When my first baby entered the toddler years, he insisted on feeding himself.
Suddenly I was thrown into a world where the Annabel Karmel recipes I’d lovingly prepared were outright rejected, along with all forms of cutlery, bibs and feeding utensils.
All he wanted to do was feed himself whole pieces of food.
But he still wasn’t quite ready to eat full sized adult food.
My son is almost 15 now and so this was back in the day before baby led weaning was a thing, and so I found myself having to get creative in the kitchen, producing meals that wouldn’t be outright rejected while trying to ensure they remained healthy and balanced.
I know lots of you are in the same boat and it can be hard to make sure they don’t get too much salt, enough protein, fibre and healthy fats and so this is why I wanted to write this blog (and I could probably cobble together a recipe book for you too!)
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What are finger foods?
When we talk about finger food for toddlers we mean small pieces of normal whole foods that are easy for toddlers to pick up and eat.
They are usually cut into strips (similar in length and shape to a finger) or foods shaped into balls.
The best finger food for toddlers to start with are soft strips of vegetables, fruit, pasta, toast and cheese. Once they have their top and bottom teeth from around 10 months then they can be offered firmer finger foods such as raw vegetables and fruit.
How do toddlers learn to eat?
Eating is a skill that all children must learn how to do. It’s actually the most complex thing that all humans ever have to learn to do.
It requires coordination of their 5 senses (visual, sound, smell, touch, taste) plus 3 others that not many people know about.
These additional 3 senses are:
Proprioception – keeping themselves steady and aware of their sense of self in space
Vestibular – balance
Interoception – the internal body feelings such as hunger, needing the toilet, feeling sick
All 8 need to work in unison for a child to be able to eat effectively.
In addition, children need to learn how to coordinate their oral muscles so that they can bite, chew and move foods around their mouths. This is called their ‘oral motor’ skills.
As parents we have an important part to play in teaching our toddlers how to eat. Toddlers are always learning and gradually build on their eating skills. A very effective way of helping them progress is through role modelling.
The best way to role model is to sit and share a meal with your child.
All the encouragement they need is seeing you eat new foods, because gently encouraging them to try new foods can feel like pressure and be off putting.
Some foods can be challenging to learn to like, particularly bitter tasting foods like Brussels sprouts or spinach.
It takes time to learn to eat (from months to years) depending on the child. However with exposure to familiar and unfamiliar foods most children will get there (2).
Why do toddlers prefer finger foods?
Toddlers often prefer finger food as it allows them independence in feeding themselves and they can control what and how much they eat.
Toddler independence is a developmental milestone. They actually go through a shift in their cognition or brain functioning during this time. For most toddlers it kicks in at around 18-24 months.
They are starting to notice and acknowledge that they are their own separate person and the way toddlers practice this is to do the exact opposite of what you ask them to do. Hence refusing spoon feeding, and wanting to feed themselves finger foods.
This is the exact same reason why toddlers repeatedly say ‘no’ or ‘mine’.
It’s simply part of a normal brain development. It’s them trying to work out who they are as an individual and where they fit in relation to you and the world surrounding them.
What are healthy finger foods for toddlers?
Healthy finger food meals for toddlers still need to include the 5 food groups (3). This ensures they will get a balanced diet containing all the nutrients they need. The five food groups that toddlers require on a daily basis are the following:
Starchy carbohydrates: potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, fortified breakfast cereals/porridge and other starchy carbohydrates and grains
Fruits & vegetables: frozen, fresh, or tinned in juice all count.
Protein: beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, tofu
Dairy & alternatives: milk & dairy foods
Oils and healthy fats
When you are making up your toddler’s meals, aim to have all 5 food groups present, if not there needs to be at least 4. For example;
Fish cakes which include potato, vegetables, fish, egg to bind and oil to fry. Served with some sliced vegetables.
Meatballs which include chicken or beef mince, served with some plain pasta and vegetable sticks.
Wrap with beans, grated cheese and lettuce, cucumber and pepper strips
These could all be served with a dairy based dessert like yoghurt or rice pudding to include the dairy food group
And for snacks, aim to have 2-3 food groups represented.
What finger food should my toddler avoid?
There are some finger foods that must be avoided because of the risk of choking. These include whole nuts and any hard foods that are the same size as a £1 coin.
If you want to give softer foods like blueberries, grapes, and cherry tomatoes then these can be cut into quarters to make them safer (6).
In addition, although not finger foods, there are certain foods that must be avoided in under 5’s.
Foods with added salt such as crisps and salted popcorn
Rice drinks and skimmed milk should not be given to children under five years (5).
Toddlers should also limit their intake of:
Foods with a lot of colours, preservatives and E numbers such as colourful sweets and chocolates like smarties.
Caffeinated drinks like tea, coffee and energy drinks.
Diet or low fat, light foods such as low fat yogurt, milk
Sugary foods such as cakes, biscuits, sweets and chocolates (1).
How much should my toddler be eating?
Between 1 to 4 years of age it is recommended that you offer 5 fruit and veg, 5 starchy carbs, 3 portions of dairy foods and 2 portions of protein foods each day (7):
Toddlers need to have 3 meals a day with 2 snacks in between including small drinks of milk.
What counts as a portion?
The actual amount of food that toddlers eat varies on a meal by meal basis and can depend on lots of factors including appetite, activity levels, teething, mood…the list goes on.
However it can be useful to have a guide of what the ‘average’ toddlers food portion sizes should be for each part of the meal in order for them to meet their nutritional requirements.
I have a short guide available in my shop for £9.99 if you would like this reassurance.
What to do if your toddler is refusing food?
