If you listen to some people, all toddlers only eat alfalfa, olives, hummus and organic homemade raw vegan baby recipes that take only ten hours to make. Mine isn’t like that. He likes fish fingers and biscuits.
It’s been pretty easy to get into bad habits this year, as budgets have been squeezed beyond breaking (I earned €6000 last year BEFORE tax due to a toxic combination of factors. For comparison, in 2018, I had several months where that was my monthly earnings), and children get cranky when they’re bored because everywhere is closed and there’s only so many times you can play with the same toys.
One day, I realized I was stuck in a rut with toddler food. My baby had eaten everything and anything when he was a baby, then 20 months hit and BAM just like that he woke up one day and decided to be a fussy eater. Or was he?
In our efforts to get nutrition into him, we would often serve him two or even three different meals to ensure he’d eaten something. After a week of this, I grew deeply worried. How long would it take before he learned that all he had to do was refuse a meal and we’d get him one he liked, instead?
I searched the internet to learn about this and found lots of advice saying basically “If he’s hungry, he will eat,” and “don’t keep changing his meals” but also “don’t deprive him of pudding if he doesn’t eat his dinner.”
A lot of the advice, however, although it said it was aimed at toddlers, absolutely couldn’t work for us because it depended on the toddler being verbal. Ours is a late talker and is still mostly nonverbal. He has no functional language and can’t make himself understood through words. Reasoning with him is impossible.
So I took what I could from other advice but struggled to get it to work. I started putting things in front of him that I knew he would eat. I was scared of letting him go hungry, but was trying to follow the advice that it was bad to keep giving him alternatives if he didn’t like something.
Some nights, the only part of his dinner that he ate was his yoghurt.
My repertoire became more and more limited.
Three weeks ago, I hit breaking point. He refused one of the three things he’d currently eat. I left it on his high chair tray and left the room. I couldn’t participate in this circus anymore. Nothing about this was okay.
I felt inadequate. I was scared of stupid things like him getting rickets. I wanted to cry but most of all I was frustrated. Why won’t you eat? I screamed inside my own head, unable to speak the words because I didn’t trust myself not to shout.
I realized he was eating more variety of things at nursery than at home. So what were we doing different?
After a discussion or three with his nursery keyworker and some hefty research, I came up with a plan. It didn’t involve me becoming a stay-at-home-chef or spending a fortune, it was based in reality, where I don’t have loads of money and spend a lot of my time earning the money I have.
And it worked.
Here’s everything I did to get my fussy toddler to eat:
- Start with what he will eat. He liked eggs, and they’re fairly nutritious, but I wasn’t cooking them very often because washing up after scrambled egg is a nightmare (our dishwasher can’t seem to clean it off, and our tap water doesn’t get very hot or high pressure, so it’s a hard scrubbing job every time). So I decided to try boiled eggs. They taste similar but are faster to cook and require less cleanup. They have similar nutrients to scrambled egg, when served with buttered toast. I tried this and it was a big hit. Eggs are cheap and healthy. I feel way less bad feeding him an egg than giving him fish fingers.
Working with what he will eat is especially important for toddlers with texture issues. If your toddler won’t eat specific textures, find the ones he’s currently eating and try and find similar things. For example, mine likes fish fingers, so vegetable fingers also worked for us. I thought battered chicken nuggets would be a great next step, but he didn’t like them at all (wrong texture, it has to be breaded for us, we learned). But don’t get disheartened! Each food refusal helps you narrow down which specific textures/tastes your toddler will eat.
- Find or cook choices with hidden veg. We don’t ever feed him chips, but he does like potato waffles. A healthier option is ASDA’s mini-waffles with hidden carrot. Carrots have lots of B-vitamins. Those Roots cauliflower bites are another way to sneak veg onto his plate. Both of these are easy oven food but healthier than the usual options.
- Ban biscuits. Sugary, over-processed snacks can actually restrict your palate! That’s why at fancy restaurants they serve dishes with wine rather than fizzy drinks. The sugar in fizzy drinks (soda/pop) wreaks havoc on your taste buds. The same is true for toddlers. By letting the flavoured, sugary yoghurts run out and also insisting my husband feed NO MORE BISCUITS to our toddler for a couple of days (ignoring the tantrums), our little one’s mouth got a chance to reset and he was willing to try more stuff. My husband was in the habit of giving the toddler half a biscuit whenever he asked for one. Including while I was cooking dinner. This then affected Jellyfish’s taste buds so he didn’t like what he was served.
- Swap unhealthy snacks for healthy ones. Some ideas include veg sticks (carrot, cucumber or red pepper), chopped fruit (apple, mango, halved grapes or halved cherry tomatoes), raisins or other dried fruit (apricots, bananas).
