When I teach about nutrition for toddlers and preschoolers, I include a few tips about introducing new foods. Then parents say “But I’ve got a really picky eater.” About 30 – 50% of parents of preschoolers describe their child as a picky eater!
So, this post will talk about how that may be just a normal toddler phase, plus lots of steps we can take to work on those challenges.
Start with Empathy
Parents will say “Will they ever not be so picky?”
I don’t think anyone necessarily outgrows being a picky eater.
I want to turn this question around on you. Look at the list below. It’s all things that many people like to eat. How many of them will you eat? Are there things on this list that you won’t eat? Why? If you went to a dinner party, and they served you that food and pushed you to eat it, how would you feel?
This image was a meme on Facebook, where people were asked to comment with their score of how many of those things they won’t eat. There were a few zeroes – totally flexible eaters who will eat anything. But otherwise, I saw scores ranging from a handful of no’s up to 27. But it seems pretty normal that most adults have some things they do not like to eat. It could be because they don’t like the texture, or the taste, or the smell. It could be because they feel icky after they eat it or their digestive system is unhappy the next day. We all have good reasons for what we do and do not choose to eat.
You could eat lots and lots of meals with me and never notice the ways in which I’m a picky eater. We could sit at many breakfasts and I would happily drink my tea or cran-apple juice, and happily eat pancakes, waffles, eggs. You might never notice that I NEVER drink coffee or orange juice and I virtually never eat bacon or sausage. And I never eat the really weird foods – my husband will try anything in any foreign country, but not me! We all have our preferences. But because I manage my own food choices, my friends don’t need to know or care about my preferences. But for our kids, since we’re making all their food choices for them, and we feel responsible for their diet, we keep bumping up against their preferences. It can be frustrating, but it’s also important to acknowledge that we may not be able to change them quickly.
Everyone can learn to be more flexible, more adventurous, and can learn accommodations. But let’s start from this place of empathy and figure out how we can offer and encourage without pressuring or forcing the issue.
Relax a Little
Although we all benefit in the long run from a diet featuring a wide variety of foods, if your child goes through a picky stretch where they only want a limited selection, it will be OK.
Toddlers are figuring out independence and control, and are ripe for power struggles. If you turn food into a battle ground, no one wins! If you force a child to eat, they will eat less. Watch this video to learn more about why toddlers may refuse foods.
Know how much they need to eat
Babies grow so fast in the first year that they have very high caloric requirements. But then that growth slows down, so your toddler’s appetite will decrease. It is helpful to know how much they need to take in per day – often parents are worried, then discover their child is actually eating plenty.
A child age 1 to 3 needs about 40 calories per inch tall. (source) Another way to think about it is to think of serving sizes as one tablespoon per year of age. (source) At at one meal, a 3 year old might get 3 tablespoons each of peas, noodles, and chicken.
If your child is gaining weight well and has plenty of energy, that’s a good sign that they’re getting enough food.
How much variety do they need
Well, all of us would benefit from a widely varied diet of healthy foods. But, young children may naturally have a more limited range than adults. As long as they’re eating some protein, some calcium sources, and some good sources of fiber and healthy fats, they should be fine.
I had a nutritionist tell me informally that if a kid eats more than five types of food, she’s not too worried. If you’re concerned, ask your child’s doctor.
Get them Involved
Take your child grocery shopping with you, or to a farmer’s market. Let them choose the things they want to try. Let your child help you to prepare the food (scrub vegetables, stir the fruit salad) or set the table for a meal. If there’s a meal where you want them to try something new, let them choose their favorite familiar foods to accompany that new option. Offer choices – not “do you want a vegetable at this meal?” but “do you want broccoli or carrots at this meal?”
Role Model / Communal Meal
Make meal times relaxed and social. Serve the same food to everyone as much as possible. Eat your own food and talk about what you like about your food. If there’s something you are OK with eating, but don’t love, you can say that “I don’t love this, but I know it’s good for me, so I’ll eat some of it, then I’ll eat the other things that I like better.” Don’t talk to your child a lot about foods you don’t like or model picky eating.
