Mumsnet is supported by readers. All our writers obsessively research every product we recommend. When you buy through a link on our site we might earn commission but this never influences our product choices.
Toddlers are notoriously fussy eaters. A lovingly prepared meal can be pushed across the table in the time it takes to declare “don't want that”. But there are methods to persuade even the most reluctant eater to tuck in to their broccoli, even if you do have to be patient and not expect miracles immediately.
By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Jun 10, 2021
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.
What your toddler needs to eat
Let's start with the facts (we'll get on to strategies and suggestions shortly). Your toddler needs protein, iron and calcium to help them grow and develop healthily and it's important that you try to make sure they're getting enough of each.
Your toddler needs 12-15g a day (depending on their weight). This can be found in:
- 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!)
The iron in red meat is the easiest for the body to absorb. 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. Your toddler needs about 7mg of iron a day and it's found in:
- 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
Your toddler needs 350mg a day and here's where they can get it:
- 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
How to encourage your toddler to enjoy their food
Food is more than just human fuel, eating is 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.
Children learn by example, so make sure you're eating your veg and look like you're enjoying the whole dinner experience. Of course, this is all very well if everybody is home and ready to sit down to eat at 5:30pm. If that's not possible though, 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.
Try to put yourself in your child's position. 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 make sure someone (you, the nanny, childminder etc) sits down and engages with your child as they eat.
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-related facts
- Toddlers have small stomachs – about the size of a small fist.
- They 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, unlike adults, desire a wide variety of foods. Many prefer the same foods every day, although most grow out of this by school age.
- 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 resort to pretending the spoon is 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
When you regularly exceed your own daily recommended calorie intake before mid-morning, it's a real worry if your child takes no interest in his quota at all.
“Don't forget some kids survive fine on white bread and chips,” says one wise Mumsnetter – 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.
Try to keep a weekly diary of what your child eats. Chances are he does eat some healthy things and it's possible he eats lots some days and not so much on others.
Children's energy/nutritional needs vary hugely, even between siblings, and they often thrive on less food than parents might expect. If you're worried about your child's food intake, it's a good idea to keep a record. Aside from giving you a more balanced view, keeping a diary is very useful if you want to seek advice from your health visitor or GP.
Some children prefer small plates of food (which 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
“Some fresh air and a quick run around in the garden can work wonders,” suggests one mumsnetter. 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 by 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 want 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.
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, but you've got years more experience in this dark art, and you have to draw on this to persuade them to eat their greens. Here are some suggestions:
- 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.
Some bits and pieces to help you out:
- If you want an assistant at the supermarket – Mini Metal Shopping Basket, £2.76
- Toy fruit and veg will help your children to familiarise themselves with food, so it's less intimidating when it ends up on their plate – CASDON Fruit and Vegetable Set, £5
- And again, helpful to familiarise your kids with veggies – Fruit and Veg Foam Fridge Magnets, £9.99
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.
Grated carrots can also be sneaked into all sorts of home-made meals, including bolognese sauce and shepherd's pie. And who can resist a helping of iced carrot cake?
It's worth offering the vegetables you're preparing for dinner as titbits or snacks if they're starving before dinnertime – 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 that you're so full of rage you want to scream: “Eat it or wear it!” Instead, show them that you find their dinner-time shenanigans boring.
Some bits and pieces to help you out:
- Try tempting them to eat veggies by having a variety of healthy dips to hand, such as mushy peas or a tomato-y salsa (or, of course, ketchup) – Squiggle-shaped Dip Dishes, £0.20
- Mash carrots, butternut squash or parsnips into your mashed potato, or puree them into a pasta sauce – Rotary Puree Machine and Potato Masher, £13.49
- And to make all the chopping and preparing that little bit easier – Adjustable Veggie Slicer, £23.97
Getting your toddler to eat fruit
If your toddler 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 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 high in 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.
Some bits and pieces to help you out:
- Sometimes it's easier to get them to drink a yummy smoothie – Homgeek Blender Smoothie Maker, £19.99
- You could also try freezing smoothies or fruit juice into 'ice lollies' – Ice Lolly Mould, £4.99
- If you're up to the task, it can also be fun making fruit ice cream with freshly squeezed oranges or pureed strawberries, sugar and double cream – Sensio Home Ice Cream Maker Machine, £28.49
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.
Cook double on days you're not working and defrost it for work nights. Then it's just a question of warming up said meal and maybe doing some accompaniments.
Mumsnetters suggest batch cooking and freezing meals to reduce the time you spend preparing food. Popular meals to make and freeze include shepherd's pie, cottage pie, pasta sauces such as bolognese, lasagne, meat stews, curry sauce, chilli and homemade soups.
Eggs make quick meals. Omelettes can also be prepared with similar ingredients.
I throw in some tomatoes, mushrooms or courgettes softened in a little butter, with parsley and cheese and serve with salad or veg.
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 carbonara is another quick sauce to add to your repertoire.
Prices correct at time of publication.