One common type of food that toddlers reject are vegetables. This is because of their bitter or sour taste. The bitter and sour taste buds are immature and so foods that have the bitter or sour flavour need to be learned. Green vegetables are particularly a problem and are often rejected (13).
As parents we often encourage our children to eat. We want them to eat the right foods to get enough nutrients to be healthy, grow taller and thrive.
However, even gentle encouragement can be perceived as pressure to sensitive children. Those who are strong willed will dig in their heels and refuse and those who have a more pleasing temperament will eat because you’ve asked them to, not because they’re hungry.
We know that over time, the strong-willed child will become a fussy eater and the child with the pleasing temperament will likely become overweight and lose their appetite control (9).
Other approaches like praise for trying something, reward for eating their meal, bribery so they will eat, restriction or punishment if they don’t eat are all employed by mums and dads out of sheer desperation to get their children to eat.
Unfortunately although they can be seen to help in the short term, they lead to negative consequences such as losing their appetite control, unwanted weight gain, and possibly growing up with an unhealthy relationship with food (10).
There are lots of different reasons why toddlers don’t eat, I will take you through 14 of them in my blog which you can read here.
So what does work?
The parents’ role is to decide on what to eat, where to eat and when. The child’s role is to decide whether to eat it and how much to eat.
This approach allows parents to provide a healthy varied diet at the right times, giving a regular routine or ‘appetite schedule’. It also puts the trust in the child to eat according to their own hunger and fullness cues.
What is important to note however, is that if there is an underlying reason why the child is not eating, such as a developmental delay, a sensory integration problem or a medical condition, the division of responsibility is not appropriate. The underlying reason needs to be addressed first.
You can’t expect a child to try new foods unless you share a meal together often
Eating together as a family is really important if you want your child to grow up to like the same food as you do. Unless they see you eat it first, children are unlikely to want to try new foods.
I work with so many families who have come to me for help with their fussy eater but few of them actually share a meal together.
Your child needs to see you eating and enjoying foods as it demonstrates to them that these foods are safe and tasty.
Ideally I recommend eating at least 1 meal per day together and a minimum of 5 days a week, if not all 7.
And if you can serve ‘family style’ all the better. This is where the individual component parts of the meal are presented in serving dishes on the table and each member of the family takes their portion and passes the dish along.
Even toddlers are capable of helping themselves to the various components of a meal. This fits perfectly with the division of responsibility where the child decides how much they want to eat (10).
How to encourage your child to eat foods without using words
Toddlers are in a cognitive developmental phase affectionately known as ‘magical thinking’.What this means is that if you can present foods in a way that appeals to their imagination, they have a better chance of being eaten.
Now, I’m not talking about food art here or trying to replicate some of those pinterest worthy dinners you no doubt will have seen. You can simply make food look attractive by using fun coloured plates and placemats.
Use cookie cutters to make interesting shaped sandwiches or pancakes. Arrange food on the plate to make a smiley face, use skewers to make fruit kebabs, children love food on sticks. Its simply the novelty of it.
You could also try some accompaniments like dips or sauces that you know they like because again dipping has a fun factor to it.
If you need more ideas, check out my blog here.
Finger food snack ideas
Snacks should be small and made up of 2-3 food groups for optimum nutrition. Here are some easy snack ideas:
Fruits (soft fruits such as bananas, peaches, mango, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, blackberries & kiwi) can be made into:
Fruit sticks with toast & yoghurt
Slices of strawberries and banana with pancakes
Vegetable sticks with hummus on crackers
Cooked courgette slices with sardines on toast
Starchy carbohydrates (toast, soft crackers, rice cakes, flatbreads, breakfast cereals, crumpets) can be made into:
Crumpet with soft cheese and pepper slices
Avocado and tomato finger sandwiches
Smooth nut butter on oatcakes with peach slices
Protein or Dairy (soft cheese pieces, boiled eggs, cooked meat or chicken pieces) can be made into:
Chicken deli meat slice with half a flatbread and grated carrot
A slice of malt loaf with cheese cubes and halved/quartered grapes
Pinwheel wraps with soft cheese and chopped butternut squash
Half a hard boiled egg with a rice cake and cucumber rounds
Remember toddlers need 2 – 3 snacks a day at most and they should be spaced in between meals, so for example mid morning, mid afternoon and at bedtime.
By their first birthday, your baby has become a toddler and should be able to have most of the same foods that the rest of the family are eating.
Here are some great savoury finger food recipe ideas:
Easy Lunch finger foods for toddlers
Here are some suggestions for lunch finger foods.
Sandwiches or wraps offer a lot of variety for the types of bread and fillings. They can be cut into fingers or other shapes using cookie cutters to make it more appealing too. Fillings like chicken and avocado, tuna mayonnaise or hummus and grated carrot work well.
Muffins – can be savoury or sweet or a mixture of both. They are a great way to include a variety of fruit and vegetables in there too. I’ve had really positive feedback on these spinach monster muffins and these apple and carrot muffins are a firm favourite in our home.
Strips of cooked meat like leftover roast beef or chicken strips like these chicken goujons which are easy to grab and hold.
Fruit and vegetable sticks simply chopped into fingers or made into a recipe like these pea fritters. Super easy to prepare, hold and eat.
Pancakes like these banana pancakes
I have a whole blog on toddler lunch ideas if you need more inspiration.
With thanks to Seanin Smith and Penelope Gilbert for their help in bringing together this blog post.
If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here then I’d like to introduce you to the Happy Healthy Eaters Club. This is a members-only club where you’ll learn how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.
The club will teach you all about food and parenting techniques so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins) and make you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.
Your parenting around food means that your little one will learn to be excited to try new foods, family mealtimes are a breeze and there’s not a reward, bribe, or iPad insight and you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open