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Try not to get anxious about mealtimes. If you're able to keep a calm and positive attitude, this will be better for both you and your toddler (Scaglioni 2008).
Most toddlers will eat enough to keep them going, even when they're refusing food at times (Scaglioni 2008, ITF 2006). Remember that your little one's stomach is still tiny, so he won't be able to eat that much in one go. If he doesn’t want any more, don't try to force him (Scaglioni 2008, NHS 2013a, ITF 2006).
Try not to fret too much about what your toddler eats at a single meal, or in a single day. Instead, think about what he eats over the course of a week (ITF 2006).
What is the best way to cope with my fussy eater?Most toddlers go through a phase of only eating a few particular foods. This is a normal part of their development (NHS 2013a, ITF 2006). It’s partly because of something called food neophobia, which is a fear of new foods. Many toddlers experience this around the age of two (Scaglioni 2008). Rest assured, this is a phase, and it will pass.
Your toddler is most likely to eat what he knows (Scaglioni 2010). He needs time to learn that unfamiliar foods are safe and enjoyable to eat. He'll gain confidence by watching you and others enjoying the foods he's unsure about (Scaglioni 2008, ITF 2006).
It’ll also help if you make sure your toddler gets plenty of exercise (Scaglioni 2008). Rushing around and playing active games will help him develop a hearty appetite for his meals.
Try these tips for making mealtimes run smoothly:
Eat as a family when you can (Scaglioni 2008, ITF 2006)
Eat with your toddler as often as possible. This may be hard if you and your partner both work full-time, but try to make time when you can.
At shared mealtimes, eat the same foods as your toddler. Toddlers learn to eat new foods by watching and copying their parents and other children. Your little one may be even more inclined to join in if you're all helping yourselves from big dishes in the middle of the table. Don’t add any salt or sugar to your toddler’s portion, though.
Stay positive (Scaglioni 2008, ITF 2006)
Tell your toddler how much you're enjoying the food you're eating. You’re his role model, so if you're enthusiastic your toddler may be more willing to try them. You can always put on a brave face if you're not really a fan of brussels sprouts or broccoli!
Let your toddler know how happy you are with him when he eats well. He'll enjoy the praise and it may encourage him to continue eating well (ITF 2006). If you only give him attention when he's not eating, he may start to refuse food just to get a reaction.
If he doesn’t finish his meal within about half an hour, take the uneaten food away without commenting (ITF 2006). He is unlikely to suddenly finish it. Just accept that he's had enough and move on.
Make mealtimes relaxed and enjoyable
Arrange for your toddler to eat with other children as often as possible. Invite one of your toddler's nursery or preschool friends over for tea (NHS 2013b). Your toddler may eat better when he sees others his own age happily tucking in.
Eat away from distractions such as the television, pets, games and toys (ITF 2006). These will make it more difficult for your toddler to concentrate on eating.
Make mealtimes a happy occasion by chatting about lots of different things. Try to talk at a level that your toddler can understand so he can join in.
Offering finger foods to your toddler allows him to touch and play with his food if he wants to (ITF 2006). Even if he makes a mess, he's still learning about the textures and feelings of different foods. Your toddler will also enjoy having the control of feeding himself. It's a very grown-up responsibility for him!
Make mealtimes consistent
Work out a daily feeding routine that fits around your toddler’s daytime sleep pattern. This should include three meals and two or three nutritious snacks, spaced throughout the day (ITF 2006). Toddlers thrive on routine and enjoy knowing what to expect.
If your toddler gets too tired, he may become fed up and not want to eat. Give your toddler a small snack or drink before naps and save his proper meals for afterwards.
Ask everyone in the family, and anyone else who feeds your toddler, such as nursery staff or your childminder, to follow your approach and routine.
Keep your toddler interested
At lunch and dinner, offer your toddler a savoury course followed by a nutritious dessert, such as fruit (ITF 2006). After one course, he may be bored with one taste and want to try something new.
Two courses also offer your toddler two chances to take in the calories and nutrients he needs. Plus, he'll experience a wider variety of foods at each meal.
However, never bribe your toddler to eat the savoury course with the promise of the sweet one (ITF 2006, NHS 2013a, Scaglioni 2008). This will only make him want the savoury foods less.
Give small portions. Toddlers can be overwhelmed by big platefuls and lose their appetite (NHS 2013a). If your toddler finishes his small portion, praise him and offer him more.
For a little extra variety, you could have a picnic outside when the weather’s nice. It will be fun for you both, and there'll be less mess to clear up at the end! If you’re taking your toddler to a cafe or restaurant, take a nutritious snack that you know he likes, just in case he doesn’t want to eat anything on offer.
Involve your toddler
Once your toddler's old enough, include him in food shopping by letting him help you find things in the supermarket. He can also give you a hand with setting the table before meals. Little activities like this will help to promote positive eating habits (ITF 2006).
Your toddler may be able to help with simple cooking and food preparation. Letting him investigate new foods away from the dinner table may mean he's more likely to try them when they end up on his plate (ITF 2006).
