If your toddler spends mealtimes shaking her head and pushing her plate away, you’re one of countless parents around the world who deal with a picky-eating little one. There are several possible reasons for picky eating, genetics and biology among them.
No matter how picky your child is, researchers say you play a powerful role in teaching her to enjoy a variety of foods. We’ve scoured the research and expert tips to bring you this long list of things to try:
Variety, variety, variety. When your little one turns her nose up at every food that isn’t beige, it can be tempting to go all-beige just to ensure she eats. Offer her a variety of foods anyway, even one-bite portions. Consistently doing so helps her become familiar and comfortable with different things.
Pair the old with the new. Just like going to new places feels safer if she’s holding your hand, your toddler may be more willing to try something new if it’s on a plate with one of her go-to foods.
This or that. If you’re trying to turn your toddler on to vegetables, try offering her two choices so she can feel a sense of control. This goes a long way with toddlers, who love to exert their independence!
Try self-serve. You are in charge of what foods you offer, but try empowering your toddler by letting her spoon the different options onto her own plate. This may motivate her to go an extra step and actually eat it.
Sweeten the deal. It’s normal for toddlers to have a sweet tooth. This may be left over from the hunter-gatherer days, when a sweet tooth could attract them to energy-rich, easy-to-digest foods like fruit. You can make new or rejected foods more appetizing by adding a just touch of sweetness. Once your child eats the food a few times, serve it unsweetened.
Hang in for the long haul. Experts say that reintroducing rejected foods is key; you may have to offer your child a food up to 15 times before she accepts it.
Ditch distractions. Research shows that children are more likely to have a better attitude about eating when they are not overstimulated at mealtime. That means no screens (smartphones, tablets, TVs), toys, or other distractions.
Make mealtimes happy times. Experts say that when parents are encouraging and praising about trying new or rejected foods, children are more likely to eat them.
Bribes are not bueno. Attempts to bribe, pressure, force, or coerce a child to eat tend to backfire. Power struggles at the dinner table exacerbate picky eating, and may even lead to eating issues later in life.
It’s okay to play. A child may be more likely to taste something if she can touch, squeeze, smell, crush, or lick it, or even chew and spit it out. Reasonable food play is appropriate at this age.
Manners come later. Not playing with food, along with sitting still at the table, eating with her mouth closed, and other manners are not developmentally appropriate yet. Rather than pushing table manners during the toddler years, focus on all of the other points we’re highlighting here. This doesn’t mean she gets to run the show; certain things like throwing her cup across the room can be dealt with using age-appropriate discipline.
Be a mealtime model. Little ones love to copy parents, older siblings, and others. It’s one of the primary ways they learn! If you want your toddler to eat a bite of broccoli, show her how. Toddlers also love humor, so try saying “This broccoli is delicious!” in a funny voice.
Make your child a mini chef. Invite your child to help you prepare new or rejected foods. This could be as simple as letting her touch vegetables before you chop them, or tossing a pinch of salt into a pot of soup.
Have fun with food presentation. Highlight your toddler’s love for cute, funny things by making a picture with the food on her plate.
Toddler stomach = toddler fist. Experts say that parents often equate not eating a lot with pickiness. Your toddler’s stomach is the size of her clenched fist, so in reality she will feel full after eating very little.
Today is not the same as yesterday. Despite that small stomach, there will be days she will eat more than usual, only to go back to eating less a few days later. This is normal, experts say, and often coincides with growth spurts.
The doctor’s scale has the final word. Still worried she isn’t eating enough? If your pediatrician says her growth is on track, you can rest easy.
Beware of beverages. Too much milk, juice, and even water in-between and especially before meals can make your child full at mealtime. Teach her to drink when she’s thirsty rather than carrying a sippy cup around with her at all times.
To graze or not to graze. You may come across advice to allow your toddler to eat a little here and a little there throughout the day. The American Academy of Pediatrics and others say it’s better to limit snacking and encourage her to eat at mealtimes.
Feeding a picky toddler can be exhausting, but following these suggestions can help you set her up for a lifetime of healthy eating.