The toddler years are a labour-intensive phase of parenting – as your child learns about food, they're feeling a lot, pushing back a lot and don't have a lot of impulse control, says Dr Julie Boshale.
"What toddlers are looking for is a battle and if we give it to them then basically they've won."
Bhosale shares some tips from her new book The Nourished Toddler (a follow-up to 2017's The Nourished Baby) and a recipe for tofu curry that she reckons toddlers will eat:
- Recipe: Toddler-friendly tofu curry
She says age two to four is the peak time for food 'fussiness', but the word 'fussy' isn't really accurate, says Bhosale, an AUT researcher, nutrition lecturer and mother-of-two.
"No-one really likes being told what to do ... [at that age] pants are optional, but eating kind of isn't – and it's almost like [the child knows that] so they're gonna start pushing boundaries."
All toddlers have hunger hormones surging and boys have ten times the amount of testosterone driving aggression and hunger, Bhosale says.
Strong-willed children will also have a lot more energy for food battles.
When a toddler throws food on the ground from their high chair, they're not being 'naughty', she says.
"They're just seeking our response. Is that something normal? Are they able to get away with it? What sort of attention do they get for it?"
When your toddler does that, Bhosale suggests immediately taking them out of the highchair and away from the table.
"If you physically remove them from the table and the high chair it's a really clear boundary. They don't get the food, they don't get mum and dad and they don't get to be part of the family."
Parents are often too quick to offer food alternatives when toddlers reject what they're given, she says.
"The great thing about them having a very low impulse control is it's almost impossible for them to override that hunger hormone.
"We actually want a child to learn to respond to their hunger signals because that's gonna teach them to eat instinctively.
"One really bad night where a toddler might go to bed hungry is gonna give you leverage for quite a long time.
"They're gonna learn pretty quickly that that's not a pleasant experience for them."
Dr Julie Bhosale's tips:
Up the fat
Giving your toddler a good amount of dietary – saturated, not trans – fat from the likes of olive oil, salmon and butter will keep them in balance, Bhosale says.
"Toddlers spend so much of their waking moments trying to control all of their emotions and express themselves – so if they're getting any blood sugar spikes that's just gonna make it harder for them."
"Most of us, as adults, when we get hungry or have something quite high in sugar we really struggle to process that but we've got a fairly good handle on our cognitive function - whereas toddlers don't."
Cut the sugar
Toddlers are reliant on us as adults to protect them from the "food environment", Bhosale says.
"Even our World Health Organisation guidelines are very clear – no added sugar for a toddler under two."
Even fruit added to yoghurt is essentially added sugar, Bhosale says.
After the age of two, complete deprivation is difficult, but keep an eye on it, she says.
Watch the fruit
Fruit isn't bad but limit the amount you give babies and toddlers and, when possible, serve it with a source of protein or fat, Bhosale says.
"I love [my six and three year old sons] to bits, but they live life at 200 percent. If I gave them lots and lots of sugar – including from fruit – I would have a harder job of controlling their behaviour."
Mind the milk
For children past the age of one, 'toddler milk' formulas doesn't fall under World Health Organisation guidelines as a breast milk substitute so it can be "very aggressively marketed" as a substitute, Bhosale says.
"Toddlers need an opportunity to taste and try foods and experience that sensation of hunger. If we rush in and give them lots of it's gonna take that away."
Too much milk can also affect your child's gut and deliver too much calcium, she says.
"It's a delicate balance because toddlers need calcium but too much calcium is going to inhibit iron absorption."
Offer a 'trying plate' alongside their meal
A trying plate could include vegetables and perhaps mussels (which are very high in iron but an unusual texture).
"I can put things on the trying plate – if they want to try it, great, if they don't, great."
The 'trying plate' helps to mediate some of the guilt parents feel about making a meal only for it to be destroyed.
This also helps with toddlers concerned about certain foods touching each other.
Get the veges in at breakfast time
Bhosale often has a big cooked breakfast with her family – eggs, mushrooms and baked beans – or smoothies with vegetables.
She and the parents she works with have had success with feeding their kids vegetables in the morning rather than at the end of the day.
"If they're battling with their own emotions for 10 hours, come 5pm they're really exhausted and so are we as parents – and yet that's the time we try and convince them that broccoli is amazing.
"If we get it in the morning, that's when they're fresh, that's when they're more likely to be hungry, that's when we're fresh and it's also when we're at home."
"A little bit more work in the morning might take some pressure off in the evening."