The toddler years provide an opportunity to set up lifelong healthy eating habits and strong food literacy skills. However, parents may feel challenged by their toddler’s eating behaviours from time to time and report their toddlers as fussy eaters. As such, parents and carers may occasionally need guidance and reassurance on food and nutrition for toddlers.
Toddlers are inquisitive learners and engaged students, so for parents it can be as simple as providing them with the right tools (ingredients and food) at the right time (when they are not tired) and lots of opportunities to have some fun. To that end, mess is normal, so toddlers should be allowed to hold food, play with it and break it apart – it’s all part of learning and it’s definitely part of their fun.
At this age, it’s important that parents provide a wide range of food from all food groups. This will allow children to explore diverse, wholesome and nutritious food from a very early age.
As a guide, the Australian Dietary Guidelines provide details of the sorts of things toddlers should receive, and also provide some direction on the amount of food toddlers need.
We’ve put some of this advice into ‘picture book’ recommendations in our Dietary Guidelines for Toddlers, to make it easier to identify appropriate food and serve sizes for toddlers.
It is also helpful to know that it’s quite normal for toddlers to offer resistance to new foods introduced – it’s in their DNA. Studies show that young children may need 10-15 trials before they learn to accept a new food. So, offering the same food on multiple occasions is a good strategy. Gradually, toddlers start to catch on.
During the toddler years, it’s helpful to keep activities around food and the toddler’s table fun and engaging. Toddlers like to play with food and it may be dropped, squashed or tossed, all of which is normal and involves play behaviour: this represents food engagement and demonstrates that children are learning the skills of eating.
Children also respond well to fun stories being made up around food. This little strategy can teach children that conversation around the dining table is a normal part of dining, and that it’s all part of the fun.
Of course, there will be days when parents feel feeding their toddlers is everything but fun, especially when their kiddies decide from one day to the next that they no longer like a favourite food, but consistency, routine and ongoing encouragement with a variety of food will eventually pay off.
Another consideration is the amount of food toddlers consumer. Their stomachs are small, roughly around the size of their fist, so children of this age often do well with smaller snacks and meals, peppered throughout the day.
In closing, as long as toddlers are achieving their growth and development milestones, and all other medical concerns are managed, what parents call ‘fussy eating’ is more likely a manifestation of careful selection of first foods.