What toddlers should eat, how much they should eat, and how to get them to try new foods are perennial dilemmas for all parents. The good news is that most fussy toddlers are normal toddlers—and they grow up to become healthy adults who eat a wide range of foods.

“Don’t forget to take care of your toddler’s teeth. By the time he is 36 months old, he will have all his baby teeth and they will need to be cared for. Help him brush thoroughly at least twice a day.”

Guidelines for healthy eating can seem full of contradictions, and concerns about allergies, food additives, and organics put additional pressure on parents who are anxious about whether their children are eating well or enough. Combine this with the average toddler’s tendency to be restless, fussy, and, occasionally, explosive at mealtimes and the mix can become a potent cocktail of tension and trouble.

Eating is about more than health; it is a social skill, too. Sharing food and eating together have an important role to play in the way we communicate with one another; family mealtimes are a great opportunity to get everyone together and share their day. By the time your toddler is 24–30 months, he will be able to manage three meals a day, plus snacks, and will have the ability to self-feed using his fingers or a spoon. He can sit unsupported at the table with everyone else, although he may need a booster seat to help him reach. This may disrupt grown-up plans for a peaceful meal, but the involvement will speed your child’s development much faster than one-on-one spoon-feeding or watching over him. He is more likely to act “grown-up” if he doesn’t feel different than everyone else. 

Learning about food

Involve your toddler in the kitchen. An early interest in cooking may give her a more positive relationship with food and make her more willing to try new things.

Your toddler is a fussy eater

A great many children develop fussy eating habits at some point, and it may feel as if your toddler is letting you know that “Any food is acceptable except the food that is on the menu today!” Try the guidelines for introducing variety. If that doesn’t work, your toddler may have fears linked to food, mess, or texture (see Does your child have a food phobia?).

Your toddler misbehaves at mealtimes

It can be hard for a toddler to sit still for extended periods of time, and if there is any family tension at the table you can be certain it will affect his behavior. Minimize distractions, ignore the unwanted behavior, and follow behavior guidelines. Encourage him to model his behavior on yours, or an older sibling if he has one. Check that he is sitting comfortably. If he still uses a high chair, consider whether now would be a good time to introduce a normal chair. Likewise, if he is still using a bottle, its purpose will now be comfort rather than practical necessity.

You are worried that he eats too much or not enough

Most toddlers will eat when they are hungry, so it is unlikely that he will go without what he needs. However, he will need your help to regulate his eating and to eat in a healthy and balanced way. Regular mealtimes and clear behavior limits will help him to get into the routine of eating. Small healthy snacks a couple of times a day, rather than “grazing on demand”, will prevent him from filling up between meals. Make sure that he is always given plenty of fruit and vegetables and hold back on sugary snacks that may encourage unhealthy cravings.

You are worried that he is too chubby or too thin

Most toddlers are plump. However, a toddler who does not exercise, or who is lethargic and sits around a lot, may be putting on weight and creating health problems in the future. Consult your pediatrician for advice and healthy weight guidelines. If your toddler is thin, but you are slim too, there is probably little to worry about as long as he is eating a balanced diet. However, any sign of dramatic weight loss, or gain, or change in appetite should be investigated by your pediatrician. Important note: do not be tempted to put your toddler on a low-fat diet. He needs his full-fat foods for healthy bone growth and development.

Your toddler eats too slowly

There is no shortcut to overcoming this. All you can do is be patient and remember that it is better to eat slowly than too fast. Keep mealtimes fun. Don’t force him to eat more than he can manage. Remember that his stomach is very small. If he has stopped eating, take the rest away; it means he has had enough.

Your toddler won’t try new foods

Children need time to get used to new foods before tasting them. Encourage your toddler to help you to prepare ingredients; describe them and let him play with them. Don’t worry about mess as undue worry about being clean and tidy may inhibit him from trying certain textures, such as chunky or wet foods. Don’t be surprised if he licks unfamiliar foods and then puts them back on his plate. He is not being naughty; this is his way of experimenting with the flavor and texture. Be patient and he may well choose to take a bite next time.

Keep the focus on food and fun

If food looks fun a child will decide that it must taste good, too. Use your imagination when serving your toddler’s food.

Try the following:

Having meals in front of the TV may seem like a fun idea, but even if that is the choice you make for yourself, try to make your toddler’s mealtime a more interactive and personal experience. The idea is to get him used to self-feeding and consciously enjoying food, without distraction. His brain is not able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time , and so watching TV whilst eating is not a good idea for him at this age. He will take much longer to learn if there are nonfood-related events going on at the same time. Mealtime and playtime tend not to go together for the same reason. At this age, your toddler may need to be artfully distracted to encourage him to eat or to try new things , but toys at the table are not good practice since they will always be more tempting to your toddler than the meal on his plate, leaving you no more ahead.

  • Cut sandwiches into interesting shapes.

  • Make a mashed potato face using other vegetables.

  • Use toddler-friendly dishes that reveal a character once the food is eaten.

  • Make a plate of sliced fruit or vegetables into a face or other picture.

Fun with food

Being creative with a new food, such as making it into an interesting shape, will get your child’s attention and increase the chances of her trying it.

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