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Feeding toddlers - 10 tips for happy meal times

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It is normal for toddlers to be less interested in food than they were as babies.

  • Toddlers grow more slowly than babies and their appetites are smaller.
  • Toddlers want to be independent, so they like saying 'no' to food – this is normal.
  • Toddlers are developing their movement skills – they want to spend more time exploring and this leaves less time for eating and drinking.

The world is becoming a very exciting place and there are lots more interesting things to do than eat! Getting into battles with toddlers about food and eating can only make life miserable for everyone.

1.  Let toddlers decide how much to eat

  • Children are very good at knowing how much they need to eat.
  • Children do not know which foods are good for them – offer them a variety of healthy foods to choose from.
  • It is normal for a toddler's appetite to vary from meal to meal and day to day.
  • Healthy children will eat when they are hungry and usually not before.
  • Research shows that most toddlers, even 'fussy eaters', are eating enough to meet their needs.
  • A healthy child who refuses food is not hungry and therefore doesn't need food.
  • Healthy children will not starve themselves by refusing food.

Parents and carers need to decide what type of food is offered and when it is offered. It is up to the child to decide how much to eat.

2.  messy eatingMake food and eating fun

  • Try to keep meal times relaxed and happy.
  • Be prepared for mess – this is a normal part of toddler eating.
  • Eat meals together as often as possible.
  • Try to serve meals and snacks in a fun, attractive way.
  • Talk about flavour, taste, where the food came from or how it was prepared.
  • Let your toddler get involved – growing fruit and vegetables, shopping or simple food preparation.

3.  Be patient and calm

  • Remove any uneaten food without commenting – assume that your toddler has had enough to eat.
  • The less fuss you make about food the better.

4.  allow toddlers to choose how much they want to eatProvide meals and snacks at regular times

  • Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time – offer food before your toddler gets too tired or hungry.
  • Don't worry if your toddler refuses a meal or snack – the next meal or snack won't be far away.

5.  Offer small serves

  • A plate piled high with food can put a toddler off eating – offer a small serve first.
  • Allow toddlers to choose how much they want to eat – they can always ask for more!
  • Healthy toddlers are good at knowing how much to eat – don't force them to eat everything on their plate.

6.  Toddlers like choice too

  • Toddlers should be allowed to select their own food sometimes – offer a choice of no more than two foods.
  • If they have made a choice and refuse to eat it, don't make them another meal – wait until the next meal or snack time.

7.  Keep offering new foods 

  • offer new foodsToddlers may need to try a food 10 times or more before they like it.
  • Offer small amounts of a new food to try with foods they already like.
  • Try changing the look, taste or texture of food for variety e.g. corn on the cob and mixed peas and corn.
  • Set a good example – show your toddler that you and your family enjoy eating a variety of healthy foods.
  • Avoid talking about your own likes and dislikes in front of your toddler.

8.  Fads are normal

  • Many toddlers have times when they only want to eat particular foods – this is normal and won't last forever.
  • Try to ignore fads, be patient and continue to offer a variety of foods.
    ignore fads and be patient

9.  Remove distractions

  • Most toddlers are easily distracted – turn off the TV, put pets outside and tidy away toys so they can focus on the meal.

10.  Avoid negative food messages

  • Don't talk about foods as 'good' or 'bad' – teach your toddler that some foods are for 'everyday' and others are for 'sometimes'.
  • 'Everyday' foods from the five food groups should make up most of the diet. 'Sometimes' foods (e.g. cake, biscuits, cordial and lollies) should be eaten less often.
  • Avoid using food rewards, bribes and punishment – these teach a child to dislike certain foods and to use food to control their carers.

Reference and more to read 

The content of this topic comes from a booklet 'Tucker for toddlers', produced by specialist Dietitians at the Women's and Children's Health Network (WCHN), SA Health.

There is also a fact sheet - Tips for happy meal times

Women's and Children's Health Network Nutrition Department
72 King William Road North Adelaide SA 5006
Phone (08) 8161 7233

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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