Food fads and discerning tastes are not just for the rich and famous. There is a good chance you will encounter them in your kitchen by the time your little prince or princess turns two.
While there may be developmental reasons for your toddler's picky habits, it can be frustrating if they resist eating healthy and nutritious meals.
If you are struggling with fussy eaters, or mealtimes have morphed into the Hunger Games, consider these tips for your toddlers:
1. Relaxed mealtimes
Eating should be a chilled out and joyful affair for all the family. If you have a toddler in the midst - hurling food at dinner guests and yelling louder than Gordon Ramsay in Hell's Kitchen - it is tempting to delay your own mealtime. However, including your toddler in family mealtimes will hone their social skills and eating habits. Pull up the highchair or fit the booster seat to include your toddler in the conversation.
Allow your toddler sufficient time to eat their meal, reserving at least 20 minutes so they don't feel rushed. Toddlers are notoriously slow eaters because they eat each piece of food individually. Switch off distractions such as the TV, computer and iPhone, to keep them on task.
2. Don't stress about mess
Little children often like to feed themselves. They may want to explore the textures of food and experiment by squishing, stirring and splattering it. If your little one clamps their mouth shut when the spoon comes their way, try handing it to them to hold. You will bestow on them the ability to fling food to the wall, decorate your floor, and assert their independence.
Accept that most young children are messy eaters because they are still developing their social and motor skills. However, it might be a good idea to cover up the carpets with newspaper or a plastic sheet. Reduce the quantity of food given at any time so there is less to spread. Don't pick up food from the floor until they have finished eating - otherwise you may find yourself participating in a perpetual game of "clean up the blobs".
If you're out and about, consider a picnic rather than dining in at a café or restaurant. Our family chooses early restaurant sittings where there are tiled floors and loud music that muffles any squeals. Remember that your child won't be the first patron to spill food. As one maitre d' said: "Children make less mess than their parents primarily because they don't drink red wine".
3. Limit fluids and snacks
If you don't want picky eaters at mealtimes, you need to limit grazing during the day. Keep your toddlers' snacks and fluid in balance so that they can eat three sustaining meals each day. Plunket advises that children aged between 1 and 2 years should not consume any more than 500-600ml of milk per day - with one small snack between meals. Healthy snacking options include small amounts of fruit, yoghurt, cheese or cold cooked vegetables.
4. Changing the menu
Children often refuse a new food even before tasting it and may need to see food many times before trying it. Toddlers are more likely to try different foods that their family and friends are enjoying, so will appreciate you eating the new food with them. It is helpful to introduce your little one to a variety of food from an early age. We buy My Food Bag, so our little one has grown to enjoy a variety of meals.
There are a few ways you can introduce a fussy eater to new foods while allowing them to enjoy their current favourites. If your kids like to keep foods pure, you can serve up a side of something new with their old favourites. Otherwise, add to their favourites, such as by mashing vegetables in to their usual baked potato or favourite pasta sauce. Do this over a period of several days, increasing the amount until they eat the new food by itself.
5. Finger foods
Try finger foods if it is a struggle to get your toddler to eat their vegetables or meat. Children often like bite sized pieces, with the option to sauce and dip so they feel in control. Some parents cut sandwiches and other foods into shapes, although you don't need to sculpt dishes to make them fun.
You can see some of Wattie's finger food ideas, such as hard boiled eggs, bananas and mini meat balls on their website.
6. Allow refusal of food
Toddlers like to be independent and let you know what they like and do not like. They may decide to reject your food due to your culinary 'failures,' such as blurring the boundary between bananas and blueberries, failing to call fish fingers "chicken", or forgetting to remove the crusts. So that they know they are understood, your toddler may throw the food back at you, or let out a cry that can be heard across the Tasman.
Your child has the right to say "no" to food, regardless of whether your culinary delight would make Nigella swoon. Never insist that your child eats everything on the plate. They have likes and dislikes, just as adults do. And, like some adults, they go through fads.
Don't stress if they rejects their favourite food, as maybe they want a change, or could be feeling a little off colour. Just give them a break or incorporate the foods back into the menu with other flavours.
Engaging in power struggles about certain foods is unhelpful, and force feeding and fussing gives negative attention to food refusers. Let your little one decide how much to eat according to appetite.
As parenting expert Dr Christopher Green says in his book Toddler Taming, "no child has ever starved to death through stubbornness".
While fussy eating can be worrying, Plunket advises that provided your child is growing and developing appropriately, they are getting enough food. For further information about dietary requirements, contact your medical professional or nutritionist, or refer to Plunket.