My toddler won’t eat!

A beautiful thing about the early days of our baby’s life is that their entire nutritional requirements were met through breast milk or formula. Then we start making choices about when to replace that liquid gold with food, knowing which foods are the healthiest options, and how much to give, which can be a worry! In the transition, we lovingly prepare each meal and snack and we present these foods to our babes who often enjoy the experience, which can be a fun and stress-free time for us. Then our babies turn into toddlers.
Feeding a toddler can quickly turn our passion for making healthy foods being into a source of exhaustion and frustration. A challenge faced by most parents of toddlers is getting them to eat well! And as parents, we worry that they may not be eating enough of the ‘right’ foods, some toddlers will eat only a list of about 5-10 different foods, and some seem happy to survive on air!

The worry associated with a toddler’s dietary intake, versus their nutritional requirements is immense in some parents. Many are unsure if their toddler’s eating is a problem that requires professional advice, or if they should persist on a trial and error-style, hoping for change. Some initial check points may help you feel more empowered in gauging whether your toddler is eating adequately enough, and in knowing what to do next.

  • Consider their growth and development, both physically and mentally. Are they gaining some weight and getting taller? This is extremely individual and although there are growth charts, it doesn’t mean your child has to be on the 50th percentile to be healthy! This is important to remember, you might have a child that is meeting physical and developmental milestones yet is on the 3rd percentile for weight, this is just fine! If you have smaller child, it is a good idea to check your child’s weight and height every few months. Even for a small child, you should still see some growth (both weight and height) over time.
  • In addition to physical growth, is your toddler meeting developmental milestones? This is another very individual consideration, however important when considering their dietary intake. Are they walking, talking, and engaging in play? Look at your little one and consider whether they appear to be progressing, even if it is at a slower rate than others. Naturally, some children will be take more time to meet certain milestones, than others.
  • Finally, is your toddler generally happy and content? This is a huge one! Yet another subjective consideration, as we all know toddlers can go through a whole range of emotions at times. Many parents who are concerned about their toddlers eating habits can say that MOST of the time, their little one is still happy and content. If you notice your toddler is consistently irritable, grumpy and tired, this can be a signal that they are not eating sufficiently to support their nutritional needs.

If you have concern that your child’s growth and/or development is not adequate, consider contacting Everyday Eating for individualised advice from an Accredited Practising Dietitian. Your Dietitian will also discuss with you whether General Practitioner may be beneficial and/or a referral to a paediatric specialist for further testing.
If, after considering the above points, you are able to say ‘yes’ my toddler is growing; meeting milestones; is happy and content, then you can probably carry on riding through this phase, knowing your little one is OK. Naturally, you still want to know that they are on their way to meeting their nutritional requirements. The key is to consider your child’s intake over a week or two rather than just one day. Balance is the aim, their daily dietary intake should contain a combination of foods from the five food groups.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend toddlers (2-3 years) consume:

  • 2 ½ serves of vegetables (1 serve=1/2 cup cooked/1 cup raw salad/ ½ medium potato)
  • 1 serve of fruit (1 serve=1 medium/2 small/1 cup diced fruit)
  • 4 serves of grains (1 serve=1 slice bread/ ½ medium roll/1/2 cup pasta or rice/ ½ cup cooked porridge/ 2/3 cup wheat flakes cereal)
  • 1 serves of meat/meat alternatives (1 serve=65g cooked red meat/80g cooked lean poultry/100g cooked fish fillet/2 large eggs/1 cup legumes)
  • 1 ½ – 2 serves of dairy (1 serve=1 cup milk/40g cheese/200g yoghurt)

Many toddlers consume excessive amounts of fruit, including sultanas, and juice! Even when juice has no added sugar, it is highly concentrated with fructose (the sugar in fruit), for this reason it should not be a regular part of a toddler’s dietary intake (if it is occasionally provided, limit to ½ cup). Fresh fruit is always best and water or milk for drinks. The sweetness of fruit is most often the attraction, compared with vegetables. Often fruit is offered to babies before vegetables, which can trigger their desire for sweet tasting food early on. To help your toddler enjoy the taste of vegetables, always offer them before fruit and don’t serve fruit on the same plate as vegetables, cut and cook the vegetables in various ways (raw, steam, roast), and include sweeter vegetables initially such as peas, pumpkin, and corn.
Along with fruit, grains are one of the food groups most typically accepted by toddlers. For this reason it is important to provide wholegrain and high fibre options only and in small amounts at each meal, to save space in their little tummies for other food groups!
Meat/meat alternatives includes poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes/beans. These are all extremely good sources of protein and many essential vitamins. This can be a difficult food group for some toddlers, so the key is to try many different cooking methods. For example, thinly sliced beef served with a known favourite (maybe mashed potato), fish cooked in patties with peas and corn, or egg made into a small omelette with cheese and ham.
Another high protein food group is dairy, which may be more consistently accepted. From 12 months, toddlers can have full cream cow’s milk, after two years reduced fat is acceptable, however not encouraged, as full cream provides more energy for their rapidly moving little bodies! Be aware of the high sugar content in yoghurts, even if there are marketed for children. Check that the sugar content (listed under total carbohydrate on the nutrition label) of the yoghurt is less than 10g/100g. The best option is to provide a plain unflavoured yoghurt and add a small piece of banana or a tablespoon of berries to sweeten if needed.

For individualised support and advice, or for clarification of any of the above information, please contact Everyday Eating

Thanks for reading,

References: Eat For Health. Australian Dietary Guidelines. 2013.

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