Robin Barker's advice for fussy eaters

Kinderling News & Features

Robin Barker is the acclaimed author of parenting guides The Mighty Toddler and Baby Love. 

Fussy toddler eating is the bane of many parents' lives. Not all toddlers are fussy eaters but lots (like, about fifty percent) are so if you're tearing your hair out, it may be comforting to know you are not alone.

Listen to Robin's Kinderling Conversation interview:

Why the fussy eating?

  • Many toddlers are too busy exploring and experimenting and using their emerging physical skills to have too much interest in food.
  • Toddlers totally get that eating and toilet training are two areas where they can exercise control, test limits and generate loads of attention.
  • In order to eat the way we'd like them to, toddlers have to be hungry. Often, by the time they've consumed numerous bottles of milk and many snacks they're not hungry - or not hungry enough - to eat at mealtimes.
  • Toddlers are infection-prone until they build up some immunity and bouts of common toddler ailments will interfere with their appetites.

Things to keep in mind

  • It's hard but try not to allow your toddler's eating habits take over family life. If it becomes an escalating battle of wills the attention paid to meals and food will get way out of proportion. Your toddler will remain stubbornly indifferent while you get increasingly distressed. To get back on balance, you need to lose the stress and act indifferent.
  • Try to see the big picture rather than day-to-day events. For most toddlers, picky eating is a passing phase. As long as your toddler has access to healthy food and the family diet is well-balanced he/she will thrive.
  • Try not to expect your toddler to eat the way you do. Many toddlers will only eat one good meal every couple of days and pick the rest of the time.
  • Healthy toddlers in good homes will eat when they are hungry enough to want to eat. Take an honest look at the bottles and snacks that are being consumed. Resist the temptation to replace uneaten meals with bottles of milk. Throw the bottle away, use a cup and give liquids after meals.
  • As an aside, toddler sleep problems in this context are unrelated to food. Replacing uneaten meals with bottles of milk is not a quick fix to solving toddler sleep problems.

Practical tips for meal times

  • Keep the food simple and keep offering different food even if it is rejected while continuing to give your toddler food you know he likes (of a nutritious variety of course).
  • Bribery is tempting and we all succumb to it at times however it is a dead-end approach. Toddlers are smart enough to exploit bribery forever more.
  • Limit mealtimes to ten minutes. Avoid hovering, playing 'here comes the aeroplane' and offering immediate alternatives.
  • After ten minutes, or less if food is being played with and thrown around, clear away the plate and, if you're really strong, make your toddler wait for the next mealtime, which is not next week but only a few hours away.
  • If that's too hard, nutritious snacking is fine but don't expect the next meal to be eaten.

If fussy eating persists…

Sometimes the picky eating is caused by an underlying problem that needs help. Seek advice from your family doctor, paediatrician or child and family health nurse for the following:

  • If your toddler is constantly unhappy, lethargic and uninterested in the world about him. Or if they are doing what you consider to be strange poo.
  • Growth slows down in the toddler years. However, there should be a steady increase in weight and height. If your toddler loses weight or doesn't gain weight over a few months and this can't be explained by an acute illness (for example gastroenteritis), it's a good idea to seek help.
  • If you find yourself feeling angry, depressed, inadequate and overburdened all the time.
  • If there's any chance your toddler's lack of appetite is being caused by ongoing unresolved social or emotional family problems.

Check out Robin's books on Pan Macmillan's website and Booktopia, and her e-books on the Xoum website. She is also the author of Close To Home, a book of short stories about love, life and family.

Also see:

:: Robin Barker's advice for understanding toddlers
:: How to feed a fussy eater with One Handed Cooks
:: How to avoid screen-time tantrums
:: How to negotiate with a toddler