Are you dealing with a picky eating toddler at home?
Most of us parents at some point or another will frantically nod in response.
It’s not what any of us want to hear but it is a very common stage that occurs throughout the toddler years.
Picky eaters can be hard to figure out.
Some don’t like certain colours, others despise specific textures. Some would prefer to eat one dish for every meal every day of the week.
Between asserting their newfound independence and frequent growth spurts, it seems that there is minimal consistency with their food intake.
One day they are inhaling their meals while asking for more and the next week they barely take 3 bites. It’s enough to make any rational parent feel frustrated and defeated.
For some picky eating toddlers, it may be just a phase. For others, they may continue on with strong aversions well into their adult years.
And here we are as guardians worrying about what they eat, when, whether they are getting enough, the quantity and variety.
By this point, I hope it goes without saying, but just in case: please consult your family doctor if you have any major concerns over your child’s diet and/or health. The tips provided here are simple strategies I’ve discovered throughout the years of looking after children, specifically toddlers. But in no way should it replace any sort of medical advice.
For more information, you can look to your local public health service for their recommendations for healthy eating guidelines and more resources on this topic. Canada’s food guide can also assist you in learning what and how much your child should be eating.
The ideas I offer are for any parent looking for some guidance on how to help their toddler eat a larger variety and minimize mealtime struggles.
How to Help Picky Eating Toddlers
My first, and possibly top, tip is to expose your little ones to a big variety of foods, including the ones they don’t want.
If it is mostly vegetables you’re struggling to get them to eat, be sure to provide different meals incorporating veggies in as many different ways that you can think of (raw, roast, steam, big chunks, pureed, on their own, mixed in, etcetera).
Show your little one what good eating looks like.
I know sometimes meals can seem like a source of tension. But family mealtime is a great way to spend quality time together and should be a moment to enjoy. It is also the perfect chance to demonstrate healthy eating for your child.
Are you providing and consuming a healthy balanced meal? Are you enjoying the process of eating and the time spent at the table with your family?
Think about that for a minute…
Your children will see your behaviour, and, although it may not happen right away, they will learn from your lead.
Don’t pressure them
Oh, life with a toddler.
How often is any request from you quickly shut down with a “no”? Is that their favourite word of the month (or perhaps year)? Does your child push back harder the more you insist?
Many kids at this age want to exert their independence. So the more you push, the more they push back.
And in terms of meals, the bigger deal eating that item of food becomes. If they refuse to eat it then try to not force them or scold them for it and simply enjoy your own meal.
I completely understand the frustration with this stage, but if we remove the pressure they may not be as resolute. When they see us enjoying it, chances are they may just be curious enough to give it a lick.
However, if we constantly nag their wall will likely go up (and be nearly impossible to break down!).
Encourage them to try new things. Talk about other times they tried something new and loved it!
Then leave it at that.
I will often ask my 3-year-old to take just one bite and offer her a napkin to take it out if she doesn’t like it. And if she doesn’t like it, then she doesn’t have to eat it.
I don’t sit there staring at her. I just calmly mention she may like it and keep eating my own meal (ideally while it’s hot!).
On the other hand, try to not make it the biggest deal when they do try it. The goal is to encourage them trying new foods but without overly exaggerated praise (or bribery!).
I’ll say something like “that’s great you tried it even if you don’t want to eat the rest” or “I’m happy that you tried it and can now enjoy it with us, I thought you’d like it!”.
We want the concept of trying new foods and eating a balanced diet to seem normal, and not a huge accomplishment (even when it is!).
You’ll have to do the happy dance later!
How to Feed Picky Eating Toddlers
Include something they like
Is it just me or do kids sometimes take one look at their plate and immediately turn up their nose?
It’s like they don’t even give the meal a chance if everything on it is foreign to them. It looks scary and new. And they are not interested!
Now, what if there is one item on there that they want to eat?
