Toddler fussy eaters: How do you make kids like good food?

Parenting writer and blogger Yvonne Gavan gives five table-top tips for toddler fussy eaters

Princess and the pea

The princess and the pea. But how can I get her to eat the bl**dy thing?? Laura Eades 2014

Yvonne Gavan writes:

I wonder how many hours, or even days, I’ve spent at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, willing a small child to take just one more mouthful of food. It’s a battle that I’ve had time and time again with each of my three children. Usually around the time they turn two. And as you’d imagine, being on battle territory, neither of us wants to give in.

Every child has their own preferences – and a strong will

Yes, it’s one of the most common struggles of parenthood: I want you, small person, to be well nourished, healthy and strong. I want you to eat this carefully prepared food. You (small person) just want (mostly) to do what you want. You might be hungry. You might not. You might like the look of the peas, but you might not like the look of the cottage pie. You might like banana cut up into little pieces. Or, you might like squishing banana between your fingers. You might want to play instead because being strapped into your high chair is boring. So, after many years of sitting at the kitchen table, my experience has taught me this: when it comes to toddler dinner times, the recipe for success is not to stress.

Let it go. In the scheme of things…

Firstly, take a step back. If your little one doesn’t want to eat the food you’ve made for her, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a personal thing. And – if my extremely wilful children are anything to go by – all the coercing in the world is not going to make a blind bit of difference. Now I know that if my daughter doesn’t eat her five portions of fruit and veg every single day it’s okay. I’ve been there. I’ve lay awake at night, worrying that my child isn’t getting enough vitamins and fibre. But it is a phase and with gentle persistence they do grow out of it. The guilt can get to you though, and if your child is refusing everything but Wotsits and blackcurrant squash, resort to vitamin drops.

You can’t fix it. But you can try a little bit of this…

There are also practical things you can do to help broaden their food horizons. You may have heard these tips before and you may have tried them already, but there’s no harm in trying them again. Because when it comes to kids and healthy eating, gentle persistence is key.

  1. Cultivate an interest in food. If you have time, let them chose ingredients and even do basic cooking with you. Look at books about food – story books, recipe books, and ask them what they like. It’s okay for them to have a few favourites (frozen fish fingers are not evil – served with pasta and broccoli or peas and a dollop of ketchup a couple of times a week they’re fine). But encourage them to try new meals (or healthy deserts) based around the foods they enjoy.
  2. Go for peer pressure. If your little one attends a nursery where they serve hot meals find out what their favourites are and replicate them at home.
  3. Be sneaky. If you know they like spaghetti with tomato sauce, get out the food processor and add carrots, celery and other veg to your homemade version. Tempt them with healthy smoothies made with fresh fruit. Think about what a child wants to see on their plate. Get them to eat by turning their dinner into a face or a garden. Buy plates with little sections to make their meal look more interesting.
  4. Bake healthy treats. So you feel good about them having something sweet. I make cookies and muffins and always add a bit of mashed banana, cooked pumpkin or unsweetened applesauce (a great substitute for sugar). Nut butters are also great to add as a yummy protein source. So if your two year old is having a picky day and won’t eat more than a mouthful of dinner before bed, let them have a healthy muffin and a glass of milk. At least you know they’ll sleep well. You can always try again tomorrow.
  5. And be kind. This doesn’t mean letting them have a whole packet of Jammy Dodgers. It just means understanding when they’re tired at the end of a busy day and don’t feel like tucking into a plate of meatballs. Sometimes all you might fancy for supper is crackers and cheese or fruit and yoghurt. Why should they be any different?

Finally, in the life of a parent there are many power struggles. Why make food into yet another one? This doesn’t mean giving up or giving in.

Between the ages of three and four, my eldest would have a meltdown if dinner consisted of anything apart from plain pasta with cheese. She’s now eight and is very adventurous with her food. I can’t tell you how happy I was when she said her favourite dinner was lentil curry with all the trimmings. Now when she polishes off a whole bowl of salad I feel an enormous sense of pride. Yes. It was a bit of a battle. But we got there in the end.

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Yvonne Gavan blogs about her experiences as an ex-pat three-child family in Barbados at She’s a freelance journalist who writes regularly on parenting topics, and other topics too, for The Independent, Sunday Magazine, SHE, Woman’s Own, Bella, Closer, Practical Parenting, Woman, Junior, and Pick Me Up. She can be found on Twitter: @yvonnegavan, and is contactable for journalistic work via

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