Picky Eating Tips for Toddlers (that actually work!)

Like a lot of kids, around his first birthday is when my sons picky eating habits started to really surface. He had such a huge appetite as an infant it was a totally opposite problem from what we were used to in our house.   By the time he was a year and a half old, I had read every shred of any picky eating resource that I could get my hands on and I finally enrolled my husband and I in a nutrition class specifically for parents of picky eating toddlers. I even consulted with a nutritionist and registered dietician.

 

From all of those resources and through my own trial and error, I found a few things that were a total god send and that actually worked! Almost every toddler parent that I meet mentions some sort of picky eating habit that they’re ready to rip their hair out over so I thought I would compile these tips in hopes that they work for you like they did for me!

We still face some minor obstacles and I’m sure new ones will present themselves; because that’s just the nature of parenthood, right? If it’s not one thing it’s another! I personally wouldn’t have it any other way, but these tips have helped our household overcome a ton of eating objections and, if nothing else, they for sure took the stress out of our toddler’s day to day eating. So, here they go:

 Picky Eating

 Give your toddler the choice.

Some toddlers will decide they’re eating one food and one food only and that is that! In my parenting classes, I met several parents whose toddler only liked french fries, many parents who said their toddler ate better with a grandparent or other care giver, and I even met one mom whose son was living exclusively off drinkable foods like soup. Phew!   Toddlers can really be a trip!

Here’s what I’ve learned:

    Toddlers and small children have little to no control over their day and lives in general.  It’s really only natural that after a certain amount of time that they realize this and protest it.

Here’s what I recommend:

Embrace it. If there is anything that I learned along the way it is that it is actually developmentally normal for a toddler to be strong willed. It’s a stepping stone to decision making and problem solving skills; and well – that’s actually okay. Don’t take it personally as a parent.  In so many parenting situations, it’s easy to start thinking, “Well, I must be doing this wrong or my child would be doing what I ask”. This is probably not the case here, so don’t do that to yourself.  Toddlers are often strong willed and resistance and protest is just a part of the deal. Once, I changed my mindset about how ‘stubborn’ my son was, just about everything got a ton easier.

Try to give your toddler choices whenever you are reasonably able to do so.

For example: If I already know that his afternoon snack is going to be fresh cut fruit and greek yogurt, I’ll take out greek yogurt, strawberries, and bananas. I’ll show him the strawberries and bananas and ask him to decide what he wants.  If he chooses bananas – then bananas it is!

By doing this I have eliminated the stress for him by allowing him to “choose” and I have eliminated the stress for me because I have managed to get him to eat!

“But, my toddler wouldn’t get near a piece of fruit or Greek yogurt!”

Being the hardened business people that they are, most toddlers have a long list of  absolutely non-negotiables.  And I hear you, mama! So, that brings us to tip #2.

 Toddlers have a more intense sense of taste.

This one is pretty simple.  And, it’s not just an old wives tale, it’s really true!  Babies and children, on average, have about double the amount of taste buds as we do in adulthood.

For a second, imagine your least favorite food and try to recall its exact flavor on your palette. Whether that be anchovies, liver and onions, or something else you just don’t like; just imagine it.  Is it fresh in your mind yet? Good. Now imagine that flavor at least twice as strong and imagine someone twice your size shoveling it into your mouth or hard pressing you to clear your plate. This is the toddler experience. Anyone would be frustrated and mostly likely object at one point!

My point is, try to be patient and realize that things taste mighty strong to these little fellas.

“But, how will I ever get my toddler to eat other foods then?”

I get it! And here’s what I suggest:

Let your toddler help you in the kitchen.

That’s not a typo. Seriously, bring your toddler in the kitchen and let them help you out.  We ordered the Guidecraft Kitchen Helper Stool on Amazon and it has changed everything!  Aside from learning about kitchen chores and cooking, your toddler learns how to follow instructions and has way, way more opportunity to explore food.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting you hand your tot a chef’s knife and let him go to town but there really are plenty of things that toddlers can safely assist with as long as you are directly supervising them the entire time. Regardless of your comfort level of having your toddler in the kitchen, there are plenty of ways to pull it off.

