Toddler Nutrition: Common questions and hurdles around feeding your growing kids

Feeding your toddler can be both a fun and a stressful event as they gain more independence, are able to eat meals resembling more what you put your own plate, but as they also start to challenge you as a parent. We tackle a few common themes we see in clinic, and how to navigate some of the more challenging behaviours so they don’t last long, and you can ensure a safe and healthy food relationship in your children.

What foods are important for my toddler and should they be eating the same as us?

Foods are crucial to continue healthy and optimal growth and development. You want a wide range of foods in your child’s menu now, and including plenty of brain friendly fats, muscle and energy building protein, and lots of different micronutrients by having a wide choice of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, eggs, and meats/fish available to your toddler. They should be comfortable eating a smaller (but maybe more chopped up) version of what you put on the table, and avoiding a diet high in packaged foods, any diet or low fat products, or baby foods now.

My toddler wants a different meal to what I make for the family? Should I make this even though they usually eat what I’ve put on the table?

If your children don’t want dinner, or don’t like what you have made them, then that’s fine as they don’t need to be forced to eat it, but don’t go make them something else. The second you do, you’ll be making different meals for every person in your house in no time. Never make rules on the food itself, but the behaviour around the food. For instance, you don’t have to eat it, but we don’t throw it across the table. Teach manners early, and expected behaviour at the table as this will make your life easier as they grow and help to prevent issues with food.

My toddler doesn’t eat a lot but they love their bottle so I’ve kept them on formula which means they’re getting all the nutrients they need right?

We encourage you to not rely on formula products from 12 months as the insurance policy for nutrition. Remember that while formula is absolutely necessary in the absence of breast milk prior to 12 months, the synthetic vitamins and highly inflammatory vegetable oils should not be a substitute for whole food ingredients past this age.

From 12 months, your child no longer requires an infant formula and you can make the switch to regular cow’s milk, or a suitable alternative if your child has a dairy allergy or you’d prefer to stay off dairy.

Remember, from 6 months, breastmilk/formula no longer gives your child everything they need and this is why we introduce solids in the first place. From 12 months,  regular milk is only required to meet calcium recommendations and it should not be forming the basis of your child’s diet; three main meals and snacks in between should be how your child meets their nutrient requirements. Breastmilk or a bottle can still be your comfort solution if desired within your sleep and family routine.

Help! My child used to be a great eater but now only eat tiny amounts. I’m worried they’re not eating enough.

This is common, especially in kids who go to day care and eat plenty with their peers. They come home tired and would prefer a small meal and go to bed, rather than eat a large dinner that we as adults are used to doing. So long as your child is still maintaining a healthy growth, sleeping well or how they’ve always slept, and are happy, you shouldn’t get concerned straight away. Check in with other carers to see if they are indeed eating well at day care and just keep in mind that the last meal of the day for a child may well be a small one. If they are ill, don’t expect their appetite to be normal.

If my kids don’t eat their dinner, should I bribe them with a sweet treat?

Dessert should never be offered simply because you ate your dinner and it should never be used as a bribe. By offering dessert because a child ate their vegetables or their main meal, you are teaching your children that dessert is somehow superior, and their main meals are somehow hard work or punishment to get to the prize. This encourages kids to favour that ‘treat” and makes meal times harder for parents with stubborn kids.

My toddler is becoming more and more fussy with food and often all I can get him to eat is [chicken nuggets, marmite sandwich, banana…etc] – help!

Most children will go through a fussy stage starting from anywhere between 12-24 months with most children going through this phase around 18 months.  In can potentially last for a year or more and how you manage your child’s fussy eating is key to preventing long-term issues. Here are some tips to start with

  • Check in with your attitude and the environment around mealtimes. Are you relaxed, patient and kind?
  • Do you force your child to eat another bite or eat certain foods because “they must eat what is on their plate” and do you get frustrated when this doesn’t happen?
  • Do you give in every time they ask for something else in order to make sure they’ve eaten something? Kids are smart, and if they refuse broccoli and meatballs, knowing you’ll give in to yoghurt and crackers, this is going to be a hard habit for you to break. Within reason, you’re allowed to make one meal and that’s it. You don;t force feed them, nor do you need to threaten, but if they don’t eat it that’s fine, there simply isn’t another option. Do try to mix new foods with safe foods though so they’re not overwhelmed by seeing things that are foreign to them.
  • What about your child’s chair and eating equipment – are they age appropriate and are you engaging with your child when they eat, or are they placed away from the rest of the family eating alone?
  • Have a look into the division of responsibility parenting guidelines where “Parent provides, child decides.” This means you provide a range of foods for your child to eat at specific mealtimes and they decide which foods they will eat and how much of each, if any. It helps to create mindful eaters, and ensures meal times have an element of control for both parents and for the child, and this is important to prevent some boundary testing in children later.
  • Continue to provide a range of healthy foods and model healthy eating behaviour such as eating at the table, calm and relaxed eating settings, and not being picky about the foods on your own plate.
  • Keep the language you use about food fairly neutral. Yes, vegetables are healthy and fried foods less so but we can model this behaviour rather than talking about it. E.g. don’t growl your child if they don’t eat their vegetables; likewise don’t be over-the-top with your praise if they do eat their broccoli.
  • Make sure your child is hungry for their meals. Children need frequent, small meals and snacks but this doesn’t mean they should be continuously grazing all day. If you feed them afternoon tea 20 minutes before dinner, they’re less likely to eat it.
  • An iron or zinc deficiency can also be an underlying cause of fussy eating. Speak with your GP or a degree-qualified nutritionist for further advice. Our top picks are registered with The Nutrition Society of NZ only. If your child exhibits extremely difficult behaviour around eating and food, then we suggest asking for an ARFID approved dietician only to help. Do not risk your child’s behaviour and future on a cheaper, less qualified individual if they do indeed have extreme eating issues.

Other important tips for healthy eating behaviour in children

  • Teach your children about their hunger and satiety (fullness) cues. Kids need to learn how to be both hungry and when they’ve had enough to eat without you overriding their satiety-cues by getting them to eat more often or eat what you’ve put on their plate.
  • When eating out of the house and you are after something other than chicken nuggets, then aim to have your children order off the adult menu rather than a kids menu, and ask for half portions. While chips can be great at some events, if you’re out and about often, it’s best to keep them eating as you do.
  • Eat at the dinner table as a family as often as possible and avoid eating in front of screens at all times.
  • It’s important your child feels included at the dinner table. When they’re in a highchair, try to ensure they are seated at the same level as you. When they show signs of wanting to be out of the highchair (climbing out, not wanting to be strapped in, sudden defiance at mealtimes), have your child seated at the table with you.