Fussy eaters

Broccoli stalk and floretToddlers are notoriously fussy eaters. A delicious, lovingly prepared meal can be pushed across the table in the time it takes to declare "don't want that".

It may be true toddlers don't starve themselves to death, but that doesn't stop you worrying about rickets when your toddler has raced around from dawn till dusk fuelled by nothing more than a few small biscuits and a couple of grapes.

Throw in the centile charts provided by health visitors and it's difficult not to develop full-blown anxieties about your child's daily food intake.

But Mumsnetters are full of good advice to overcome your nutritional neuroses, or at least to encourage you to stop obsessing over those centiles.

An important question - and this goes for most of your toddler torments - to ask is whether it's a battle worth fighting. As far as food is concerned, the answer's usually 'no'. Rule number one is to avoid mealtimes becoming a battleground.
 

Protein: your toddler needs 12-15g a day (depending on their weight)

  • 8oz milk - 8g
  • 1 small pot yoghurt - 4g
  • 1 large egg - 6g
  • 1oz cheddar cheese - 7g
  • 1oz chicken - 7g
  • 3oz tofu - 7g
  • 1/4 tin baked beans - 1.4mg
  • Tbsp of peanut butter - 7g
  • Small bag of chocolate buttons - 2.5g (shhh!)

How to encourage your toddler to enjoy their food

Food is more than just human fuel, it's also a social activity and most Mumsnetters agree the family meal table is the place to start learning good eating habits (and hopefully a few table manners, too).   

As well as learning about the social aspects of eating, dining together teaches your child about the enjoyment of good food. Often food on Mummy or Daddy's plate seems more interesting than food on your child's plate - and if you're struggling with a fussy eater you might be able to get a mouthful or two into your child this way. "My two year-old will push her plate to one side and shout 'want yours!' - even though we are all eating the same meal," sighs one mum.

A crucial aspect of eating together is teaching by example - your child will see you're eating your veg and enjoying the whole dinner experience (remember to look like you are).

Of course, this is all very well if you're all home and ready to sit down to eat at 5.30pm. But if that's not possible, make a special effort to have family meals when you can (particularly at weekends) even if you'd all rather be in front of the TV with a tray on lap.

If you were sitting in a highchair with a faint whiff of sterilised surfaces, you'd probably also be keen to get mealtimes over asap, so try to make sure someone (you, the nanny, childminder etc) sits down and engages with your child as they eat.

Or invite other children round so they can eat together. There's nothing like a bit of peer pressure -  "look how well Anna's eating her fish" - to encourage food into a reluctant eater's mouth.

Reassuring food facts

  • Toddlers have small stomachs - about the size of a small fist.
  • Don't worry too much about pushing wholegrains - young children's stomachs can't cope with too much wholemeal pasta and brown rice, and too much fibre can sometimes affect their bodies' absorption of nutrients, so don't feel guilty about offering white pasta and white bread.
  • Toddlers don't have an adult desire for a wide variety of foods and many prefer the same things every day. Most of them grow out of this by school age (only to lose it again when they become students).
  • A cold meal can be just as nutritious as a hot meal - bread, cheese, fruit and veg make a nutritious meal.  
  • There's not much nutritional difference between a home-made pizza and a cheese and tomato sandwich.
  • Guidelines recommend at least 30% of a toddler's calories should come from fat (not specifically chocolate buttons, of course).
  • An egg contains 13 vitamins and minerals and 6g of protein (your toddler needs about 16g of protein a day).

It's a cliché, but you can even resort to the spoon being an aeroplane or a train going into a tunnel if it works for your child. 

What to do if your child eats next to nothing

Iron: your toddler needs about 7mg a day
  • 1 slice of roast beef - 1.4mg
  • 3 tablespoons of baked beans - 1.7 mg
  • 2 dried figs - 1.7mg
  • 1 slice wholemeal bread - 1mg
  • 1 boiled egg -1mg
The iron in red meat is most easily absorbed by the body. Serve iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C, such as fruit or veg or fruit juice, because the body needs vitamin C to absorb iron.

When you regularly exceed your own daily recommended calorie intake before mid-morning, it's a real worry when your child doesn't seem to have any interest in his quota at all.  

"Don't forget some kids survive fine on white bread and chips," advises one wise mother, and it's easy to forget our varied and bountiful diets weren't available to our grandparents' generation, who made it through the winter on a few root vegetables.

Children's energy/nutritional needs vary hugely, even between siblings, and they often thrive on less food than we parents might expect. If you're worried about your child's food intake, it's a good idea to keep a record: "Try to keep a weekly diary of what your child eats," advises one mum, "chances are he does eat some healthy things and it's possible he eats lots some days and not so much on others."

Aside from giving you a more balanced view, it's very useful if you want to seek advice from your health visitor or GP.

Some children prefer small plates of food (and means less food waste). "We don't give a huge amount to start off," explains one mum, "and we give him a star for his star chart if he clears his plate or tries something new."

Some children need to eat little and often. If your kids can't make it through to meal time then choose healthy options like cheese or fruit and veg - nutrient-rich snacks rather than 'empty' food that just takes the edge off their hunger. 

Building up your child's appetite

  • Exercise

"Some fresh air and a quick run around in the garden can work wonders," suggests one mum. And swimming makes everyone ravenous: "I always find that if we've been swimming, my kids eat so much better. I also find I have a much better success rate with 'new' foods when they're really hungry."

  • Change of location

If it has been a particularly bad food day, try feeding them in the bath. It's easy enough to wash the inevitable mess away and while they're distracted with bubbles you can get a few mouthfuls in.

