Ten tips for winning over your fussy eater: toddler edition

Oh, my friends, here we are again.

These days, cajoling food into Henry’s mouth has just become part of our family landscape. When we were in London on Friday, he took an unexpected liking to the tiny bowl of pasta we’d ordered for him, and ate almost all of it. He hates pasta. He also hates eating in public (too much else to look at). We were so delightedly gobsmacked that we couldn’t stop talking about it, and took ten thousand photos. Three days later, I’m still greeting Timothy at the door with ‘Dude. I can’t BELIEVE Henry ate that pasta’.

A sweet victory. Also a short-lived one. From where I’m sitting, I can see at least seven peas and a potato he hoped he could hide without me seeing.

I had an arsenal of mealtime strategies I used when he was a just-weaned baby. Now he’s a toddler, the game has changed a little, like this. Did I tell you he’s learned to say ‘no’? Yeah, there’s that.

1. Pick your moment; prepare the ground

For Henry, eating is still a matter of temperament. Sometimes he feels like it; sometimes he doesn’t. After much trial and error, I’ve learned the signs: he doesn’t want to eat when he’s just woken up, or very tired, or in the middle of something. He needs to be pre-warned. So I start explaining that it’s time to eat about twenty minutes before he ends up in the high chair. And then I explain that I’m making his sandwich. And then I explain that he can have a yoghurt afterwards if he eats the sandwich. If he doesn’t have a fair crack at the sandwich, he doesn’t get the yoghurt. It means I’m rabbiting on through most of lunch, but it manages his expectations, whether or not he’s practising selective hearing at the time.

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2. Think continental

Life is not normally neat and organised for us. But the rub is this: he definitely eats better when we’re at home and when we can take as long as we like over meals. Often I’ll put something down on the tray with him screeching indignation, and then fifteen minutes later, if I leave him to his own devices and don’t look bothered either way, he’ll start eating it. So whenever it’s possible, I think continental: long, lazy meals in a relaxed atmosphere. Cheese is optional (he doesn’t like it. Is he my child?!).

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3. Serve in courses, with the good stuff first

This was the one, transformative idea I took from the Bringing Up Bebe book. When is he hungriest? Right at the beginning. When is he most likely to eat the fruit and veg you need him to eat and he, apparently, needs to throw against the wall? Right at the beginning. I serve all his meals like this: I bring him vegetables right at the start (a mug of peas, a few red peppers, some oranges or grapes), and leave him there picking at them for ten minutes while I make the rest. If he eats nothing else, at least he’s had the good stuff. If he doesn’t eat even that, at least you tried.

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4. Force the first taste, then back off

This one still in force from last time. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s screamed to high heaven when I’ve come at him with a spoon, only to change his mind once he tasted it. Most days I have to pin him down to get the spoon near him. Then I leave him to decide whether he likes it. The house rule is still that he has to try everything once.

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5. DIY rules

Sometimes I think he’s throwing a fit over the food, when actually he just wants to use the spoon himself. This involves a certain amount of sacrifice on the part of his outfit and the nearby wall. If it means he eats more, I don’t mind. I can’t speak for the wall.

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6. If at first he hates its guts…

…keep on pushing it. Apparently a child needs to eat a food twelve times before they genuinely dislike it. I don’t force it into his mouth if he seems completely disgusted, but I do serve it again the next week. I’d like to say I’ve had some success stories with this method: the truth is that his dislikes are so random I can’t keep track of them. I live in hope, though. There was one time he ate raw tomato.

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7. Treat in treat-sized quantities

Now he’s past his immediate babyhood, I don’t believe in refusing him cake, chocolate or other dessert-type loveliness, or the occasional fast-food outing, or nice drink. This is where joy can be found, after all. If we’re eating it, it’s not really fair to say he can’t have it because it’s unhealthy. And I think that children who are never allowed treats at home tend to gorge until they’re sick in other places. But make them treats, not staple foods (ARE YOU LISTENING, SELF).

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8. Snack not, lest ye be disappointed

Another still-truism. His appetite is tiny (apart from that one time in London, with the pasta, etc etc). This is an especially hard principle to stick to now I’m pregnant and snacking ALL THE FREAKING TIME, but the fact remains: when he eats between meals, he doesn’t eat meals. I do a lot of secret eating these days.

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9. Big it up

I hope that one of the things we can bequeath to Henry eventually is an enthusiasm for food. Until that appears, I try to look and sound majorly excited about everything I serve him. Sometimes, just asking him for some and letting him feed you is enough to convince him that it’s worth trying. Sometimes. And other times, you just feel like an idiot, cheering for celery. But here’s the thing…

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10. Don’t panic

Can we be very serious for a moment? It’s ok. It’s really ok. You’re not a bad parent. Some kids don’t like to eat, and anything you can get into him is a triumph, some days. If you’re genuinely worried about his energy levels or bowel movements, see your doctor or health visitor. But I have never (ha!) in my life (haha!) worried about Henry’s energy levels (oh, stop!). There are days when he refuses everything and screams the house down and I find the nearest pillow and cry. But as long as he’s drinking plenty and eating some, I try not to worry. You shouldn’t either. It’ll all be fine.

From today. The tear on his face is real, in case you thought I had it all figured out.

From today. The tear on his face is real, in case you thought I had it all figured out.

(Ten tips for winning over your fussy eater: baby edition is here. I suspect we’ll be seeing each other again when I post the edition for five-year-olds, but let’s pretend I’ll be posting ‘Ten meals to cook for your sophisticated little gourmet’, instead.)

2 thoughts on “Ten tips for winning over your fussy eater: toddler edition

  1. Oh, I love this! Great suggestions, thank you! We really struggle getting Tess to eat too, so I will try some of these tips! One thing we have found some success with Tess is to let her help us prepare her food, then she is usually more inclined to eat it, or at least try it. Usually that just includes helping me stir, or trying to spread the jelly on her sandwich. Also, I find that if I give her a couple of choices on what to eat, she is more likely to try it, as she feels that she’s made the decision to eat herself.

    Lots of cute pics of Henry. Love it!

    • Those are both brilliant ideas, and I haven’t tried either of them! Will do so immediately. I definitely find, now that he’s older, that making him feel involved in the process as much as possible works better. He hates being forced to eat with no warning. Though sometimes I still do, depending on how calorie-deficient I think he is 🙂

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