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As most parents know, food and mealtimes can sometimes be a bit of a battle. This is one of the few areas where your toddler can express their growing independence and have control. In addition, small children are often naturally suspicious of new tastes and textures.

Here are some tips to help you avoid mealtime misery – and help tame the tyrant toddler in the high chair!

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Tips for making tea time fun

Tip #1: Think small

Toddlers can be put off by large portions. Keep servings small and appetising so eating doesn’t seem like a big task. Cut finger foods into bite-sized pieces that are easy for little hands to pick up.

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Tip #2: Stay calm

If your toddler rejects a particular food – or even a whole meal – remember, it’s the food they’re rejecting, not you. If your child doesn’t want to eat, take the food away without a fuss.

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Tip #3: Make food fun

Cutting foods into shapes or colouring them with fruit or vegetable juice can make food more appealing for kids, so they’re more likely to eat it.

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Tip #4: Talk and read about food

Talking and reading about different foods means that when it turns up on a toddler’s plate, they’re familiar with it and more willing to give it a go. Children’s books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli or I Will Never Not Ever Eat A Tomato are great for introducing wee ones to healthy foods. Can they try all the fruit and veg the caterpillar eats?

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Tip #5: Be patient

Toddlers tend to be naturally unadventurous. Experts say they may need to come across a new food five to 15 times before they’re willing to eat it or know if they like it. So if your wee one turns up their nose at something new, calmly take it away. You can try serving it again another time.

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Tip #6: Don’t bribe

Bribing, forcing or rewarding your child for eating is never a good idea. If you promise your child a biscuit for eating lunch, you are teaching them that lunch is a punishment and the biscuit is a reward.

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Tip #7: Let them help

Helping prepare a meal will make your child feel more part of things. Even young toddlers can be enlisted to tear the lettuce for a salad or wash fruit. Older ones can help with mixing and laying the table. Our page on tips to get the kids helping in the kitchen has more ideas.

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Tip #8: Make it special

Photo of a toddler eating

Children like to be independent and love having small bowls or ‘picnic plates’ of their own finger foods, such as strips of pasteurised cheese, toast fingers, raisins and vegetable sticks, as an alternative to a formal family meal.

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Tip #9: Keep it simple

Don’t waste time and energy creating over-elaborate meals. You can’t beat fresh food that tastes and looks good.

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Tip #10: Set a good example

group of children eating at a table

Kids learn by observation. If the family sits together at meal times, kids will be encouraged to eat by watching others.

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Tip #11: Don’t expect manners

It’s unrealistic to expect toddlers to have table manners. It’s natural for a young child to want to squash their food and explore it with their fingers. Playing is part of understanding. Put a sturdy bib on them, protect the floor with a plastic tablecloth and don’t fret. They’ll get tidier in their eating habits as they get older!

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Tip #12: Know when to call it a day

If your child stops eating, turns away or gives you other signs that they’ve had enough, it’s time to call a halt. Trying to force children to carry on eating when they’ve had enough just gets everyone cross and grouchy and could lead to them overeating. Mealtimes should not really last longer than 30 minutes.

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Tip #13: Stay cool about mess

Finger feeding is fun but, like all feeding at this stage, it can be messy. Instead of fretting about sticky fingers, give in to the fact that mess is all part of the fun and experience of eating. Have a cloth handy to wipe hands and mouth at the end of the meal.

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Tip #14: Try not to worry

Faddy eating is usually more of an issue for parents than it is for toddlers. A child who is growing, has lots of energy and is offered healthy choices almost always balances their food intake over time.

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Top tips from parents

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"One of my best tips for getting her kids to eat healthily is by making meal time a fun experience for them. I like to call my meals ‘dinosaur food’ or ‘tiger food’ which encourages the kids to eat without any fuss."

"One of my top tips for getting my kids to eat healthily is to make homemade croquettes using pureed vegetable and mashed potatoes, coated with egg and then breadcrumbs. I sometimes use fun cookie cutter shapes and then roast them in the oven."

“Our kids always enjoy peeling the shells off hard boiled eggs. And you can get them to count down with the timer while the eggs boil.” 

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