Understanding Fussy Eating in Your Toddler

Feeding toddler

It has been said that ‘Toddlers exist on Fresh air and Love’ – and if you ask any mom of a toddler who is a picky eater and she will agree! There are few things more frustrating than a toddler who refuses to eat or becomes picky overnight. It is easy to become frustrated and to start to ‘force’ or coerce your toddler to eat.

The critical thing with toddlers is not to enter a food battle – firstly, you will probably lose and secondly, it is damaging to your toddler’s emotional wellbeing to be forced to eat.

To manage your emotions when your toddler won’t eat, it will help you to understand the fussy eating in the context of his emotional and physical development:

Problem 1: Your toddler randomly – seemingly without reason – refuses certain foods or to eat at all or to sit for mealtimes.

Reason: It is a developmental task of the toddler to develop Autonomy versus Doubt (Erikson). To develop autonomy, your toddler has to assert himself and mealtimes is a fine time to do so. If you are punitive and don’t allow your toddler to assert himself (within reason), he will lose confidence and doubt himself.

Remedy: Allow your toddler autonomy within reason. Use the ABC approach – Acknowledge, Boundary and Choice.

For example, your toddler won’t sit in his highchair anymore:

  • Acknowledge – “I know you don’t want to sit in your chair.”
  • Boundary – “We have to sit for supper.”
  • Choice – “You can sit in a toddler chair at a table to eat or you can sit in your highchair.”

This strategy gives him control within your comfort zone.

Problem 2: Your toddler eats three mouthfuls and then squirms in his chair and refuses to eat more.

Reason: Mealtime can be quite boring and simply too sedentary for a busy toddler. These toddlers eat only enough to take the edge off the hunger and then refuse to eat more.

Remedy: As much as it is frustrating, you may need to give a little here. Use the ABC approach and say: “I know you want to go and play. You can play now if you have one more mouthful.” In this way he has control and you gain one more mouthful. Toddlers can exist on less food than you would imagine, so don’t worry if he eats very little. Remember his tummy is the size of his fist and so he probably has had enough. To ease your worries, offer a toddler ‘picky eater’ milk at bedtime. Don’t be tempted to allow him to graze after the meal – rather limit food to mealtimes and snack times so he will have more of an appetite at the next meal.

Problem 3: Your toddler eats breakfast very well, eats less at lunch and almost nothing for dinner.

Reason:  This is very common and in fact a very good and intuitive way to eat.

Remedy: Don’t worry about this lack of appetite in the evening. Just offer a smaller portion of food. Focus on the nutrients and not the quantity. Offer fruit and yogurt as a dessert after the meal so that the end to the meal is enticing. Make sure you offer a very nutritious breakfast.

Problem 4: Your toddler eats well at crèche but is a nightmare at mealtimes at home.

Reason:  Like all humans, toddlers are social beings and eating on your own is not as much fun as when a crowd is doing it too.

Remedy: From 18 months have one dinner a week as a family dinner – when your toddler sits at your table and eats with mom and dad. If there are older siblings, have your toddler eat all dinners with them. If your toddler is eating alone, put a bowl in front of you while you feed him and pick on celery or whatever you feel is healthy to keep him company.

Meg faure

Meg Faure

Hi, I’m Meg Faure. I am an Occupational Therapist and the founder of Parent Sense. My ‘why’ is to support parents like you and help you to make the most of your parenting journey. Over the last 25 years, I’ve worked with thousands of babies, and I’ve come to understand that what works for fussy babies works just as well for all babies, worldwide.