As they grow, most toddlers go through a phase of only opting to eat particular foods. Some may only eat a few foods or very little or sometimes refuse to eat altogether. For some children, faddy eating means refusing all types of fruit and vegetables. Others want the same food for every meal, or insist on food of a certain colour. According to pediatricians, this is a normal phase of their development that will eventually pass.
Dr Edgar Kalimba, a pediatrician at King Faisal Hospital, Kigali, says while some parents can choose to stick to only food that their toddler enjoys, it can lead to unhealthy growth and malnutrition of the baby if the parents are not careful enough.
Therefore, he says, it is necessary that in whatever approach a parent may use they should always ensure that their diets contain enough protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals. This way, a child will be healthy, grow normally and achieve all development milestones.
Kalimba notes that the child’s poor appetite may also be a result of an underlying health condition such as intestinal parasites which cut the appetite.
“In such instances, they can be given medication to kill the parasites and to boost the appetite,” he says.
Venuste Muhamyankaka, the president of Rwanda Nutritionists’ Society, says it is very important for kids to have meals away from distractions such as the television, pets, games and toys. These, he says, make it more difficult for your toddler to concentrate on eating.
“Letting the toddler know how happy you are with them when they eat well also helps boost their appetite. They will enjoy the praise and it may encourage them to continue eating. However, there is no need to coax, bribe or plead with your toddler. A little gentle encouragement is fine, but never insist that they finish everything on their plate,” he counsels.
Muhamyankaka says if you only give toddlers attention when they are not eating, they may start to refuse food just to get a reaction. “If they don’t finish their meal within about half an hour, take the uneaten food away without commenting. They are unlikely to suddenly finish it. Just accept that they’ve had enough and move on.”
Muhamyankaka also advises that mealtimes should be relaxed and enjoyable. “Parents can arrange to make their fuzzy toddlers eat with other children as often as possible. Invite one of your toddler’s nursery or preschool friends over for tea. Your toddler may eat better when they see others their own age happily tucking in.
On the other hand, Olivier Hirwa, a nutritionist and food scientist, says when serving new foods you can disguise them by mixing them with those foods the baby likes.
For instance, he says, a parent can mix an unfamiliar food, like peppers with pasta sauce, soup, or curry, but he/she should not try and hide them under other foods, otherwise you risk the whole meal being rejected.
Do think of different ways to present foods, says Hirwa.
“Your child may refuse fresh tomatoes but accept a tomato based soup, for example. Some parents disguise fruit and vegetables, pureeing vegetables into a mince-based dish, or using fruit purees in cooking. Keep trying. If food is rejected, it doesn’t mean they will never eat it. Children’s tastes do change over time. It can take many attempts to get a child to eat new food,” he says.
Make mealtimes consistent
Hirwa says it is very crucial to work out a daily feeding routine that fits around your toddler’s daytime sleep pattern. This should include three meals and two or three nutritious snacks, spaced throughout the day. Toddlers thrive on routine and enjoy knowing what to expect.
“If your toddler gets too tired, they may become fed up and not want to eat. Ask everyone in the family, and anyone else who feeds your toddler, such as nursery staff or your childminder, to follow your approach and routine. Make sure your child is hungry before mealtimes,” he counsels.
Anastasie Mukakayumba, a Kicukiro-based nutritionist, advises that it is essential to regulate drinks intake throughout the day.
“The child may refuse to eat because they have been drinking excessively. It is very important to monitor the quantity of fluids they are taking so that they can have space for a meal,” she says.
Children should also not be offered snacks too close to mealtimes as they may be too full to eat their lunch or dinner. If they haven’t eaten their main meal well, don’t offer them a snack straight afterwards, says Mukakayumba.
“Although it’s tempting to make sure they eat something, it’s best to stick to a set meal pattern. Wait until the next snack or meal before offering them food again. It is also crucial to offer a child small portions. Toddlers can be overwhelmed by big platefuls and lose their appetite. If your toddler finishes their small portion, praise them and offer them more,” she says.
How to tell your toddler is full
“Signs that your toddler’s had enough of a particular food, course or meal include:
keeping their mouth shut when offered food; saying “no” or turning their head away from the food being offered; pushing away a spoon, bowl or plate containing food; refusing to swallow food or spitting it out leaning out of their highchair; or trying to climb out crying or screaming,” says Mukakayumba.
She adds that if your toddler is showing signs of being full, simply take their plate away even if they haven’t had a lot. “They’ll probably fill up at the next meal or snack time if they aren’t interested then.”