Ask any parent of a toddler and it is highly likely they will know at some level the frustration of having a ‘fussy’ child. A child who previously ate everything that was served to them suddenly rejects a large number of foods with the exception of milk, hot chips and yoghurt. Mum is concerned that her child’s nutrition is being compromised and is of the belief that it is much better to feed ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’ and the vicious cycle of altering the family food to suit a single child begins.
The first thing for parents to be aware of is that a degree of ‘fussy’ eating between the ages of 2 and 5 years is to be expected. What they will or will not put into their mouths is one of the few things that small children have control over, and once they learn that what they will and will not eat exerts a powerful emotional response from parents, the more likely they are to continue refusing foods. Spitting out their vegetables, meat and fruit is simply a toddler’s way of telling their parents that they will do what they like, when they like. Keep in mind, what we focus on behaviourally in children will continue. So if we focus on the fussy eating, it is much more likely to continue.
One of the most crucial things to remember if you find yourself dealing with a fussy child is that toddlers do not need a lot of food. It has been shown that children under the age of five are able to self-regulate their food intake exceptionally well (1). If we force feed them, toddlers may learn to eat when they are not hungry, which leaves them more vulnerable to overeating and weight problems later in childhood. So, if you are offering your toddler a meal of a couple of different food types such as meat and a couple of different vegetables, with different tastes and textures, and they still reject them, it is likely they are not really that hungry. In this situation, take the food away and try again in an hour or so when the toddler requests food again. This is particularly important if a small child eats some of the meals whilst they are at day care, as day care will be providing up to 2/3 of their daily calorie requirements. This can explain why a small child is not hungry after a big day of eating and playing.
A key thing that parents of fussy eaters can do is to maintain consistent food rules in the house at all times. If a toddler rejects a particular food or meal that they have previously enjoyed, the best thing a parent can do is not fall into the trap of offering something sweet instead. For example, if your toddler starts rejecting vegetables, and you offer him/her milk as an alternative to dinner, the toddler can quickly learn to continue to refuse vegetables knowing milk will be offered. It is important to know that children will always prefer sweet tasting foods (milk, yoghurt, fruit, and custard) over more bland flavours (vegetables, meat). Over time, toddler’s taste buds will evolve to include vegetable and savoury flavours and parents can learn to be creative with these foods. As a general rule it is important to continue to offer the healthy family meal options and not give alternatives. If a child rejects the meal, it is probably because they are not hungry and they will make up for it the next day or over the following week; some days eating a lot, and others next to nothing.
Most importantly, it is crucial that as little attention as possible is given to the fussy eating behaviour. Often concerned parents focus on the issue, begging, bribing and negotiating with small children to eat, which only teaches children that not eating gives them more parental attention so that they keep doing it. If you can ignore the non-eating and then give praise and attention when a child does what you want them too, you will help to prevent a vicious cycle of fussy eating long term. It is also important that we remember to keep the food we offer to small children simple. They only need to eat a couple of different vegetables or cut up salad pieces, or small serves of plain meat. It is not a big issue is they only eat a small range of healthy foods. The bigger issue is when they will only eat sweet foods such as dairy and fruit when we perpetuate the fussy eating cycle by offering these.
If you have a fussy eater, the other thing check is how much milk and fruit juice they are consuming. I often see toddlers who are consuming a number of cups of juice and bottles of milk each day, which is providing all of their energy requirements. It is no wonder they are not hungry! Remember, plenty of water and if you choose to give juice give only a small amount (100ml) and 600mls of milk is plenty for children aged 1-3 years.
And finally, try and keep calm and forget about the mess. Meal times are supposed to be a social, enjoyable experience for mums and toddlers alike, the less stress there is, the better meals times will be for the entire family.
(1) Birch, L.L, Johnson, S.L, Andresen, G, Peters, J.C, Schulte, M.C. (1991). The variability of young children’s energy intake. New England Journal of Medicine Vol 324 pp 232-235