Personally, I like to keep things pretty conservative when it comes to allowing my little chef near anything potentially sharp or hot(and I strongly recommend that you do the same). That’s why we use the Guidecraft Kitchen Helper Stool. My little chef can reach the counter and see everything but it would be hard for him to fall out and it keeps him in one place. Bonus: He totally loves it and he has a blast being in the kitchen on a daily basis. I’ve also noticed that he is getting better and better about following directions and has learned how to construct some of the dishes that he actually will eat!

For example:Taco night is great time for a toddler to help out. I like to prep all of the ingredients on my own and then set them up a little “taco bar” on the counter. My son and I prep everyone’s tacos and then when he’s all done, he thinks he is the bee’s knees!

“Isn’t that a huge mess?” I would be lying if I said it doesn’t involve a little more clean-up. But, it honestly isn’t so bad at all and it has become a fun, bonding type experience in our house. We have made so many fun memories and taken so many adorable pictures in our kitchen. It’s totally worth it and I can’t recommend this tip enough.

Once you start thinking about it, there are plenty of things your tot can help prepare. He/she can put the toppings on a pizza, help to sprinkle toppings and spices, pour in ingredients, help count how many eggs go in a recipe, or my personal favorite – help clean up. The opportunities really are endless. Sometimes you will be making something they can’t safely help a ton with but there’s usually still a way to include them. As long as toddlers are safe and supervised, you can really get creative with ideas here. Like I said, I can’t recommend this tip enough.

Here’s why:

Toddlers are almost always way more willing to eat food which they helped prepare. I can’t say for certain why this is true other than the fact that it probably makes them feel a bit more “in the driver seat”.  I know that for my little chef, it certainly has led to him trying a ton of new things. Not all of these things he liked, and not all of them went on to be his favorite foods – but he tried them!

A week or so ago I chopped up fajita veggies and threw them in a bowl to coat in seasoning. I let my son help toss them and you know what happened? He tried one of each colored bell bepper and a piece of onion. I stood back in awe. He only tried a small bite of each but it was entirely on his own!  When he helps in the kitchen, stuff like this is happens all the time.

Right about now, you might be thinking: “I don’t want my toddler to “try” food, I want him/her to EAT food”.

I know, I know.

Lets take a look at tip #4.

Make sure your expectations are realistic and developmentally appropriate.

There is a long, long list of things that will be exponentially more difficult for you, as far as parenting, if your expectations aren’t developmentally appropriate.

Here’s the thing:

It’s all about baby steps. If your toddler is helping to prepare food or is exploring a new food in any way – this is progress.  Even in the womb, the first thing babies do with their newly developed hands is bring them to their face or mouth. If your child is examining or sniffing a food they usually won’t touch- you’re already on the right track. If they will put a small piece in their mouth or lick the new food, that’s a great first step too.

I know that whole point is to get these little guys actually eating, but trust me and be patient on this one.

Remember that on average, a toddler needs to be offered a new food 10-15 times (and in many cases way more times!) before they will try it.

What I recommend:

When my son eats, doesn’t eat, or is just barely exploring a new food – I pretty much never show him a reaction unless is it very subtle and for surely positive.

For example: I mentioned that my toddler actually munched on some raw bell pepper and onion. If I would have shown how shocked I was, jumped up, and said, “Oh my gosh! Good job! I am so proud of you.Let’s take a picture!” (or something like that), he would have got distracted, overly excited, or possibly embarrassed. Instead I say, (calmly) “Oh, I see your trying a bell pepper, what do you think of it?” At which, point he usually says “yum!!!” Or spits it out. Hey, ya  can’t win all of em’ right?

Let’s talk about portions.