Introducing the New Food
Give them a very small taster serving – like a single pea, or a shred of cheese. Allow them to touch it, sniff it, lick it – do whatever they need to do to feel comfortable trying it out. Respond positively to any attempts they make, but don’t pressure them into eating it all. If they choose not to eat it, say “OK, we’ll try again at another meal.” Wait several days before trying again. Plan to offer a new food several times before it’s fully embraced. The first few times, offer just one bite. Over time you can give them a full serving.
Use food bridges – think of something they already like – what new food is like that? Try that one before you try something that’s unlike any of their favorite foods. Think about textures, colors, and tastes. If they like mushy foods, they’ll prefer mashed potatoes to french fries. If they like crisp things, try kale chips and apple slices. If they don’t like green food, try carrots, cauliflower, sweet potato, jicama.
Many parents go for the technique of “hiding” vegetables – blending lots of veggies into spaghetti sauce or dip, or mixing grated carrots into other things. Some nutritionists recommend this, some say it’s better to teach them to like the whole food. If you have a super-picky eater, I wouldn’t recommend this – if your child doesn’t “trust” foods, this will just reinforce that.
It may help to try new foods at snack time when they’re hungry, and not at a mealtime when you’re hoping for the whole family to have a relaxing time together.
Make New Foods Fun
Make trying new foods a fun activity by documenting what faces your child makes when they try a new food. Try adding a dip – many kids will eat anything they can dip. Do taste tests, crunch tests, cut food into fun shapes, go on a food field tip to learn where it’s grown. (ideas here)
Stick to the Familiar in Unfamiliar Environments
When your child is on vacation, or otherwise outside of their normal routine, they may need familiar foods to calm and reassure them. When my daughter was in a picky phase, we took a vacation where she carried a small container of Kraft parmesan cheese to every meal, and if nothing else on the menu seemed OK to her, we’d just order noodles with butter and she’d sprinkle on her cheese, and everyone was happy. When we got back home, we worked on broadening her diet.
If you make any food a “forbidden fruit” that only increases its appeal. Go ahead and have fast food, or ice cream, or candy, or whatever. But do it in moderation, and explain that it’s a ‘sometimes food.’ (We don’t keep ice cream in the house, where it would be tempting to have it more often, but we do go out to ice cream as a special family treat.) A friend of mine has the ‘strong food’ policy – if you’ve eaten some of the food that keeps you strong and healthy, then you can have treat foods. (But don’t sell the treat as the reward for eating the healthy food – that could imply the healthy food is the icky stuff you have to slog through to get to the good stuff.)
But do remember that snack foods are scientifically designed to push kids’ pleasure buttons with salty, sweet, fatty goodness. It’s hard for healthy foods to be as appealing. So, realize that it can be hard to go back from junk food to healthy food. (And I say this as a parent whose kid is addicted to Cheez-Its!)
Kids tend to be pickier about new foods from age 2 to 5, an age when they may cling to familiar routines. As they get older, they make get more flexible. So once your child starts elementary school, try re-introducing some things they may have rejected in their toddler years. They may be more flexible now. As they move toward their tweens and teens, they may try anything their friends eat!
So, my first child ate everything easily. Of course he went through periods of having preferences, and he didn’t always love vegetables, but he was always pretty flexible. My second child was a typical “picky eater” kid and we used all the tips included here to get her to eat. She was especially picky about protein sources, so we had to be especially creative there. As she got older, she was able to articulate that lots of proteins upset her stomach, so now at 22, she’s a soy free vegan and eating an otherwise very diverse diet.
My third child… well, he’s a whole different level of picky eater. I’d been a parent for 17 years when he was born, and I was a parent educator, so I knew all this stuff about picky eaters and how to work with them, and believe me, I tried all these tips. And his diet is still very limited. So, if you’ve tried all these ideas and are feeling like you’re at the end of your rope, check out my other post on super tricky eaters.
Sources for more info:
- Picky Eaters: https://www.mottchildren.org/posts/your-child/picky-eaters
- How to Handle Picky Eaters: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1072-how-to-handle-picky-eaters
- Helping Parents Understand When Toddlers Won’t Eat
- Tips for Picky Eaters: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers-picky-eating