Are you having a tough time at mealtimes with your child? Is your toddler a picky eater and refuses to eat the dinner you spent hours preparing?
The family dinner table can become a battleground if your child is refusing to eat the meals you cook for them.
Whereas your baby may have been willing to explore new tastes, once they become a toddler they develop a natural instinct to be suspicious about foods.
This fussy phase tends to kick in as your child is developing more independence. It’s an unfortunate part of the terrible twos, where your child is wanting to assert themselves more.
Some believe that being fussy is a natural instinct that hails back to when we were cavemen and foraging for new foods could be dangerous, as some plants are poisonous.
Others think being a fussy eater may be a genetic trait.
Whatever the reason for your child’s fussy eating, it’s important to know that you shouldn’t give up. There are lots of things you can do to gradually encourage them to eat a wider range of foods.
Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and to remain calm when getting your child to try new foods.
Check out these tips for bringing mealtime battles with your child to a halt!
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Toddler meal ideas
Get them trying everything young
Don’t rule out foods that you believe kids “won’t like”. You may believe broccoli, sprouts, fish and other “yucky” foods aren’t worth wasting your energy over.
However you need to forget the “reputation” of foods and not just stick to the safe classic kid-friendly foods like nuggets and pizza.
Get your child trying everything right at the start.
If they have had a narrow diet for a while, then get them started now. It’s never too late!
Do not create negative associations by forcing them to try new foods, but instead offer incentives such as a treat or create a fun sticker chart which they can add to every time they try something new.
Praise them enthusiastically even if they only take one bite.
Sit down for dinner together
Make mealtimes a family affair. Sit down together at the dining room table, not in front of the television.
Make sure your child has a comfortable chair that gets them to the right height to eat from the table. You may need to get them a booster seat to add to your dining room chairs.
Offering them a more grown-up chair, rather than a high chair, will help to make them more excited about sitting up at the dining room table.
Make sure your child has a plate or bowl that they can easily eat from, and one that is plastic so you won’t worry it’s going to break when they throw a tantrum!
Plates with separate compartments can be great for fussy eaters. You can offer new foods but make sure they are not touching the foods they already like.
Have the same food
Some evenings I just want a hot curry, and I know not to try to force my kids to eat very spicy food just yet!
But on other evenings I try to cook just one meal for all of us. This might be a shepherd’s pie, turkey goujons, fish fingers or spaghetti bolognaise.
When your child sees you eating something, they have a natural desire to copy what you are doing. Show them the food is nice and that you enjoy it.
There are lots of ideas for toddler-friendly meals over on this post.
Have a conversation as a family at the dinner table
Make mealtimes an engaging and interesting time to hold your child’s attention at the dinner table.
Speak to them about the food, about their day and about their favourite toys. Whatever comes to mind!
You want to keep them at the dinner table, without having to fight with them about it, for enough time to eat a proper portion of food.
Plan meals ahead
Make life easier for yourself by planning your meals in advance. Trying to throw something together at the last minute can be more stressful for you.
Think about what foods you want to get your child to try and attempt to incorporate them into meals in a gradual way. Don’t force your child to eat a plate packed with new things they have never tried.
Gradually add new vegetables, one at a time, at meals every day.
Make your meals fun
Get your child a colourful and bright placemat. You could get one that features your child’s favourite TV character.
You can also use food to create smiley faces on your child’s plate.
If your child wants to play around with their food, let them do it. Within reason of course, you don’t want spaghetti flung at the wall!
Don’t overdo the snacks
Your child is far more likely to approach their mealtime with enthusiasm if they are actually hungry.
Stick to just a couple of snacks a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Kids would happily graze all day long, but try to encourage them to stick to a routine when it comes to eating.
If they are demanding food out of boredom, find a way to distract them by playing with their toys of taking them out for a walk.
Add new tastes into familiar meals
Help your child to be brave by offering them new foods alongside or in familiar meals. You could try creating a vegetarian lasagne or add courgettes to their favourite pasta sauce.
If your child loves roast dinners, then add some new vegetables to their meal.
Try not to overwhelm your child with the new tastes. For example, just add a small handful of peas to the side of their plate to encourage them to try them out, without overdoing it.
Hide the veg
If you are really worried about your child’s intake of vegetables, then try to hide it in the food.
I have the most amazing mini chopper which I can just pop portions of veg in such as carrots and whizz it up so that it’s a paste which just dissolves into sauces.
With shepherd’s pie I hide onions, carrots and leeks in the sauce by chopping it up so finely it just disappears into the tomato sauce as I cook it.
You can do the same with a pasta sauce. Roast courgettes, carrots, peppers and tomatoes together, then use a blender to mix them all together into a yummy sauce that can be served with pasta.
While hiding the veg is a great way to get your child eating the nutrients you want them to get, you also need to continue educating them and encouraging them to eat fruit and veg.
Keep trying to feed them vegetables they can see, while also hiding some at the same time.
Get your child involved in cooking
Make food interesting by getting your child invested in the whole process of cooking.
Show your child the raw vegetables and other ingredients and get them to help you put them together as a meal.
You won’t want to hand them a knife of course, but they can help hand you potatoes to peel and put things into pans before you put them on the hob.
Make it part of a game that you play together with the end result being they sit down and eat the meal they have helped to cook with you.
Pay attention to your child’s preferences
Does your little one like their broccoli cut into smaller florets? Do they prefer their cauliflower cooked until it’s very soft or a little more crunchy?
Pay attention to the textures and sizes of foods that your child prefers to eat and stick with that.
Set an example for your child
Eat fruit for snacks and set a good example at the dinner table for your child.
If your little one sees you eating fruit and vegetables, they are far more likely to follow suit. Eat what you would like to see your child trying!
Conclusion: Stopping mealtime battles
Hopefully these tips have given you some good ideas for what to do at mealtimes with a picky eater.
Remember to maintain your patience, because getting frustrated and forcing your child to eat what they don’t want to will only make them associate mealtimes with negativity.
Make mealtimes fun and add new foods gradually, and be persistent because eventually your child will accept new foods.