Picky eating or normal toddler behavior?

As an infant, did your child excitedly try new foods, only to become more selective as they entered their toddler years?

Some parents jump to label their child a “picky eater” if they:

  • Don’t want to sit at the table to eat
  • Play with their food
  • Are fussy about what they eat
  • Refuse to try new foods
  • Get up from the table frequently
  • Throw food on the floor
  • Loudly protest at meal time

While frustrating for parents, many of these behaviors are common for toddlers and preschoolers and have little to do with being a picky eater. What we see as picky eating habits can start around 1-year old, and peak during the toddler and preschool years for a variety of reasons:

  • Toddlers learn to feed themselves, giving them the ability to control how much and what they eat.
  • Toddlers are learning other, exciting skills, such as walking, climbing, and talking and they don’t want to take the time to eat.
  • Your toddler may simply see this as an opportunity to assert his autonomy. He is learning he has some control over his own body.
  • Toddlers crave the “familiar,” including what they eat.
  • Around 2-years old, a toddler’s metabolism starts to slow down as their body requires less energy from food, so it’s possible to see a shift in how much your toddler eats around this age.

Develop healthy eating habits as a family

You don’t need to make pb&j sandwiches for lunch for the next two years;  there are things you can do to help promote healthy eating habits and make food fun for your whole family:

  • Establish a mealtime routine: If possible, eat your main meals together, and offer a snack at a specific time in between meals so that your toddler doesn’t fill up on crackers just before dinnertime. Teach your child to wait for snack time or meal time when they ask for something in  between. This helps them learn to recognize hunger, and eat because they’re hungry, not for comfort or out of boredom. It also helps them learn delayed gratification, an important skill for emotional self regulation.
  • Model healthy eating yourself by eating a variety of foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Be adventurous! If your child sees you trying new foods, they will be more likely to try it themselves.
  • Ask your toddler to help you in the kitchen. It’s more fun to eat something you had a hand in creating!
  • Give as many choices as possible. Broccoli with melted cheese or plain yogurt?
  • Dipping food is really fun for toddlers. It’s amazing what they will drop in peanut butter or yogurt.
  • Bite size finger foods or child size silverware both have learning curves. Be patient!
  • Be mindful of how you respond to trying new foods or foods you don’t like. If your child sees you dramatically spitting out food or hears you using words like “yuck!” or “gross!,” they will likely imitate the behavior.
  • Give your toddler water to drink between meals;  avoid sugary drinks or juice.
  • Remember transitions, moving from one activity to the next, are harder for some children than others. Give a ten and five minute warning before meals and snacks. Give a choice. Say, “It’s lunchtime. Do you want milk or water with lunch?”

The gentle approach to trying new foods

With kids and food—as parents—we have to tread carefully. We need our kids to eat, right? But you never want to force your child to eat. Your job is to provide healthy food options at meal and snack times. Your child’s job is to decide what and how much they want to eat. Bear in mind that your toddler’s stomach is only about the size of their clenched fist, which is why toddlers tend to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day

  • At meal and snack time, in addition to their usual favorites, offer a new food item to “try.”
  • It can take repeated exposure to a new food before your child will finally try it.
  • Offer the family meal in a “toddler version.” For example, if you are having chicken pot pie, instead of offering your child a slice of pot pie, separate out some peas, carrots, and chicken for them in toddler-sized bites.
  • Let your toddler decide how they want their food arranged on a plate. Some toddlers really hate it when foods touch or run together. Consider using a child’s plate with built-in dividers and let your child tell you which sections they want their food to go in.
  • Have healthy snacks, such as fruit, out and available where your child is playing. Active toddlers appreciate having on-the-go snacks.

Mealtime is also about much more than nutrition. Make it a fun and memorable time for connecting and reconnecting with your family. Share family traditions with your children, and use this opportunity to share your family’s culture.

Remember who has what job. Parents provide healthy food choices at regular, predictable intervals, and toddlers decide what and how much they eat. It’s hard for parents to do, but when your toddler refuses to eat, he will have another opportunity in an hour or two (or whatever you have set up as your snack/meal times).

For some families, forcing a toddler to eat may make them eat even less and create stress and anxiety around meal times. Bargaining, bribing or threatening your child around meal time can increase that stress. We want to teach our kiddos that food is nourishment, and can also taste yummy and be fun!

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). 


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