How do I know when my toddler is full?Signs that your toddler's had enough of a particular food, course or meal include:
- keeping his mouth shut when offered food
- saying “no” or turning his head away from the food being offered
- pushing away a spoon, bowl or plate containing food
- refusing to swallow food or spitting it out
- leaning out of his highchair or trying to climb out
- crying or screaming
- retching (ITF 2006)
If your toddler is showing signs of being full, simply take his plate away, even if he hasn't had very much. He’ll probably fill up at the next meal or snack time if he isn't interested now.
I’m desperate for my toddler to eat, but is there anything I shouldn’t do?It’s easy to fall into traps that can rack up the tension at mealtimes. Here are some tips to help you keep mealtimes positive and stress-free:
Don’t coax, bribe or plead with your toddler (ITF 2006)
A little gentle encouragement is fine, but never insist that he finishes everything on his plate. Once your toddler has had enough to eat, don’t start to spoon-feed him, or force food into his mouth. This can make him anxious and frightened about food. It may also encourage him to eat more than he needs.
Don’t offer a different food instead (ITF 2006)
Your toddler will soon take advantage if you give him his favourite foods every time he refuses something new! In the long run, it's better to offer him a portion of whatever you're eating and accept that he'll prefer some foods to others. Always try to include one food that you know he'll eat in each meal.
Don’t offer dessert as a reward (ITF 2006)
This is easier said than done. However, by doing this, you'll make the sweet course seem more desirable than the savoury one. This may make your toddler less likely to enjoy healthier foods as he grows.
Don't forget about drinks
Your toddler needs between 350ml (two thirds of a pint) and 500ml (a pint) of milk a day. Any more than this and he may lose his appetite at mealtimes. The World Health Organisation recommends that you continue to offer breastmilk until your toddler's at least two (WHO 2015), but you can also offer full-fat cows' milk. There's no need to give your toddler follow-on milk though, as he should be getting plenty of nutrients from his food (Unicef 2014).
Try to avoid giving your toddler a lot of milk in the hour before a meal as it will fill him up. If he's thirsty, give him a drink of water instead (ITF 2006).
Keep fruit juices to mealtimes only, and dilute them with water (10 parts water to one part juice) before giving them to your toddler (NHS 2013c). This is because fruit juices are acidic and contain quite a lot of natural sugar. Diluting them and drinking them with meals can help to minimise the damage they can do to your toddler's teeth.
Fruit squashes, even low-sugar and sugar-free varieties, can encourage a sweet tooth (NHS 2013c). You’ll keep your toddler healthier and save yourself trouble if you keep squashes off your shopping list.
Try to phase out bottles so that all your toddler’s drinks, including milk, are given in cups or beakers (NHS 2013c).
Don’t offer snacks just before or after a meal (ITF 2006)
Try not to offer snacks too close to mealtimes, as your toddler may be too full to eat his lunch or dinner. If he hasn’t eaten well at his main meal, don’t offer him a snack straight afterwards. Although it's tempting to make sure he eats something, it's best to stick to a set meal pattern. Wait until the next snack or meal before offering food again.
Don’t assume that a refusal is forever (ITF 2006)
Tastes change with time. Even if your toddler's refused a particular food before, he may come to like it in the future. Some toddlers need to be offered a new food between 10 times and 15 times before they feel confident enough to try it.
Don’t worry if a mealtime doesn't go as planned
Don't be too hard on yourself or your toddler. Just put it behind you and approach the next meal positively (ITF 2006). You’re both on a learning curve. Your toddler is learning to try new flavours and textures, and you're discovering how to cope with tricky mealtimes. Give it time and patience. He’ll grow out of this fussy phase.
What should I do if I'm still worried?If you're really concerned about your toddler’s eating habits, keep a diary of all the food and drink he has over a week (ITF 2006). Check that he's had something from each of the four main food groups. These are starchy foods, protein, dairy products, and fruit and vegetables.
If you know your toddler has eaten foods from each group, you probably don’t need to worry (NHS 2013a).
Talk to your health visitor or GP if you need advice or support. They can check your toddler’s weight and height, and are likely to reassure you that there's no problem. If there are any issues, they will give you plenty of support to help you get back on track.
More tips and advice
- Discover why your child might be a fussy eater.
- Get more tips on feeding your toddler well.
- Find out how much your toddler should really be eating with our guide to portion sizes.
Last reviewed: March 2015
Next review: March 2018
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NHS Choices. 2013a. Fussy eaters. Pregnancy and baby, health A-Z. nhs.uk [Accessed March 2015]
NHS Choices. 2013b. Birth to five development timeline. Tools. nhs.uk [Accessed March 2015]
NHS Choices. 2013c. Drinks and cups for children. Pregnancy and baby, health A-Z. nhs.uk [Accessed March 2015]
Scaglioni S, Salvioni M, Galimberti C. 2008. Influence of parental attitudes in the development of children eating behaviour. Br J Nutr 99. Suppl 1: S22-5.
Scaglioni S, Arriza C, Vecchi F, et al. 2011. Determinants of children's eating behavior. Am J Clin Nutr 94(6): 2006S-2011S.
Unicef. 2014. A guide to infant formula for parents who are bottle feeding. Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative. unicef.org.uk [pdf file, accessed March 2015]
WHO. 2015. Infant and young child feeding. World Health Organisation fact sheet 342. who.int [Accessed August 2015]