My toddler is a fussy eater, how do I get them to eat a variety of foods?

By Kaz Cooke
From the latest edition
of Babies & Toddlers

My toddler is a fussy eater, how do I get them to eat a variety of foods?

First consider the possibility of a physical problem such as a sore throat, mouth ulcers or an illness coming on. Or that your kid isn’t hungry, but will be later. ‘Fussy’ eating is really evolution at work. Toddlers are hardwired to refuse food until they’re really familiar with it – when they’ve been served it up to ten times, and recognise it as ‘safe’.

This instinct kicks in about when babies start walking and prevents them from wandering away from the campfire and eating unfamiliar, poisonous berries. So you might have to offer a ‘new’ food over and over before it passes the test. And some kids just won’t like certain foods – just like adults.

Many kids simply feel already ‘full’ – from a drink – before a meal, so they don’t eat enough. Once they’re weaned from breastmilk or formula milk after the age of 1, only give three cups of cow’s milk a day, and do this after meals, not before. Keep offering stuff on the plate and don’t fuss about it or push the issue. When they’re hungry, they’ll eat. They can survive and thrive on such teeny amounts as to raise the eyebrows on the statue of Venus de Milo. Or even the arms. If in doubt, see your doctor.

Other strategies to try:

  • Explain that the bread in their tummy is having a party and the carrots want to come. And the zucchini is all dressed up with its cheese hat on, ready to go too. Give them a choice of a couple of foods they can invite or not invite. In other words, you choose what to offer and they choose which of those foods to eat. This makes toddlers feel as if they’re making decisions.
  • Try a rejected food prepared another way (cooked or raw) or chopped up or whole, so it won’t be recognised the same way each time.
  • Offer smaller helpings: it might be that you’re expecting a toddler to eat a much larger serving of food than is actually needed – toddlers don’t grow as fast as babies do.
  • Make a game of eating little bits of different colours – a green snow pea, some grated orange carrot, a grey mushroom, a white potato cube, a red cherry tomato.
  • Get a set of cookie cutters in the shape of animals, dinosaurs, or fun objects like cars, and cut out sandwiches or vegie slices in the shapes.
  • Don’t take it personally. If painstakingly prepared food is chucked around or ignored, skip the painstaking stage. Offer something simple, even raw, instead. That’s what fresh fruit and veg – and now and then things that come in packets – are for.

There’s more on fussy eaters and food for toddlers in the book Babies & Toddlers: The Sequel to Up the Duff.