Many a battle of wills has taken place over the dinner table. Toddlers eat when they feel like it and are as fickle with their favourite foods as they are with their mood swings. So how do you know if he's eating enough? Dietician Kate Gudgeon gives us the goods on toddler grub.

Q. My two-year-old will only eat chicken nuggets, chips and biscuits. Help!

A. Don't feel guilty. He's obviously become used to commercially produced food rather than home-cooked, and he needs a more balanced diet with healthier foods. It also sounds like your son prefers to use his fingers to eat, so start by trying to replace fast foods with healthier finger foods such as strips of ham or chicken and pasta twirls. Be patient, though, it may take a while for his taste buds to get used to foods without additives.

Q. How can I get my 18-month-old to sit still and stay at the table at meal times?

A. You can't expect your child to realise that meal times involve sitting down in one place for some time unless he sees you and the rest of the family doing the same thing. Of course, there are always many distractions for toddlers, but if you make a habit of sitting down to eat something with him, he'll soon get the hang of it.

Q. My daughter picks at her food and never seems to finish a meal. What should I do?

A. If you're giving her snacks or even juice or milk in-between meals, this will fill her up. It's better that you cut down on snacks and limit drinks to water and aim to get her eating three regular meals a day. Also, make sure you don't overwhelm her with portion sizes. If she does have a small appetite, she may be put off by a large plateful of food. Remember, there's nothing like a run around in the fresh air to work up an appetite.

Q. My son has never seemed interested in food. Should I worry?

A. As long as you're sure your son is gaining weight as he should, don't worry too much. Some children have very small appetites, and once toddlers can move about, there is always something more interesting to see and do. Have you thought about using colour, texture and shapes in his meals? Try making funny faces with his food; sandwiches can be made into boats with a cocktail stick and a piece of paper. Let your imagination run wild…

*Q. My two-year-old son won't eat at daycare. How can we make him eat? *

A. Ask if you can see the menus. If they are full of foods unfamiliar to your child, suggest some he will eat. If he only refuses one specific meal, you can probably try to compensate nutritionally by making him something you know he will eat at home in the evening. If he refuses to eat anything, however, it might be an idea to send in food for a while it's not ideal as ultimately you hope he'll learn to like different foods, but maybe it will ease him into a new situation.

Q. My toddler will only eat about five or six different foods. How can I get her to eat other things?

A. Don't make her meal times stressful by trying to force her to eat something new. She will eat what she wants in the first 10 to 15 minutes. After that, gently encourage her to eat a little more, but don't make a fuss. If she doesn't want it, take her plate away. Try offering her one new thing on her plate each mealtime but don't make an issue of it. She'll probably have to get used to having it on her plate first before she'll taste it.

Q. My three-year-old won't eat vegetables. What should I do?

A. There are many ways of serving vegies. Have you tried disguising them in mince or pasta sauces? It's amazing how many veg you can chop up in a ratatouille, then puree and serve with spaghetti. Any form of vegetable is a valuable source of vitamins: tinned, frozen or fresh. Often toddlers prefer vegetables raw rather than cooked. Try making a colourful plateful of raw vegetable sticks such as capsicum, carrot and baby sweet corn and serving them with a tasty dip.

Q. My two-year-old is a messy eater – should I force her to use cutlery?

A. Don't get too hung up about it. If you're eating as a family, she'll see what a good role model you are with your cutlery. Children learn in their own time. But ideally, as soon as a baby can sit up in a highchair, you should make sure there's always a spoon there for her to handle. At first she'll play with it, but then she'll learn to be independent and try for herself.

Q. My 13-month-old used to eat everything I gave him but he's suddenly refusing food. What should I do?

A. Are you still trying to spoon-feed him? This is a classic age for a baby asserting his independence. Try loading a short-handled spoon and offering it to him to feed himself. If this fails, try to find healthy finger foods: steamed carrots and broccoli florets, small pieces of chicken and flakes of fish, cubes of potato, fingers of bread and butter and ripe soft fruits. The only time to worry is if he is not gaining weight as he should, or is losing weight. Remember, babies eat when they're hungry.

Q. My daughter will only eat sweet things. How can I introduce more savoury foods?

A. Let her see that sweet foods are a normal part of eating, but they're eaten after a savoury meal. Always give her something after her first course, but perhaps limit it to fruit and/or yogurt rather than anything sugary. But don't use puddings as a reward to get her to eat her meal. Avoid sugarcoated breakfast cereals too. As for sweets, don't deny them completely, just limit them to occasionally at the end of a meal, before she cleans her teeth.

Sneaky tricks

Get mashing
It's amazing how you can perk up the humble mashed potato with the odd vegie. Try making Colcannon (potato with chopped cabbage mixed into it). Or add any greens like peas, spinach or chopped runner beans.

Smooth it
Instead of fruit and yogurt for dessert, try blending some fruit, natural yoghurt and fruit juice with a little honey to sweeten for a delicious smoothie. Good combinations are strawberries and banana, peach and raspberry, and mango and passion fruit.

Instead of using jars of tomato pasta sauce, make your own simple, but vitamin-packed, version. Stir-fry onion, garlic, celery and peppers with any combination of broccoli and eggplant, add some mixed herbs and a tin of chopped tomatoes. Then puree and stir in some pasta twists.

Jelly on a plate
Try setting some soft fruits in sugar-free jelly for a party pudding he won't refuse.

Eggstra Vegies
Can be hidden in omelettes. Cook them first by either boiling or stir-frying, then scatter them over a just-cooked omelette before you fold it. Sprinkle cheese on the top and grill lightly.