It is not uncommon for toddlers to be fussy with what they eat. Parents often worry when the once brilliant eater, seemingly overnight, becomes the fussiest feeder on the planet.
Parents’ concerns about fussiness stem from a variety of reasons. Doubts about nutritional intake, weight maintenance, or that the child will stop sleeping through the night. However, children have an amazing ability to know when they are hungry or not. And this is a normal developmental phase. I will attempt to explain why and give some ideas of how to get through this phase with as little drama as possible.
It’s a parent’s responsibility to provide nutritious food, it is the child’s responsibility to decide if they will eat it or not. This is called the division of labor and is key to healthy eating habits.
Punishing kids, making them sit at the table for extended periods of time, fighting, or arguing with them will not make them try foods. So relax, find positives things to talk about, be a role model by showing them what you want them to do.
In caveman times our sense of taste was there to keep us safe. Sour or bitter things were often dangerous or poisonous foods. An example is the sour taste of milk. It indicates to stop ingesting dangerous bacteria that would make us sick. Poisonous foods have a bitter taste, to stop us from eating them.
Foods high in salt and sugar are enjoyable to our tastebuds, motivating us to eat more. Remember that back in caveman times we didn’t have Coles or Woolworths, pleasure is natures way of making sure we got enough food for our growth and energy needs to survive. So our tastebuds seek these foods naturally. However, now that foods are abundant – we no longer need to survive on these foods.
A newborn is attracted to sweet foods so that the newborn will enjoy mothers’ milk. However, as the child grows they are more aware of other tastes, textures, smells, etc to encourage them to eat what the tribe or family will eat. This is another reason why it’s important that we eat a healthy diet while pregnant. The unborn child will not only get the nourishment from these foods but are also learning the tastes. It is important that parents model eating a wide variety of foods to expose children to bitter foods (broccoli and spinach) to show that these foods are safe.
DEVELOPMENTAL MILESTONES ARE IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND PICKY EATERS.
Babies grow fast. In the first couple of months they will put on nearly a kg per month, therefore their appetite is huge. However this rapid growth does not continue so by the time your toddler gets to about 2 years of age their growth has slowed and so has their appetite.
Toddlers are also notorious for their independence. They know what tastes good (thanks to evolution)! Their appetite has decreased thanks to the slowing of growth, so it makes sense that they should want to exert this independence with their food choices too. So a toddlers favourite food today might be refused tomorrow. Their appetite will ebb and flow depending upon growth spurts and activity.
Toddlers are also easily overtired. If dinner is served too late – they will just refuse because they are too tired to sit, chew or swallow. When a toddler is overtired – everything becomes more difficult.
WHAT CAN THE FAMILY DO TO HELP?
If we understand that this is a normal part of toddler behaviour, and we understand why this is happening, we can be a little more patient and understanding during this normal developmental stage.
Your job as the parent is to offer nutritious food. What does that mean? Offer a wide variety of colour is a great start. Limit processed foods. It doesn’t take too many biscuits for a toddler to be full, so make healthy choices available when they come looking for snacks.
Make dinner at a reasonable time when your toddler is not overtired. And try to make it a consistent time and place as part of your daily routine. I would suggest that somewhere between 5 and 6 pm is optimal.
We can help our toddlers’ need for independence by allowing them to choose which vegetables to cook for dinner. Have them wash the vegetables and do what they can to help prepare the meal. Sit and choose a new recipe to try together. Under your guidance they may be able to stir, scoop out or chop.
An old Nursing Mothers Association (AKA Australia Breast Feeding Association) saying is “this too will pass”. This is a great mantra to keep in mind when your toddlers is refusing the meal you have just prepared. In time, your toddlers’ appetite and eating behaviors will level out.
MEALS ARE MORE THAN JUST ABOUT EATING FOOD.
Mealtimes should be an enjoyable time for the whole family to sit together and connect. Meals are about more than just the consumption of food. It is an ideal time to catch up with the entire family and share their stories of the day. Turn off the television, put your mobile phone away and sit together.
Model healthy eating. Try to make one meal that the entire family can share. Don’t make something different if your toddler refuses to eat the meal you prepared. There will be another opportunity for them to eat at the next mealtime. If you make another meal or cave into them having something else other than the family meal this will encourage the picky behaviour as your toddler will exert their independent choices.
Talk about what your toddler is doing rather than what they are not doing at mealtimes. For example – “thank you for sitting at the table”, “what did you do today”, “I like the way you tried that broccoli”. About 15 minutes is all we can expect a toddler to sit at the table, if they have not eaten by then – they are not hungry.
Try to include one thing in each meal that they do usually eat.
It’s normal for parents to be concerned when their child often refuses food. However we know that a healthy child will never starve themselves long.
Apparently, toddlers need to be offered foods at least 10 times before they will choose to eat it. So if they refuse today – you still have another 9 times to offer it. But never give up completely as our taste palate changes over years.
RELAX AND REMEMBER …..
Toddlers’ daily food intake will vary every day depending on their growth and activity.
Children tend to eat less if they are tired or have eaten snacks close to mealtimes.
Take the pressure off how much is eaten and instead look for positives like just sitting with the family.
Make meal preparation as fuss free as possible incase they refuse to eat.
Encourage water as much as possible and make water easy to access. Juice should not be apart of a toddlers diet, nor other sugary drinks.
Talk to your doctor, child health nurse or Thriving Families if you are concerned about your child’s growth or eating habits. They can help you troubleshoot your concerns, chart your toddlers growth and development, and offer you support through this tough time. Just because it is a “normal developmental stage”, doesn’t make it any easier. But your consistency and patients will help guide them toward life-long healthy eating habits.
Genetics of Taste and Smell: Poisons and Pleasures
Healthy eating for toddlers