My two year old became a fussy eater overnight! Why it happens and what to do

If your child went from being a happy eater to a fussy eater overnight then this post could be just what you have been looking for. Perhaps more importantly, if you know someone who has a child about to hit their “terrible twos” then this is exactly what they need to read. Do them a favour, save them some grief and share this with them before they try and feed a toddler without being suitably briefed! Give the gift of knowledge!

Once upon a time we were smug, but uninformed parents. Our amazing, almost two year old, child would eat pretty much anything. He would happily devour most things that were put in front of him… including a pot of butter AND a hefty serving of Branston pickle once when we took our eyes off him for two minutes whilst out for lunch.

Then, one day it all changed. Suddenly, everything he liked he started turning his nose up at. Dinner times went from bliss to a battle ground. Our lovingly prepared home cooked food was unceremoniously dumped on the kitchen floor… or into the bin. Meal times were harrowing and family gatherings became discussion groups about how we could be doing a better job of raising our child! What the hell just happened!?

Turns out, although we felt alone, we were not. This phenomenon is common, even natural. It was great to know that we were not alone in our predicament. It was even better to find out that it was not our fault. It wasn’t us, it wasn’t our cooking, it was our son who was the problem… and it was perfectly natural.  The more we researched the problem the more we found out that the tendency for kids to become fussy eaters around two years old is part of their natural development.

There are a number of factors at play here. Firstly, fussy eating often coincides with a stage in a child’s development when they move from being an infant to a toddler. At this stage our kids develop a sense of autonomy and they begin to try establishing their new found independence. As any parent who has experienced this will know; toddlers can be stubborn, demanding, testing and much, much more. I guess they call it the “terrible twos” for a reason.

It should be no surprise then that these emotions spill over to the dinner table. Many meal time battles boil down to one thing: control. Toddlers yearn for it and parents struggle to relinquish it. Usually, parents have the upper hand in the control arena but all bets are off when it comes to feeding. If we ask a child to wash their face and they say no, we can do it for them. If we ask them to eat a carrot and they say no… we can’t do that for them or make them do it. It is a rare situation where our kids have the upper hand.

When it comes to feeding, kids are in the driving seat and, annoyingly, they know it. To make matters worse, the stakes are high… or at least they feel that way at the time. It’s like kids have a sixth sense, they can sense that we really want them to eat their dinner and they know that it will drive us nuts if they don’t! Refusal exerts control and is rewarded with extra attention from a child’s pleading parents, a double whammy win for any kid!

It gets worse. Research suggests that it is not just a psychological game of control but a child’s pre-programmed survival instincts are also at play here. The increased mobility which, by definition, comes with the toddler phase coincides with an instinctive defence against eating unfamiliar foods which may be unsafe or harmful. In itself, this is an amazing development designed to keep our kids safe… but it is really annoying at the dinner table. There is even some evidence to suggest that youngsters are genetically programmed to avoid plants in case they are poisonous…. Good luck getting that sautéed spinach into little Johnny!

Ok, so we understand why this is happening; it’s natural. So why fight it if it is nature at work? Well, the popular opinion amongst feeding professionals is that we should work with it and perhaps more importantly, rather than see this period as a challenge, see it as an opportunity. This phase can last for years so, as parents, we need a strategy that is going to save our sanities. We all eat every day, every meal time can’t be a battle… it would be exhausting!

Even if we did tough it out, we would be missing an opportunity. Yes, our effort may be met with resistance from our kids but that is life. My now five year old would never practice his reading at home if we did not encourage him and work with him. We don’t take the attitude of “it’s just a phase, he will learn to read eventually” with his education so why should we do it with his feeding? Kids won’t grow naturally into healthy eating habits and it is never too early to start. Kids won’t accept new foods and develop a love of food unless they are exposed to it… and the time is now. We can use this phase of development to implement simple methods to get our kids familiar with new foods, try different textures and flavours and build a solid foundation for a lifetime love of food.

Here comes the good news…. the strategies and methods that can make a significant change in the lives of our kids and reduce our daily feeding stresses are quick and simple to implement. Understanding the causes of sudden fussy eating and implementing these simple strategies can have a profound effect on the family. By the time our second child hit the “danger zone”, we were ready for her. We were experienced, well researched and ready for action and, so far, she has been soooo much simpler and less stress to feed. The system works.

There are heaps of evidence based strategies out there to help kids develop healthy relationships with food. The level of detail and understanding is impressively deep. Feeding professional can look at everything from a child’s seating position, motor skills, feeding history, sociological influences and more but these tips are the ones that we found really moved the needle!

Top tips for parents of fussy eaters

  • Have a planned structure to your feeding. Serve three meals with snacks in between, not snacks within one hour of a meal… scraps off the chopping board are ok.
  • Don’t get blinkered by the meal in front of you. Consider the whole day’s intake, that way if they have eaten well at lunch you can understand a lack of appetite at dinner.
  • Always serve at least one component of a meal that you know your child will like.
  • Don’t stress (easier said than done)! Relinquish control and neutralise the power struggle. Parents should control what food is served and when. Kids should be given the power to decide what and how much they eat (hint: they already have that power so we are not really giving it to them!)
  • Understand that, just like us, sometimes kids just aren’t hungry. Make sure that you serve kids sized portions. Better to serve a small portion with seconds available that serve a daunting amount to start with.
  • Keep offering new foods. Serve them on the plate and understand that they might be ignored up to 20 times before they are even licked, let alone eaten. Take your time, there is plenty of time to get this sorted.
  • Keep going! Get all the family on board and singing from the same hymn sheet and lead by example too.

That’s it. Sounds simple but don’t be fooled, it takes dedication, commitment and tolerance to keep on the straight and narrow but understanding the problem and the real game changer strategies are a huge step in the right direction. The effort is worth it; the results can be a child with a lifelong positive relationship with food…. and some quietly smug parenting at the next family gathering too!

Don’t forget to share and be a smarty pants too! You NCT friends would love this…. Or send it to another parent as a second birthday present…. You can’t beat the gift of knowledge!




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