  • Occasional TV dinners

Or (purists look away now) have a picnic in front of the telly. Not something you'd like to encourage on a daily basis, but if you think sharing their tea with their favourite TV character will help, it's worth a try.

  • Monitor milk intake

If your child seems genuinely not to have any appetite, check their milk intake. For many toddlers, a bottle or beaker of milk is the ultimate comfort food, and because it's so nutritious it's easy to give in and let it become a food substitute.

Calcium: your toddler needs 350mg a day

  • 8oz (200ml) full cream milk - 250mg
  • 150g pot yoghurt - 225mg
  • 1oz cheese (matchbox size) - 220mg
  • 1 small pot cottage cheese - 150mg
  • 1oz mozzarella (matchbox size) - 150mg
  • 1 sweet potato - 70mg
  • Small can baked beans - 80mg

As one mum admits: "It was a vicious circle. I was so worried about how little he ate I just kept giving him milk because I knew he'd take that. But, of course, when it came to mealtimes he was so full of milk he wouldn't eat a thing."

If you suspect this could be part of the problem, cut down on how much milk your toddler consumes during the day (and the night) and make a 'no milk before meals' rule.

Save the big milk drinks for after breakfast, lunch and dinner and, if necessary, bring mealtimes forward to prevent them getting too hungry and fractious to eat. 

Getting toddlers to eat vegetables

It's frustratingly common for toddlers to develop an aversion to vegetables. But Mumsnetters agree that continuing to provide vegetables with each and every meal is very important, even if your toddler doesn't like them.

Toddlers can be cunning and manipulative, but you've got years more experience in these dark skills, and you're going to have to draw on this to persuade them to eat their greens. 

  • Gobble up your own carrots with enthusiasm
  • Tell him you hope he isn't going to eat those green beans, because you really, really want to eat them yourself
  • Challenge him to a fast-eating vegetable contest
  • See how many peas you can get on a fork before eating them
  • Get him to close his eyes and make a floret of broccoli disappear in your mouth

All of these are worth trying - some toddlers are easily fooled. Giving them some choice might help - let them have their own basket in the vegetable aisle. They might recognise something they've eaten and enjoyed at nursery or a friend's house.

Disguising vegetables

If they still won't let anything from a vegetable family near their mouth, you might need to do some culinary concealment. Mashed potato can act as a Trojan horse for butternut squash, sweet potato or well-cooked carrots and swede.

"From about 12 months my son started to reject vegetables, so I hid them in his food by mashing and blending," confides one mum.

Grated carrots can be sneaked into all sorts of home-made meals, including bolognaise sauce and shepherd's pie. And who can resist a helping of iced carrot cake?  

It's also worth offering the vegetables you're preparing for dinner as titbits or snacks if they're starving before dinner time - carrot sticks are ideal. When vegetables are the only option, they're more likely to gobble them up.

Remember rule number one: food rejection is not a battle worth fighting. This doesn't mean slaving away over a hot stove trying to come up with something they'll eat, it just means not showing your child you're so full of rage you want to scream EAT IT OR WEAR IT and, instead, convincing them you find dinner-time shenanigans boring.

Getting your todder to eat fruit

If your toddler is of the variety who won't touch fruit, then milkshakes can be a good way of disguising its presence, especially in summer when they can be a nice treat after running around in the hot sun.  

Bananas are easily whizzed into a nice thick shake, and strawberries are popular too. Add a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and you'll have a thick shake that's hard to resist. Likewise smoothies.  

Fruit juice is full of vitamins, and although it lacks the fibre of fresh fruit or a smoothie, a glass of fresh juice is better than no fruit at all.

Fruit juice is also full of sugar and not great for teeth, but a glass or a fruit juice lolly a day is a good start for children who refuse any other fruit and, thankfully, counts as one of their five portions of fruit and veg.

If nothing's working, talk to your health visitor or GP about supplements. You can get children's vitamins in various forms - liquid and 'sweetie' shapes.

Quick toddler meal ideas

After a long, hard day at the the office - or caring for a two year old - cooking a meal with a toddler fussing round your ankles can feel like one more chore. 

Mumsnetters suggest cooking in bulk and freezing meals to reduce the time you spend preparing food: "Cook double on days you're not working and then defrost it for work nights. Then it's just a question of warming up said meal and maybe doing some accompaniments.”  

Popular meals to make and freeze include shepherd's pie, cottage pie, pasta sauces such as bolognaise, lasagne, meat stews, curry sauce, chilli and homemade soups.

Eggs make quick meals. "I throw in some tomatoes, mushrooms or courgettes softened in a little butter, with parsley and cheese and serve with salad or veg," says one mum. Omelettes can also be prepared with similar ingredients.

Pasta is a perennial fallback for a quick dinner with very little preparation - mix with pesto from the fridge for a super-simple supper. Pasta and tomato sauce is easy (if you make your own tomato sauce and freeze it in small batches you can just heat some through on the hob or in the microwave). 

You can add pretty much anything to pasta: a can of tuna, a tin of chickpeas or kidney beans, chopped up ham, a sprinkling of cheese - or fry some veggies together in a pan and mix it all together. 

Macaroni cheese is easy to make once you have mastered a quick cheese sauce, and a carbonara sauce is another quick sauce to add to your repertoire - it's nothing more complicated than egg, bacon and cheese.

 

Box food facts checked by Anna Suckling RD, on behalf of the British Dietetic Association

Last updated: 13-Feb-2014 at 5:17 PM