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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  • Anonymous

    What’s the point.
    With all the vaccines, repetive hyper movements from cartoons this child is going to become just another one of the million of ADHD Neanderthals whom we have dumbed down.
    Another button pusher, football thrower , video game drone ……
    Soon he will have braces, then a gf, then an std..
    Grow up with hundreds and thousands of student loans to a job market utterly collapsed.

    Will work at a wall mart, get fat , diabetic
    Then we the doctors will rip him off…
    Chances are 60 percent to near 90 percent that his first marriage is. Going to end in divorce.
    He will most probably be in debt all his life and whatever he would save would end in the pocket of a rich insurance company manager or an over rated MD.

    Most probably in the end would prefer cremation as he won’t have much money left for a proper burial

    One out of two chance of dying at age 46 with heart attack or age 57 with cancer.

    What’s the point….get real people….

    Another meat puppet born, confused and then wasted.

  • Anonymous

    What is the basis of the one-bite rule? As a picky

  • Anonymous

    I disagree with the statement “This stage of picky eating will not last forever.” My son was an extremely picky eater as a child. He is now 20 years old and nothing has changed. He has a serious aversion to trying new foods.

  • Diane

    I grew up in a house with parents who forced my brother to eat foods that made him gag and I can tell you that I swore I NEVER would do that to my children. To my knowledge, he still eats very few veggies and as a Type 1 diabetic (from the age of 10) now in his 40′s this is truly a shame. My husband does this to my “picky eater” and it hurts my feelings every time. I have a very strong gag reflex and hearing someone gag or vomit makes me want to do the same. It is a huge source of dinner time arguments in our house.

    MY rule at home is to put out 3-4 fruits and veggies at dinner (and fruit at lunch) and insist that the kids pick at least 2. I encourage them to eat them first to “get them out of the way” (which, honestly, is what I do in the name of health) and one of my sons is a great healthy eater while the other is pretty much a salad and fruit kid. But I do know my kids ate food at daycare they would never eat at home – peer pressure is amazing! 

    I am also a kind of picky eater and have gotten more sensitive in the past couple years as a result of chronic nausea and “smell/texture aversion” as a result. (And my saying is, when I’m the cook, you get what I like! If you want to cook, by all means – head to the kitchen!) But I’m pretty healthy so I bring the kids shopping and let them help me pick out the basic menus for the week. We have done this since they were toddlers and they are very comfortable in the grocery store. I especially let the picky one choose at least one choice for veggies though we often have leftovers until they are gone. They may not get their 5 a day in variety, but it’s amazing how much cooperation you can get when you let kids choose and you offer healthy choices! 

    My mom also had us in the kitchen cooking from a very young age and I have done this with my sons. They are 12 now and while they have flip flopped who likes to help the most in the kitchen, I have had them helping me cook everything from cookies to meals since they were in preschool. They can now make their own simple snacks and lunches after school and on days they are home alone. One of my sons made peanut butter oatmeal cookies tonight from a brand new recipe with very little guidance from me. He is quite capable in the kitchen and well on his way to being a self supporting bachelor… (Just have to get him a paying job….) If you make food fun, kids will eat!

  • Anonymous

    As an adult, moderately picky eater, this was an interesting article. But it’s too bad that it was written entirely from the parent’s viewpoint without taking into account the reality for the child. If a food smells bad or looks bad to a child, then the one-bite rule is merely torture, and will NOT change the child’s mind, except to make them MORE averse to trying new foods. I remember a battle during my childhood when my mother said I would sit at the table until I tried a food, and the end result was that I sat there until she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore, and she gave up. And DON’T mix peas into the macaroni and cheese — the child may then decide that they don’t even like macaroni and cheese.

    There is a team at Duke University that has started to study picky eating in adults — it DOESN’T go away just because parents try to trick their kids into eating more variety. Most kids grow out of it on their own, but not all, and Duke U is just barely beginning to study what is a real, and difficult condition. The most important thing for parents is not to make it worse, and accept that the child is not merely spoiled or being a brat — those supposedly delicious foods may really be nauseating to the child. And if the child grows up into an adult picky eater, well, there is room for diversity.

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