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Some call it selective eating, some fussy eating, some picky eating, and others call it downright frustrating. Regardless of the label, there’s no doubt that caring for a toddler who is selective over their food can be stressful.
They refuse to try new things and want to eat the same one or two foods day after day.
Then they suddenly turn their noses up at the meal that was their favourite only yesterday. They pick at their dinner saying they’re not hungry, only to plough through a plateful of cheerio sausages 20 minutes later!
While selective and picky eaters can be challenging, the good news is that it’s usually just a phase. And luckily, there are plenty of ways to encourage your toddler to be open to new things and eat a wider range of foods.
In this blog, we share our top tips to help your picky eaters eat well. Let’s dig in!
Before we get to the tips, we’d like to remind you that it’s perfectly normal for toddlers to become selective over food. This happens as they begin to develop a sense of self and feel the first stirrings of independence. Food is one thing in their world that they can exert some control over, so it’s natural – and even healthy – for them to test the boundaries over what they eat.
Appetite and activity levels also have a lot to do with it. Appetite can fluctuate from day to day. If they are active and growing, they’re bound to be hungrier than on more relaxed days or periods of slower physical development. This can explain why your child might be a fantastic eater for some weeks or months, then taper off from time to time.
When you’re feeling stressed, reassure yourself that this is perfectly normal - and most likely temporary. Now, onto some top tips to help you work around your picky eaters!
Let Your Child Choose
Support your toddler’s burgeoning independence by letting them choose what – and how much – to eat. Provide a range of healthy foods, and give them a choice whenever you can. Even at snack time, ask them whether they’d prefer carrot sticks and hummus or grapes and yoghurt.
Involve Them In Meal Prep
While preschoolers may not be ready to help with the cooking, you can still empower them by getting them involved. Take them grocery shopping with you and let them pick out the best fruit and vegetables. Ask them to choose a recipe or wash the food, toss a salad, or pick herbs from the garden. They’ll be more likely to eat something they’ve helped to create.
Make Mealtimes Fun And Relaxed
Nobody likes to eat when they feel pressured, including your toddler. Instead of making mealtimes stressful, focus on easing the pressure and introducing some fun! Taking your child’s mind off the food in front of them can be helpful. If they start enjoying themselves, they may forget to refuse and start snacking as they focus on other things.
The Colour Mat Silicone Placemat is perfect for a bit of mealtime distraction. Children can use the included non-toxic markers to colour in the fun print (which is easy to wash or wipe clean to be used again and again),
If your child is reluctant to try new textures and flavours, take it in baby steps. Start by asking them to touch and smell the food, or maybe lick it. Work up to trying a mouthful if they’re willing. Starting small can also mean offering small, toddler-sized portions to avoid them from becoming overwhelmed by what’s on their plates!
Avoid Power Struggles
As frustrating as it can be trying to encourage your little one to eat healthily, going to battle with a toddler at mealtimes seldom has a positive outcome. Don’t try to force picky eaters to try or eat a food or finish their meal. This can end up compounding their resistance to food instead of solving it.
Make Eating Fun
Sometimes, simply changing the presentation of food can make it far more appealing to picky eaters. Cut items into fun shapes, chop them up small, make them into sticks for dipping, create colourful platters, add natural colours to make things look cool, or serve meals on a fun shaped dish with colourful cutlery.
Kids love bright colours and fun shapes, so they adore these cute Star Grazer plates. Each star-shaped plate is divided into three sections that can be filled with different snacks – perfect for those extra fussy eaters who don’t like different foods to touch!
Set Time Limits For Meals
It can be helpful to set a time limit for meals. Instead of dragging dinner out for an hour while your toddler picks at their food, clear the table after 20 minutes, removing anything that hasn’t been eaten.
Offer New Foods Often
Tried offering a new item five times with no luck? Don’t give up! It can take 10-15 times of seeing a new food before your child even decides to taste it. You don’t have to present the same thing meal after meal, but randomly offering it over time can work.
Pair New Items With Familiar Food
When you’d like your toddler to try something new, put it on the plate alongside some familiar food item they already like. Children tend to dislike sour and bitter flavours and prefer sweet and salty ones, so it’s a good idea to pair a new bitter food (such as broccoli) with something savoury and salty (like cheese).
Use Finger Foods
Using utensils can be a novelty, but small children do love to explore the world with their hands. Encourage this curiosity by offering finger foods as much as possible. This gives them a chance to interact with the food, which may make its way from hand to mouth!
Serve The Same Food As The Family Meal
Try to eat at the same time as your toddler, and enjoy the same food they have on their plate. They love to mimic, so seeing you dig into the same things they are is hugely motivating.
If your toddler is ready to mimic the adults by using utensils, they’ll need a kid-friendly version of their own. We love these sweet First Tensils spoons and forks, specially designed to help your little one learn the skills needed to use regular utensils. They can work out how to scoop and stab food on their own while building the confidence to become an independent eater.
Leave Gaps Between Food
Avoid offering snacks too close to meals. Allow at least a 1-2 hour gap between snacking and larger meals to build up that appetite.
Avoid Using Treats As Bribes
It can be tempting to offer “yummy” food treats as a reward for eating “yucky” foods. But this can set up further bad habits and teach your kids that eating healthy food is a chore. Rewards can be helpful, but stick to gold stars and non-food-related incentives.
Offer Praise Not Punishment
If you punish your child for refusing to try new foods, eating can become even more negative. You want it to be a positive experience for everyone and you’ll make a rod for your back if your toddler goes into every meal with a negative attitude. Instead, offer praise when they do eat well.
Sneak In some Extra Nutrition Where You Can
Sometimes parents have to get a little bit sneaky to get their kids to eat well. There are plenty of ways to disguise vegetables in meals that your child will eat and be none-the-wiser. You can blend veggies up and present them in a spaghetti sauce or go with the good-old smoothie method. Smoothies are a great way to get a variety of fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet while keeping things yummy.
These Silicone Straw Cups are perfect smoothie vessels for toddlers. The lid seals tight, ensuring it stays put if knocked or dropped, and the universal straw hole is perfectly sized to use with any straw you have at home (although we love these wide-sized, fun, Twirly Strawsto encourage kids to down those smoothies without a second thought!)
And, if you want a bit of extra nutrition and goodness in your smoothies, then check out our Smoothie Bombs which are nutritionist developed and picky eater approved!
Try Food Bridges
Once you’ve successfully introduced a new food, use this as a bridging item for more new things! This technique involves offering items with a similar colour, flavour or texture. For example, if your toddler is a fan of mashed kumaras, you could try mashed carrots or potatoes as well (or a mixture of the three!)
Make Food Fun
Who says that mealtimes have to be boring. You can make them a fun way for the family to get together and chat. Dinner time is an especially good opportunity to connect, share stories about your day and generally spend time together. If you make that the focus, then the food comes secondary and has less pressure attached.
Make your mealtimes fun again with our great range of products that are perfect for toddlers and picky eaters. Shop our toddler mealtime range here.
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