- Bake your own. There are recipes for healthy, savoury muffins and biscuits on lots of sites across the internet. When you cook your own snacks, you take control of the ingredients; for example, you have the power to swap sugar for other sweeteners.
- Change white bread for wholemeal. I was scared to do this, but our toddler actually prefers wholemeal because it tastes like Weetabix. So now he eats more of his toast, and that toast contains more fibre. Try it with pasta and rice, too.
- Keep offering things he isn’t eating. This also unsettles me. It feels wasteful. I grew up in a house where we didn’t have much money. But by prepping and serving fruit and veg even when he won’t eat it, you’re giving him the option to change his mind and try it.
- Don’t eat rubbish in front of him. Chocolate, crisps, biscuits, cake… eat them during his nap or after he’s gone to bed. Toddlers copy you because they want to be just like you. You’re their parent and therefore they think everything you do is amazing. If you or your partner are turning your nose up at veg and expecting the toddler to eat it, what message does that send? If the toddler never sees you eating chocolate, he will never know it’s in the fridge, and he’ll never be moved to try it.
- Meal plan. If you sit down and plan in advance what you’re feeding him, you are less likely to come home from work feeling like you’re on the back foot, which leads to reaching into that freezer and pulling out the chicken nuggets (or in our case, fish fingers; we can’t get him to eat chicken). Tied into this, be sure to rotate things. Toddlers get bored of the same thing day in day out. Try and have a weekly rotation so he’s not eating too much of the same food each day.
- Change the drinks. Fruit juice is healthy for toddlers, right? Sadly, not. Even fresh fruit juice should be watered down with 4 parts water to 1 part fruit juice for a two-year-old. It’s also bad for their teeth. Milk (or Alpro Growing Up Milk if you’re dealing with CMPA without a soy intolerance) contains calcium, vitamins and minerals not found in water or fruit juice. One issue we’ve had with Growing Up Milk is, it’s super-sweet, especially compared to cow milk, which exacerbates the issues I mentioned in point 3. Now, we give him cow’s milk during the day and Growing Up Milk for night feeds (he stopped breastfeeding two months ago) so he gets his milky nutrition.
Bonus tips for getting fussy ASD/ADHD toddlers to eat:
- Change the cutlery. This can make a big difference for us. The wrong spoon can really put our toddler off eating. Sometimes, the best cutlery is none at all. Other times, he insists on attempting to eat toast with a spoon and won’t accept this isn’t going to work until he’s tried it.
- Change the container. Sometimes this can work, too. He likes eating off some bowls/plates more than others. His favourite, however, is no bowl, so finger food placed directly on the high chair’s tray can work well on particularly hard days.
- If they like something, say the name of the food (as simply as possible) when you give it to them, so they associate the word with the food they like. So I say “egg” when he’s enjoying scrambled or boiled egg.
- Let them see it in a way they understand. I found pulling the boiled egg out of the egg cup to show him it was an egg made the difference when he first refused a boiled egg. Another thing that helped was dipping his toast for him so it came out with yolk on it. At first the egg looked all white inside because of where the yolk was, but when he saw the yellow, he remembered it was something he likes.
One important thing we’ve learned since our little one started acting like a toddler is how much his behaviour feeds off the attention he gets. He’s still very impressionable, and he can’t talk very much to express himself, so sometimes we can accidentally teach him the wrong things.
When he started throwing himself on the floor and having tantrums every time he didn’t get his own way, at first we tried hugging him and reassuring him. This meant he did it more, because he got attention and cuddles. When we realized, we employed the one-handed clapping method.
One hand can’t clap. We walk away now and pretend to be very busy with anything else at all (I’ve been known to pick up a box of tissues and start reading the label to make it clear I’m not paying any attention to the toddler). The tantrums very quickly stopped.
Don’t make dinner into a show. Some toddlers can accidentally become performance eaters, where dinner turns into a huge drama. This can feed into a bigger issue. If mealtimes are the only times your baby gets your undivided attention, he’s going to eat slowly, refuse to eat so you pick up the spoon and coax him, and do anything else he can to get that one-on-one time to last.
We nip this in the bud in two ways: First, we give him the food and the spoon/fork then step back and focus on something else. Your own food, if you’re eating beside him, or your knitting or something. Second, we make time earlier and later in the evening to sit with him and play in a constructive way to ensure he gets the extra attention he needs (this also works for tantrums). Step back when he demands negative attention and ensure he is getting positive attention for other things.
Hopefully this article has helped you with some easy ideas for how to get your fussy toddler to eat more healthily. Every baby is different, however, and what works for one might not work for others. If I find the magic bullet that transforms fish finger fiends into quinoa-lovers, I’ll be the first to write about it.