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5 tips for cutting out toddler mealtime battles

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For many families with toddlers and young kids, mealtimes can turn into a battle ground.

Parents want their little ones to eat a range of healthy foods; not just that, but they want it done quickly, with no drama. Meanwhile, their little kids are testing their boundaries, realising they can have a voice and an opinion about what they like (and don’t like!). No wonder it can be so stressful!

Tell Me Baby spoke to Karina Savage, paediatric nutritionist and director of Tricky Little Tummies, to ask common questions about feeding toddlers. In the live Facebook chat, sponsored by Little Bellies, she explained there are a few things to keep in mind to reduce everyone’s stress.

Watch our full chat with Karina on Facebook, or read on to discover some of her top advice. (NB. Karina did not receive financial compensation for her appearance in the live Q&A.)

1. Lower your expectations (and don’t stress about vegies!)

First up: don’t expect your child to eat that carefully prepared, vegie-packed meal you spent way too long making.

“We have to accept the fact that they’re not necessarily going to eat five different coloured vegies by the age of three,” Karina says. 

Karina says that if your child is growing well and there are no real health problems, there’s a good chance they’re getting everything they need – even if they’re not eating much in the way of vegetables. “Often the nutrients in the different food groups can overlap so often they can get by,” she explains. 

Of course, if you’re really worried you can always get help – but as Karina says, “It’s about lowering our expectations … [and remembering] they need opportunities to learn about food in a non-pressurised, happy environment.”

2. Give them ‘safe’ foods and try a ‘no thank you’ bowl

Karina recommends providing ‘safe’ foods you know your child will eat, so there’s always something they’ll be able to fill up on, then some test foods – a few teaspoons – of something new, or something they’re not so sure about. You can also try a ‘learning plate’, as Karina suggests in her fussy eaters program. “[This is about] getting them to try it, maybe even being a ‘food scientist’ and just picking it up, looking at it. 

“And I encourage parents of children who are maybe four or five to perhaps have a ‘no thank you bowl’, where they’ve tried it and then they pop it into the ‘no thank you bowl’, because some children won’t handle having the food that they don’t like on the plate and they’ll be flicking it off.” 

3. Encourage them to play with food 

Playing with food is really important for young children to develop a trust in food, and they need more opportunities to be exposed to it. As Karina explains, “They haven’t been on this planet very long. They need to explore and experience food with all of their senses.” 

When they’re babies, this can mean just making a mess with their food. They need to smell, taste, feel and squish it so they start to understand and trust it. 

For toddlers, getting them involved in food preparation is a way to work on their fine motor skills – and, as a bonus, anytime they get involved with food they’re going to be more empowered to eat it. One example? “That might be sprinkling cheese or herbs onto some puff pastry that you put some tomato paste on, then you can roll it up together,” Karina suggests.

“It’s one more touch point they have with that food. You kind of have lots of multiple touch points and you eventually build on that. It depends on the food – you’re not always going to get buy-in with, maybe, brussels sprouts. But the more touch points you have, often your child will develop familiarity and accept it.”

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4. Remember food fussiness is completely normal 

Karina’s biggest tip when it comes to fussy eaters? “Realise that you are absolutely not alone, and that you are like about 50% of mums out there.”

She says that toddlerhood – and in particular, ages three and four – are prime ages for fussy eating. “It’s when they realise they can have a voice, when they realise food might disgust them. Understanding that this is a normal part of toddler development can help alleviate parent stress.” 

“Sometimes it’s still stressful and frustrating when your child doesn’t eat that healthy bit of broccoli or zucchini or whatever you’ve put on the plate. But I feel as parents, we need to understand this is a normal part of child development.

Eating with your child – showing them that you enjoy a variety of foods – will help. But we just need to remember that this experimentation (and, yes, rejection!) – is normal, too. 

5. And one thing to avoid

As worried as you may be about what your child is eating (or, more precisely, not eating), don’t argue or haggle – or physically try to make them eat it. 

“Parents have told me that they’ve had to hold their child down to force-feed them. And that’s just creating a real fight or flight environment for that child, and their cortisol and adrenaline is going up. Whenever children are feeling super pressured to eat, they’re going to put the walls up, and they’re going to want to remove themselves from any mealtime experience,” Karina says.

Instead, she says parents need to practice ‘responsive feeding’ – that means we need to remember that at every age, if they’re done, they’re done. 

“They have an innate ability to self-regulate what they need [so] we need to try to maximise their hungry times. You’ve got to remember they’ve got little tummies and they have maybe five or six opportunities to eat per day, and they might only eat well at three, maximum four, of those.” 

For a limited time, you can get Karina’s ‘Mealtimes Made Easy’ bundle for FREE – that’s 18 tried and tested kid-friendly recipes, pantry/fridge staples checklist and a 2-week meal plan. Use code TMB2022 at the checkout here at Tricky Little Tummies.

Follow Karina on Facebook or Instagram.

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