Does your toddler eat anything that’s not a hot dog, or worse yet, green beans? You’re not alone. Most toddlers are picky eaters at some point in their lives.
We know it can be frustrating when your child refuses to try new foods and sticks with the same old favourites day after day.
There are many reasons why kids shun their food. To end your dinner-table battles, you’ll need to know which kind of picky eater you’re dealing with—and how our low-stress strategies can help.
Types of Picky Eater
Eavesdrop on a group of preschool parents chatting at the playground, and chances are you’ll hear complaints about picky eating.
Turned-up noses and mealtime standoffs are common for kids between the ages of 2 and 5. But that doesn’t mean all finicky kids are dealing with the same issues.
Here are the most common picky-eater “types,” plus some advice on how to address the problem, because figuring out just what makes your choosy eater ticker, gag—will start you both on a path to happier meals.
You were the just-a-little-bit-smug mom who humble-bragged about how well your baby ate.
Then, suddenly, at age 2, he lost all interest in previously loved foods, and mealtimes became power struggles. Was all that palate training in vain?
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What’s Going On:
Studies show that the more flavours babies try, the more likely they are to enjoy a wide variety of foods when they get older, but that means when they’re approaching double digits and beyond.
By the time they’re 18 months, you should expect the unexpected. One reason is that kids’ appetites vary because their growth rate slows dramatically.
Your child may eat a lot at one meal and very little at another, and that’s okay.
At this age, a child learns that he has a lot of control over his parents’ behaviour, which can be fun! Rejecting foods is one way to exert his toddler power.
What to Do About It:
When your child rejects foods he loved the day before, you’ll be tempted to cross them off the dinner list. Don’t!
He may come back to the next week or month (or year), but only if you keep them in your repertoire.
The key to turning the tide is to keep things chill. That means not pressuring your kid to take a bite but still serving the food in new ways.
The Flavor Hater
Your 2-year-old will eat only über-plain foods like bread and butter, crackers, and cereal with milk.
Once in a blue moon, you can coax her to eat a few bites of scrambled eggs, but the process is exhausting. Are you destined to serve only bland foods forever?
What’s Going On:
Many toddlers have a natural aversion to intensely flavoured foods, and that’s an evolutionary advantage.
When our ancestors were old enough to wander away from their cave-parents, it would have been disastrous if they tried every leaf in the landscape.
So kids get choosier as they become more mobile, especially when it comes to bold, bitter flavours (veggies, we’re looking at you).
And when kids start to get picky, it’s easy for parents to offer mostly simple, bland food.
However, if you cater to those preferences, children are less likely to expand beyond this limited flavour range.
What to Do About It:
Instead of sticking with the guaranteed wins every day, try to slowly train your child’s taste buds to enjoy more complex flavours.
If your kid likes pasta with butter, offer it with olive oil. Once that’s accepted, add some Parmesan cheese.
You don’t need to announce these changes. But if your kid asks, you shouldn’t lie.
Kids learn by imitation and are also reassured when their parents are enjoying the same food.
Of course, not all kids will attempt a new taste no matter how you prepare it, so let them get comfortable by smelling, touching, and licking foods first.
Involving your child with meal prep helps because she’ll get to experience the food without having to eat it.
Crafting with food is another fun way to explore it. Build a house with asparagus or create a broccoli jungle.
It’s also a great idea to pick up a set of small spoons, giving kids more control when they decide they’re ready to try a bite.
Your 3-year-old son would much instead drink than eat. Then he drinks mostly milk throughout the day.
You think it’s just a phase, and hey, at least he’s drinking milk! But he isn’t very interested in solid foods at mealtime.
What’s Going On:
This is a common issue because young children have one priority: playing! It’s much quicker to gulp down a drink than to sit and eat at the table.
Since parents consider milk to be nutritious, they don’t worry about serving plenty of it. Then, suddenly, their kid is in the habit of drinking milk all day.
While milk is a healthy drink option, it can fill your kid up, which means they’re less likely to eat a wide and varied diet.
It’s a good idea to check in with your pediatrician if your child is a liquid lover.
Some children who prefer liquids have undetected tongue-tie or motor delays that make it difficult to bite or chew.
What to Do About It:
Once those issues are ruled out, rethink your beverage routine. Give your child a small cup of milk only at mealtime.
If he drinks all the milk first, next time, give him a little water with the meal instead, and then the milk after he eats.
You can also discuss with your pediatrician if you should offer your child a nutrition shake with his breakfast if he prefers to sip instead of eating, so he gets various essential nutrients. Between meals, water is the way to go.