There are a lot of misconceptions about portions. As parents (good ones!), we naturally want to make sure our growing kids are getting enough to nourish their development.

Consider this:

If your child is otherwise healthy, not at risk, your doctor is aware and is unconcerned – then there is probably a 99% chance that your child is eating exactly the right amount for them. You see, there is no one size fits all.

Besides that, a toddler’s stomach is roughly the size of his or her fist. Even if your toddler is bigger, that’s probably still not very big. Try to keep that in mind when serving their food.

Giving a toddler more food than is developmentally appropriate for their age and size is not only unrealistic and wasteful but it is also potentially harmful in the long run. Long gone are the days of “clear your plate before you can leave the dinner table”. Much research is now suggesting that forcing children to eat this way leads to over eating later in life. With type 2 diabetes and obesity at an all-time high, it just isn’t worth it.  If it’s a food that can be saved and offered again later then that’s probably a better plan.

Whatever you do, resist the urge to force a toddler or kid to eat.

Aside from the fact that it probably won’t work – here’s another huge draw back in the short term: It steals everyone’s mealtime peace. Your toddler will probably have a meltdown in their protest and make a scene.

This steals your peace because: Even if you’re just at home, there’s likely not a single family member who enjoys witnessing a toddler meltdown or tantrum.

This steals their peace because: mealtime becomes stressful event that is more like punishment than anything else.

Instead of making mealtimes a happy, fun, and light family experience it will become chaos and conflict real fast.

There is nothing to be gained from force feeding and you and your family deserve more peace than that, trust me!

And while we’re discussing what not to do, check out #5.

Avoid “If- then” statements.

An “if-then” statement is all too common and it usually sounds sort of like this,“ If you finish all of your broccoli, then you can have some ice cream!”

Here’s why that’s making everything way worse:

That statement translates to “This broccoli is terrible but if you just get through it, you can have something that’s actually tasty”.   It may or may not work initially but more than likely it will mostly just perpetuate their dislike for the broccoli and fuel the fire for their infatuation with the ice cream.

The other thing that happens with “If-then” statements is that they absolutely set the stage for the abuse of food as reward or punishment. It leads to unhealthy relationships with eating because it translates to “If you do something that isn’t fun, you will have earned a good treat!”. It’s common and I have even heard parents that I seriously admire using this tactic. Many of us heard it as a kid and I totally understand why it’s tempting but…

Here’s the thing:

They’re not animals to be trained.  Have you noticed in a lot of tv and film that a character will throw their guard dog a nice juicy steak for a job well done? Isn’t it a little barbaric to reward a kid with food? I mean, providing food is sort of the most basic need that we have to provide our kids and I really see it as more of a right than a privilege. This is not to imply that eating ice cream is right that he/she should have but eating in general is.  Building a healthy relationship with food and nutrition simply can’t be built on the foundation of food as a reward. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’ve already done it, just make sure you stop immediately.

Let them “Snack! Snack! Snack!”

If someone were to compile a list of words most heard by moms – I am so certain that the word “snack” would sit comfortably at #2 on the list! I only say #2, because I am also certain that the word “mom” itself would have to be #1.

Toddlers are like tiny explorers. It’s their job to explore the world around them through play so it makes sense that they just don’t even have the time or the patience to sit through a long mealtime. This makes them natural “grazers”.

My advice:

Let them graze! I set up snack trays at least twice daily. Usually once between breakfast and lunch and once between lunch and dinner.  Whatever my little guy doesn’t finish – I leave somewhere he can reach. This might be a problem if you don’t want a toddler on the loose in your house with a snack to shove in between your couch cushions, but I try and make these simple snacks and I still supervise him to cut back on messes.

Here are just a couple things that can go on a snack tray:

-thinly sliced and skinned apples

-squeezable Greek yogurt

-sliced strawberries

-banana coins

-whole wheat crackers with peanut or almond butter

-slices of cheese

-raisins or craisins

By allowing him to “graze”, he usually eats more throughout the day!

