How-To Guide: Dealing with a Picky Eating Toddler

Toddler parents of all different backgrounds and walks of life can be united in this shared mealtime frustration – appeasing their picky eaters. Picky eaters come in all shapes and sizes and on a spectrum of fussiness. Toddlers are just discovering their place in the world, their likes, and their dislikes and it can be an overwhelming and seemingly constant challenge to provide them with proper nutrition. Here are a few tips to save your sanity and help overcome those picky-eating habits:

  • Start Young

Taste preferences begin developing early. Studies have shown that by expanding the variety of tastes and textures your baby is exposed to you can increase the variety of tastes and textures they prefer to eat as they grow! (Source) Studies have also shown a positive relationship between a mother’s varied diet during breast feeding and reduced “pickiness” later in life. (Source)

  • Don’t Overwhelm Them – 1 at a time

You want your child to have a healthy, varied diet. Broccoli. Spinach. Peas. Carrots. Cauliflower. Brussel Sprouts. But it’s best not to combine these all into one dish. Putting too many new foods together is overwhelming to this little human just discovering the world. Present foods to them one at a time so they can become familiar, experiment around with them, and figure out they’re not all that scary!

  • Be Persistent

It may take as many as 10-15 times before a toddler is willing to go out on a limb and try a new food (Source). Don’t be frustrated over the wasted food and effort. Instead, make enough food that it will not go to waste if you or the rest of the family are the only people to eat it or find a way to use the leftovers to give it another go in a few days’ time.

  • Get Them Involved

Getting your toddler into the kitchen and taking a hands-on approach will increase their likelihood of chowing down when it comes to meal time. Toddlers are just starting to achieve their first few privileges of freedom. Give them simple tasks such as washing the fruits or vegetables, stir ingredients together, adding in seasoning, and/or placing food on cooking sheets.

Make sure to keep a sharp eye out for toddlers wandering near hot surfaces, sharp objects, and pre-prepared food that could pose choking hazards!

  • Growth Spurts…and Slumps

At this age toddlers are still inherently good at knowing when their bodies want them to keep eating and when they have had enough. A toddler’s caloric needs will fluctuate as their growth rate does. Week to week, day to day even, a toddlers appetite will vary. Everyone is aware that a toddler goes through growth spurts, but they will also go through periods where this slows down immensely. Comparatively it appears they have stopped eating for no reason, but really their appetite is responding to a reduced need for energy. Make sure that their attitude stays happy and energetic throughout this time and keep them hydrated and everything will turn out fine.

  • Portion Sizes

We are so accustomed to fixing our own plates that we tend to overestimate how much to serve our child. A toddler will generally need ⅓ to ¼ of an adult’s portion size (Source). Finding out the average adult serving size for virtually every food is usually only a Google search away.

  • Eat Together and Lead by Example

Eating as a family is a great chance to catch up with each other and be a role model for the kids. When a toddler sees you react to food in a certain way, they are likely to mimic that reaction. Keep this in mind when commenting about foods around them! They are more observant than you think. One absent-minded comment about how ‘gross broccoli smells’ and it may un-do plenty of work towards positively reinforcing them. Studies have shown that children are much more perceptive about such comments than we may expect. Positive food associations (Examples: Broccoli = stronger bones, Baked chicken = bigger muscles) can have long lasting effects that make children more excited to chow down on these foods for years to come.

*Personally tried and true tips*
– A little reverse psychology can do the trick. Sometimes I will talk my Goddaughter into eating her vegetables during mealtime when I loudly joke to my mom, “Oh no no, do not let her eat that broccoli, if she keeps eating her vegetables she is going to get stronger than me! I don’t want that!”
Another line I use is, “Please do not let her eat all of those beans, she is sleeping over tonight and she’s going to be farting all over the place! I do not want to have to smell those stinky toots!” Crude and immature? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. 
– Sometimes you have to resort to playing with your food – desperate times call for desperate measures. One game I like to play is “guess what you’re chewing” (works best on ages 2-4). This works when there are at least three or more foods on the plate. I have the kid close their eyes and make a big production of choosing one bite to put in their mouth then have them guess which food they were eating. If they guess correctly they’re rewarded with a “Ding ding ding!” and a high five, if they choose incorrectly I make a loud buzzer noise (which they also find funny) and have them take a turn with me while I close my eyes, proving that a little competition can be a good motivator for all ages. 

  • Encourage Playfulness

“Don’t play with your food,” your parents may have growled at you from the other side of the dinner table. While you should not have to put up with screaming food fights and general pandemonium, it is still a good idea to put the strict attitude aside and encourage your children to have a fun and relaxed meal time. This encourages them to positively associate trying new foods with having a good time!

If you experience a dramatic change in your toddler’s weight, energy level, or overall demeanor make sure to consult with your pediatrician to rule out underlying causes for appetite loss. Try tracking your child’s eating habits over the course of several days to provide the practitioner with the most accurate information. 


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