And since your child’s preference for drinks probably means he’s eager to get up from the table, it may also be helpful to set a timer for seven to ten minutes and ask him to sit with the family for just that long.
Then he can play, whether or not he has eaten or everyone else is finished. You can gradually add minutes to his table time.
The Super Feeler
Your 2-year-old has big-time texture hang-ups.
She thinks carrots are too hard, yogurt is too slimy, and cucumbers are too smooth. It seems like every meal is a struggle to find foods that she’ll tolerate.
What’s Going On:
Discomfort with textures is a typical problem for a good reason: Young kids have a wide range in chewing ability.
Their teeth, jaws, and surrounding muscles are still developing, and they may not feel in control when some foods are in their mouth. So they reject them.
What to Do About It:
Proper seating can be a big help. Young children can chew more effectively when their core muscles are supported by their feet, so give your child a stool to rest her feet on when sitting at the table instead of letting them dangle.
And experiment with different textures. Instead of serving either raw or mushy veggies, try blanching them for a happy medium.
Drop them into boiling water for a few minutes, then transfer them to a bowl of ice water. This process makes the veggies tender, with just a little crunch.
Then cut them into tiny cubes and start by asking your child to put a bite on her molars.
Children feel safer if they can feel the food against their teeth. And the flavour won’t be as intense and overwhelming as it is on her tongue, where all the taste buds are.
If chewy meat is an unpleasant texture for your child, bake, roast, or use a slow cooker or a pressure cooker, so meats are melt-in-your-mouth soft.
Beef or turkey meatballs can be a good option, too, as long as they are very moist. Serve gravy or sauce on the side of your child prefers to dip.
Your 4-year-old eats a total of seven foods.
When you successfully persuade him to try something new, he always gags—which is unpleasant for both of you.
It makes him less likely to try new foods and you less likely to serve them.
What’s Going On:
For many kids, gagging can be a sign that mealtime has gotten too stressful. Your child may be having a dramatic reaction to efforts to “get” him to eat.
Suppose he has had difficult, unpleasant, or painful experiences related to food, such as severe reflux, constipation, a scary choking episode, or coercive and forceful feeding. In that case, that can be a factor too.
However, frequent gagging could also be a red flag that your child has oral-motor or sensory issues.
Oral-motor skills refer to a child’s ability to move his lips, jaw, tongue, and facial muscles in an age-appropriate manner.
If your child has a sensory issue, he may either under-or overreact to a sense.
He may think he needs to stuff his cheeks with food to truly feel it in his mouth or gag at the slightest change in texture.
What to Do About It:
To explore whether your child has an oral-motor or sensory issue, talk to your pediatrician.
A referral to an occupational therapist or a speech-language pathologist who specialises in feeding difficulties may be the next step.
Known as feeding therapists, these pros will review your child’s feeding history, growth, and development and evaluate his eating behaviours and skills in various situations.
They may coach you on how to help him at home—or work with him directly with techniques that should be gentle and fun—to overcome any challenges gradually. (Many insurance plans cover this treatment.)
If you rule out an oral-motor or sensory problem, try involving your child with the food at the table without any pressure.
One of our favourite strategies is to make your child the family’s “master server.”
Rather than passing serving bowls around, please put them in front of him with a big serving spoon and a smaller spoon in each dish.
Have your child ask each family member, “Do you want one scoop or two? A big scoop or a small scoop?” then put the requested amount on each person’s plate.
This way, he’s exposed to the food through his eyes, ears, and nose before ever tasting it.
The added sensory exposure may help pique his curiosity and make mealtime fun instead of stressful.
Plus, with a small spoon as an option, a child is more likely to put a little on his plate.”
Your toddler likes various flavours (phew!), but she’s extremely picky about how her food is presented.
Heaven forbid she’s served a casserole! She’ll eat only if every ingredient is in a separate small pile on her plate with no millimetre touch.
What’s Going On:
When your child prefers dishes deconstructed, is insistent about how food is cut up or doesn’t want foods to touch, it’s usually a control issue.
It often starts with some anxiety—maybe she’s nervous about starting preschool or excited about an upcoming holiday—so she already has butterflies in her stomach when she sits down to eat.
The way for her to calm down is to gain control by saying, ‘I want it this way.’ When you respond accordingly, it makes her feel better, and the habit is born.”
What to Do About It:
Serving food the way your child wants it is okay, and that can help the whole family eat the same meal (win!).
But help her move beyond the deconstruction zone by explaining that everyone needs a tiny bit of taco or lasagna on their plate.
Have her assemble the taco on a tiny piece of shell or serve herself a dab of the lasagna, so she has the sensory experience of handling the combined food.