Avoid:

Choking hazards such as grapes, hot dogs, or large chunks of raw fruits and veggies.

Extra sweet snacks like cookies and cakes that cause sugar spikes. Sugar spikes = tantrums!

Snacking immediately before a set mealtime.

 

Let them do it. (and make your own life easier!)

Your toddler is likely already feeding his/herself finger foods and most of us expect our toddler to start feeding themselves entirely at one point or another.You know what I have seen, though? Parents who go to extremes to avoid letting toddler feed themselves because they know it’ll be a huge mess.  All that I can tell you on this one is that you really need to try it and you will see that it’s worth it.

Remember:

-Toddlers are strong willed, natural protestors. They crave independence and control.

-If you’re having picking eating troubles that are really a concern for you and letting a toddler feed themselves totally helps – then it is totally worth it!

-As parents, we clean up a tons and tons of messes on the daily. So I understand trying to prevent another. Having said that – Don’t get in your head about it! It’s just a mess, it won’t take all day to clean, and besides that – toddlers only get better at neater meals through practice. Everyone starts somewhere!

-Once your toddler is busy feeding themselves, you can focus on feeding yourself! Hey, you might even get to eat your food while it’s warm for once.-

There are also somethings which I often still use on the daily to make mealtimes less messy and they really help:

I already mentioned the Guidecraft Kitchen Helper Stool that we use for letting out toddler help out with food prep. Bonus: it folds up easily for compact storage.

Once it’s actually time to eat, here’s somethings that have really simplified mealtime for us:

Nuby Spoons and Forks

They have chubby handles for easy holding and are the only ones that I can find that are deep enough that the bite their taking doesn’t fall off and get all over the place too badly! They’re all top-rack dishwasher safe too.

OXO Tot Plate with Removable Training Ring

The training ring around the top helps toddlers so that their bite doesn’t get scooted off  of the edge of the plate. It helps a ton! The base of the plate is also a non-slip material, so it stays put on a highchair tray or dinner table pretty well. The training ring comes off easily for when you no longer need it or for cleaning. These are also top rack dishwasher friendly.

Munchkin Travelware Disposable Bibs

These are so great for on the go. You don’t have to worry about putting a soggy, food contaminated bib in your bag or bringing it home dirty. Just toss and go!  To be honest, I use these even at home now. They’re paper but the paper is layered enough that they don’t break down when wet. They’re nice and soft but also full coverage. They’re plenty big and they have a pocket that folds out to catch whatever misses their mouth.

My mom literally ordered a case of probably 50 boxes for us when my first son started eating solids. I told her she was nuts and that we would never use that many.  You know what? These are a staple in our house now and we have been using them ever since. So, jokes on me! Love these things.

So, moving right along with this picky eating business…

Don’t expect consistency.

The last tip that I want to share with you is for you to not expect too much consistency in eating habits (or anything else in a toddlers world, ha!). Remember, it is our role to provide consistency and routine they can count on and they don’t really have to return that favor just yet.

This means that you notice a couple “good eating days” followed by a couple especially challenging eating days. This is totally normal.

You probably also noticed by now that toddlers are great at switching up their routine on us. How they want their food served, what they want it served on, what utensils they want to eat it with, etc. can change at the drop of a dime.

What I recommend:

Be as flexible as possible. Roll with the punches. Don’t expect consistency. Accommodate their preferences when reasonable to do so but don’t bargain with tantrums. Toddlers have the memory that of elephants, so to speak. Which means that if you give a toddler exactly what they’re demanding in a tantrum, they will just about never forget that it worked out in their favor.  If your toddler has a tantrum at any mealtime; stop and try again later.

 

Well, that about sums it up! Good luck to you and your picky eater(s). I hope that some of these tips work for you and if you have any others that you’d like to share or a topic that you would like covered – please, drop me a line here.

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