The Four Keys to Ending Food Wars

Photography: Loren Stow

We’ve all been there… the day that our once-compliant and well-fed baby turns her nose up at meal-time, followed by a clear and concise ‘no!’. She shakes her head and just plainly refuses a meal that mere days ago she gobbled down with delight! And before you know it, she’s surviving on a diet of cheese curls and banana – refusing any other food-related material that tries to pass her lips…

How did this happen? And why? And… most importantly… will it ever end?

Firstly, let us start by saying that your toddler is not the first, nor will she be the last, to baffle a parent at possibly every mealtime for months on end…

The reason for this is because the first year of life is one of tremendous growth, where a baby can triple its birth weight. Yes – that is some serious growing, and nutrition is very important to support this growth. However, from gaining around 6kgs in the first year, your toddler will only gain around 1-2kgs in her second year. Therefore, she doesn’t need as much food as she once did.

This reduction in appetite, coupled with a complete lack of a social understanding of food, creates a toddler who often is not hungry and doesn’t want to eat at mealtimes. Your toddler simply does not understand that breakfast time means sitting down to eat – unlike adults who will often eat at prescribed mealtimes (whether or not they are hungry), because we have a strong social understanding of eating (which our toddlers have yet to learn).

Now, there is little you can do to increase a toddler’s appetite, but there are certain key points to remember to make it easier to coax your little one into eating at mealtimes. This is important to try to achieve, as you are laying the foundation of your toddler’s social and emotional connections to food during the second year of life.

1. Don’t fall back on a bottle of milk…

The most important key to remember is that your toddler must be hungry enough to want to eat. So, cast your mind as to what you are feeding your toddler and when. Then ask yourself if your toddler is simply not hungry enough to try that balanced meal you worked so hard to prepare?

One of the biggest culprits in keeping toddlers’ tummies full is too much milk. According to Ann Richardson (author of Toddlersense), your toddler needs only about 400mls of normal milk per day, and this includes sources such as yogurt and cheese as well. Ann suggests two bottles per day only – one in the early morning and one at night before bed.

Many parents decide to give their toddler a bottle of milk when they’ve skipped a meal in order to ensure that they’re getting enough ‘goodness’ into them… However, this is only serving to fill your toddler’s tummy and make her even less likely to try to eat at mealtimes.

On the contrary, it is in her best interest to make sure that she is hungry enough to want to explore new tastes and textures at mealtime – or else your toddler might get stuck at eating only a limited number of foods for many years to come!

2. Don’t overlook those empty calories…

The second culprit is feeding your toddler empty calories – such as cheese curls, biscuits and the like.  Because these snacks taste good, a toddler will almost ‘inhale’ them in a gleeful mini-binge… however, these foods are once again taking up valuable tummy-space and are leaving your toddler with a feeling of being full. And… come meal-time… your toddler isn’t hungry enough to eat.

Don’t skip the snacks altogether, since there is much research that supports six small meals a day in order to keep your blood sugar levels constant. However, make these healthy snacks and time them so that they are not too close to meal-times.

3. Just relax…

Often, when a toddler doesn’t eat they’re greeted with Mom making airplane noises as the food ‘flies’ into their mouths, while Dad is dancing and singing a tune – all in an effort to get her to eat… Naturally, this is entertaining and your little one will want more, and she knows that to make this happen again, all she has to do is refuse to eat…

In short, when your toddler refuses to eat, don’t make a big fuss. Try simply removing the plate and telling her, “Don’t worry honey, you don’t have to eat. When you’re hungry, you tell Mommy,” at which point you can offer the food she refused earlier. No fuss, no pleading, no amazing entertainment show…

4. Set the tone…

During the second and third years of life, your toddler is closely studying the key people in her life for their responses to their environment. In that way she learns a great deal about the world around her, including what is desirable and what is not desirable. Toddlers are not called ‘little sponges’ for nothing.

Because of this, it is important to model for your child how much you enjoy eating healthy, good food. Use facial expressions and words to show them how much you enjoy eating, and why not put an apple up as a reward for being good instead of a chocolate? 

Conversely, if you have a dislike for a certain food (for me, it’s peanut butter), don’t pass this onto your children. I ensure that I offer my children foods that I don’t necessarily like, because they might like them one day!

It may seem obvious now, but let’s recap:

Toddlers are no longer as hungry as they once were because they are simply not growing as fast as they did when they were babies. Toddlers have no social or emotional concept of food, so they still have to learn why they need to eat at certain times. As parents, it is our role to introduce our toddlers to the social, nurturing and comforting value of good food, but it is often difficult, especially when we don’t allow them to become hungry enough to want to eat. If we never allow our toddlers to associate hunger with the relief of eating nutritious food, they will most likely continue to refuse food at mealtimes.

So, become a ‘food detective’ and figure out if you’re often n allowing your toddler to become hungry enough to be motivated to enjoy good food and experiment with new tastes at mealtimes. A child will never starve itself, although many will embark on ‘hunger strikes’ that will send a parent into an emotional and mental tizz… But hold steadfast, and at least allow your toddler to opportunity to feel a bit hungry at times, as well as the awesome satisfaction that good food brings afterwards.

These tips may not completely fix the frustrations and fears that parents face at mealtimes with a toddler, because toddlers are toddlers after all! However, they may go a long way towards making it a little easier to deal with this common stage in development.

Good luck!

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better

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One thought on “The Four Keys to Ending Food Wars

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is so true, my daughter is 18 months, and getting food into her is inpossible at times. But 'n do have one rule no sweets or cookies if she dit not have a good meal. But one thing she wil eat day and night is noodles with grated cheese or noodels and soup and I can live with this….but o boy no veggies. But she loves pears and grapes and other fruits. So food for mon and child will always be an ongoing struggle, but thank you for this blog it helped me as a new mom a lots of times…keep up the good work.

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