sleep and behaviour if you think food or drinks may be having an impact).

Surrey's Family Learning and Adult Learning teams have developed a family wellbeing resource, with lots of tips on looking after yourself and your family during these challenging times.

Online parenting guides

Surrey residents get free access to an online guide that include top tips from childcare, education and NHS health experts

How to register

Registration is quick and easy. Go to the OurPlace website and use the access code 'ACORN' to get your free guide.

Access to the guide is unlimited with no expiry date, so you can return as and when you need and want to. Why not watch the Child and Family Health video to find out more.

Community support, courses and local help

Choose the area you live in for local services. Please note that due to coronavirus (Covid-19) very few community services are currently running.

BETA: We would really appreciate your feedback to help us improve and grow the service. We're listening!

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Date published: 22 Apr 2021