Well, it at least starts the meal off on a different foot. It gets them sitting in their chair and willing to give mealtime a chance.
It also gets them eating. And when they eat one thing from the plate it’ll often motivate them to continue.
If you are struggling with a picky eating toddler, try to include something (anything!) you know they will happily eat on the plate. Offering them choices is an extra way for them to feel independent.
Also, don’t overwhelm the plate (and your child) with too big of a serving of the new or disliked food.
Ease into it with smaller portions. Not only will this seem less daunting for your child. But it will also reduce food waste.
Make it fun
Meals don’t have to be boring and blah. There are plenty of ways to make everyday foods exciting for kids which (hopefully) translates into more willing to eat!
- Happy face – Construct a happy face out of the food. Toddlers especially love seeing a little happy meal waiting for them (and I’m not talking about McD’s!).
- Dip it! – Let your toddler dip into whatever their dip of choice is. I know, you don’t want to serve everything slathered in ketchup. However, a tablespoon of something you were not originally planning on giving them could mean a battle-free meal. And a belly full of veggies they wouldn’t usually touch!
- Cheese please – Even I think cheese makes most things better! Let your toddler sprinkle their favourite cheese over the cooked veggie dish and I’m sure they’ll be more willing to eat it.
- Comfy kid – Make sure they’re happy at the table. Setting in an appropriate chair will minimize distractions at mealtime. Use child-friendly dishes and utensils. Expecting them to eat out of our breakable dishes before they are ready could add pressure to the whole dining experience. Use practical mealtime products and age-appropriate choices for your little one.
- Let them help – If you have the time and patience, allowing your kids to help in the kitchen will create a positive experience between them and the meal to come. They can even help distribute some foods onto plates. Toddlers love being “big helpers” and it’s all about setting a positive tone to the meal.
Sometimes you want to throw in the towel and let them eat macaroni for the rest of their lives.
I get it.
But don’t lose hope.
If they don’t want it today, or tomorrow, try again in another week or month.
I have lost count of how many times my daughter will like something one day, dislike it the next, and then devour it the next time.
But that is another reason I don’t stress about every little thing she eats because chances are it’s just an off day (or week, or month).
Strategies for Picky Eating Toddlers (Sneaky Ways to Get Veggies In)
Ok, this is not a cure for picky eating toddlers. Nor is it the way I advocate for them to get their balanced diet.
However, often vegetables are the toddler’s nemesis. And sometimes, as a parent, you just want to feel better about their consumption.
I hear you loud and clear!
I highly recommend consistent exposure to their foods, which means they SEE what they’re choosing to eat and not constantly hiding it.
But when I feel like my toddler’s vegetable ingestion is infinitesimal, I get a little sneaky. These tricks go splendidly alongside the “exposed” vegetables as well!
- Keep big dislikes big – Cut up certain veggies into undetectable minced-sized morsels but chop others you know they really detest (such as onion!) into big chunks. That way they will identify and remove the large pieces and happily eat the rest!
- Purees into sauces – A dollop of veggie puree is never noticed in tomato sauce. A quick blend of things like cooked sweet potato, carrots, zucchini and even spinach are easy-peasy to add to most sauces without distorting the flavour or texture.
- Nut butter or cream cheese – I make a lot of homemade purees for my baby and my toddler will gladly eat them if I’ve made them a little creamier with cream cheese. Nut butter, such as almond or peanut butter, takes over the flavour of many mild veggie purees so she’ll eat those up as well. Just note that a little goes a long way when it comes to nut butter!
- “Healthy” treats – Oven yam fries (savoury style or sweet with cinnamon), carrot muffins, homemade pizzas… you name it! Google has the answer to all of them. Search recipes for the healthy versions of your favourite treat meals and I bet you will find something delicious. Your toddler may even thank you for it!
I would love to know in the comment section what your family’s favourite meal is and what is the one thing your picky eating toddler refuses to eat?