Picky eating and the minefield of toddler nutrition

Posted on Posted in Parenting
toddler holding bowl of red berries
Hangry (haa-n-gree) Being bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.

A hangry toddler can manifest in a thousand different ways – from tears to tantrums. Luckily something as simple as a bottle or a cracker can turn a toddler-saurus rex back into a cherub. The question is what do you do when the foods your toddler once loved are suddenly the bane of their existence!? If you’re one of the many parents who struggle with a picky eater then we’ve got some tricks for you to keep your child happy, healthy and full.

Picky Eating and Why!

As toddlers gain autonomy we get to watch as they walk, talk, play and uncover an array of life experiences. Unfortunately for most of us, picky eating is just one glorious way that children like to assert their newfound independence. A one year old can go from devouring broccoli for lunch to throwing it on the floor by dinner. All the while leaving you dumfounded while you deal with the mess. Picky eating is a rite of passage for many families and the best way to overcome it is to appreciate both the parents’ and the child’s role in eating.

What Can I Do About it?

As with anything else, toddlers learn eating habits by watching the world around them. If you prefer veggies and wholegrains then… surprise! Your toddler will probably like them too! The more you expose your little one to a certain food the higher the chances that they will want to eat it.

“Children need to be exposed to a food 10 times to decide if they enjoy it”

child cooking with parents

Exposure is key but there are plenty of ways to engage your child with food even before they put it in their mouth.

·       Cook meals together

Handling food means that children experience the smell and feel before it ends up on their plate. By including your little ones in the process they also feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. When they feel a connection to their meal, children are more inclined to want to eat foods they otherwise might not.

·       Model healthy habits

The old saying “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t apply here. During the formative years, children learn through observation and mirroring actions, so if you’re going to skip straight to dessert then you can expect your child to do the same.

·       Read the room

Picky eating is incredibly common and while you may feel like your child is doing it just to annoy you, in reality there are many reasons why they might be avoiding certain foods. Look for the signs to get to the root of the issue and overcome it! Food aversions may come from:

Taste, smell or texture of food

If your toddler gobbles up hot chips but won’t touch mashed potatoes, then all signs point to a texture aversion. If, however, they avoid potatoes all together then it might be their taste or smell! Keeping an eye on their behaviours provides clues about how to help them overcome their pickiness and enjoy a balanced diet.

Wanting to be independent

Yep, that’s right! Those teenage years won’t be the first time your bub wants to do their own thing. Many children will refuse to eat because they simply want to feed themselves. Yes relinquishing the reins (or the spoon in this case) can be scary. However, the reality is that the more independent children are, the more confident they are too! When allowed to take control, children prove over and over again just how capable they are. Try offering finger foods or asking them to help serve their food on to their plate. Oh and of course, IKEA sell paint smocks that are a great alternative once bibs aren’t containing the mess anymore.

baby being fed in high chair

Why This Matters

Always remember that childhood is one long learning curve. As they eat, children learn about self control and listening to their body. When we encourage them to have “just one more bite,” or to “finish your vegetables or you won’t get dessert,” we’re essentially robbing them of the opportunity to self-regulate.

Forcing children to eat when they don’t want to can create poor relationships with food. This leads to obesity, eating disorders and low self-esteem. With 23% of children being either overweight or obese, we have the responsibility to teach children that food nourishes our bodies – not that it makes Mum or Dad happy.

Bon Appetite!

For most children, this phase is just that – a phase. As toddlers become more confident in their ability to make decisions, they will stop pushing this boundary. That’s not to say that your little one won’t find new ways to challenge you! For more techniques to handle power struggles in the early years, click here.