Tips for feeding your picky eater

Your baby had a great appetite.  Happily ate everything.  Tried lots of flavors and foods.  Then your baby became a toddler.  Suddenly meals feel like a horrible battle.

Sound familiar?

Picky eating is very common, especially in toddlers and pre-schoolers. After the first year of life, a toddler’s appetite decreases quite a bit as the rate of growth slows down.  Meanwhile, a toddler grows in independence, expressed by pushing limits, exploring new skills, and forming lots of opinions about everything.  These are all healthy signs of development, but concerns about nutrition can be a major source of anxiety and frustration for many parents.  Myself included!  Having two kids has helped remind me that there isn’t much we can control about our children’s food preferences.  Part of it is how we are individually wired.  We see it in adults … some are adventurous eaters, some are simply not.

Most children who are considered picky eaters actually are eating enough in the long run.  The amount of calories needed each day is not much: Toddlers 1 to 3 years old can be estimated to need 40 calories a day for every inch of their height, usually only about 1000-1300 calories a day.

Appetites and food preferences can fluctuate a lot in young children, so look at the whole picture of how your child eats over weeks rather than any given day or meal.  Children generally do have a good sense of when they’ve eaten enough and it’s important to let them decide what and how much to eat so they remain tuned into their hunger cues.  Our job as parents is not to ”force” another bite, but to provide healthy nutritious options to choose from so that we are making the most of their every bite.

Tips for feeding your picky eater

1. Have a consistent meal and snack schedule. Toddlers easily develop a tendency to “graze”, eating constantly throughout the day. They do need morning and afternoon snacks, but too much can fill up the tummy and decrease appetite. Similarly, drinking a lot of milk or juice can also decrease appetite. Promote a better appetite for meals by having defined snack times and limiting their snack and drink portions. Offer nutritious snacks such as fruit, yogurt, carrot sticks, or whole grain crackers. Put food away and keep them busy in between meals and snacks. Keep in mind, some very active toddlers may eat better with 4-6 small meals a day.

2.  Simplify your menu.  Toddlers often prefer simple foods and flavors.  Sometimes we get more frustrated than necessary when a lot of effort is put into cooking, when all they really wanted was some plain pasta with a side of peas and carrots.  It doesn’t mean you cater to your child’s whims, but it helps to reassess what you tend to cook.  Try to prepare meals that are easy to eat, such as finger foods with dipping sauces, chunky foods that are easy to stab with a fork, and foods that hold together well without falling apart in their hands or off their spoon.

3.  Keep foods separate. Tasty as it may be to us, many toddlers dislike having a lot of different items mixed together.  Some will experiment and make combinations that make us gag.  As toddlers exert more independence and willfulness, it’s normal for them to exert strong opinions about how they want to eat something. For example, if you are putting together a casserole or sandwich, consider offering the ingredients separately on a plate.  Let them decide how to eat it.  Your child should get accustomed to eating the same meal as everyone else in the family, but be flexible with how it’s eaten.

4.  Experiment with texture and size. Some kids prefer very small pieces whereas others want it whole, Some prefer soft veggies whereas others like crunchy.  If meat is an issue, try cooking it in different ways or offer other protein-rich foods.  Every child is different.  Even when you figure out a pattern to your child’s preferences, don’t be discouraged if it suddenly changes along the way!  Just go with the flow.

5.  Make a one-bite rule. Accept the fact that most children, especially toddlers, do not like to try new or unfamiliar foods. This is normal! However, encourage them to at least try something by setting up a one-bite rule for the entire family: Take at least one bite of everything. If you don’t like it and don’t want more, that’s alright. You just have to try at least one bite. (Adults should follow the rule too.)

6.  Be realistic about normal portions. A healthy portion for toddlers may be much smaller than your expectations, especially in comparison to the super-sized portions we may be used to for ourselves. Here is a general rule for serving size in kids 1-5 years old: One tablespoon for every year of age. Or ¼ of an adult serving size for every year of age. Make sure your idea of an adult serving size is normal too! For instance, a normal adult serving size of pasta or cooked rice is just one cup.

7.  Make a list of likes and start from there. Incorporate these into your daily meals, but use them as a platform to add on new foods. For example, if mac ‘n’ cheese is a favorite, mix in some peas or finely chopped spinach. Frequently serve the fruits and vegetables your child is willing to eat and serve them alongside other foods you want to encourage.

8.  Involve your child. Let them help you choose recipes, make a grocery list, and pick out fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. Find ways they can help you prepare some meals in the kitchen. Teach them to get their plates and utensils to set the table. Learn about food together by reading books with food themes, growing some veggies in a pot, and planning activities that teach about food (such as apple-picking or visiting a farm).

9.  Keep meals fun and pleasant. Try not to get upset by picky eating. Arguing over food only associates meals with negative emotions, which only worsens the food battle and makes children even more resistant to eating.  A little effort in presentation can also add fun to the meal. Try cutting food into fun shapes and arranging them into patterns or images. Get plates and bowls that your child is excited to use.  And although frustrating, don’t get worked up over spills and messes.

10.  Be a role model. As parents, we are the best role models for our kids. They will not pick up healthy habits unless we do first. Eat together regularly (no matter how busy life gets) and show them how much healthy eating matters to you as well.  It’s not going to change them over night, but it will sink in over time.

If you are concerned about your child’s weight or development, please discuss this with your pediatrician or family doctor.   Sometimes picky eating or a poor appetite may be due to other underlying issues.  Most of the time, the child is growing just fine.

Picky eating is probably one of the most common concerns I hear from parents, which points to the fact that it is normal toddler behavior.  However, the behavior is only made worse by tension between parent and child during meals, escalating into food battles, power struggles, and bad feelings.

So, take a deep breath and relax.

This stage of picky eating will not last forever, even though it feels that way sometimes.  What will last is the impression we make as we continue to model the value of family meals and healthy food choices to our children.

Yolanda Wong is a pediatrician who blogs at Well Child Chats.

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