Don’t insist she eat it, but it has to be on her plate, so she gets used to what it looks like.
If she gets upset, stay calm and say, “We all have tacos on our plate tonight,” and ask her about her latest playdate or new pet fish.
Sometimes not talking about food at the table is the best way to ensure happy meals.
Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters
Try not to get frustrated by this typical toddler behaviour. Just make healthy food choices available and know that, with time, your child’s appetite and eating behaviours will level out. In the meantime, here are some tips that can help you get through the picky eater stage.
Share a meal as a family as often as you can. This means no media distractions like TV or cell phones at mealtime.
Use this time to model healthy eating. Serve one meal for the whole family and resist the urge to make another meal if your child refuses what you’ve served.
This only encourages picky eating. Try to include at least one food your child likes with each meal and continue to provide a balanced meal, whether she eats it or not.
If your toddler refuses a meal, avoid fussing over it. It’s good for children to learn to listen to their bodies and use hunger as a guide.
If they ate a big breakfast or lunch, for example, they might not be interested in eating much the rest of the day.
It’s a parent’s responsibility to provide food and the child’s decision to eat it. Pressuring kids to eat, or punishing them if they don’t, can make them actively dislike foods they may otherwise like.
Break from Bribes.
Tempting as it may be, try not to bribe your children with treats for eating other foods. This can make the “prize” food even more exciting, and the food you want them to try is an unpleasant chore. It also can lead to nightly battles at the dinner table.
Try, Try Again.
Just because a child refuses food once, don’t give up. Keep offering new foods and those your child didn’t like before.
It can take as many as ten or more times tasting food before a toddler’s taste buds accept it.
Scheduled meals and limiting snacks can help ensure your child is hungry when new food is introduced.
Variety: the Spice.
Offer various healthy foods, especially vegetables and fruits, and include higher protein foods like meat and deboned fish at least two times per week.
Help your child explore new flavours and textures in food. Try adding different herbs and spices to simple meals to make them tastier.
To minimise waste, offer new foods in small amounts and wait at least a week or two before reintroducing the same food.
Make Food Fun.
Toddlers are incredibly open to trying foods arranged in eye-catching, creative ways. Make foods look irresistible by putting them in fun, colourful shapes kids can recognise.
Kids this age also tend to enjoy any food involving a dip. Finger foods are also usually a hit with toddlers.
Cut solid foods into bite-size pieces they can quickly eat themselves, making sure the pieces are small enough to avoid the risk of choking.
Involve Kids in Meal Planning.
Put your toddler’s growing interest in exercising control to good use.
Let your child pick which fruit and vegetable to make for dinner or during visits to the grocery store or farmer’s market.
Read kid-friendly cookbooks together and let your child pick out new recipes to try.
Some cooking tasks are perfect for toddlers (with lots of supervision, of course): sifting, stirring, counting ingredients, picking fresh herbs from a garden or windowsill, and “painting” on cooking oil with a pastry brush, to name a few.
Once a food is accepted, use what nutritionists call “food bridges” to introduce others with similar colour, flavour and texture to help expand variety in what your child will eat.
If your child likes pumpkin pie, for example, try mashed sweet potatoes and then mashed carrots.
A Fine Pair.
Try serving unfamiliar foods or flavours young children tend to dislike at first (sour and bitter), with familiar foods toddlers naturally prefer (sweet and salty).
Pairing broccoli (bitter) with grated cheese (salty), for example, is an excellent combination for toddler taste buds.
Respect Your Child’s Appetite — or Lack of One
If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force a meal or snack. Likewise, don’t bribe or force your child to eat certain foods or clean their plate.
This might only ignite — or reinforce — a power struggle over food. In addition, your child might come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration or become less sensitive to their hunger and fullness cues.
Serve small portions to avoid overwhelming your child and allow them to ask for more independently.
Stick to the Routine
Serve meals and snacks at about the exact times every day.
If your child chooses not to eat a meal, a regular snack will offer an opportunity to eat nutritious food.
You can provide milk or 100 per cent juice with the food, but offer water between meals and snacks.
Allowing your child to fill up on juice, milk or snacks throughout the day might decrease their appetite for meals.
Be Patient With New Foods
Young children often touch or smell new foods and might even put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again.
Your child might need repeated exposure to a new food before they take the first bite.
Encourage your child by talking about a food’s colour, shape, aroma and texture — not whether it tastes good.
Serve new foods along with your child’s favourite foods. Keep serving your child healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred.
Don’t Be a Short-Order Cook.
Preparing a separate meal for your child after they reject the original meal might promote picky eating.
Encourage your child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime — even if they don’t eat.
Make it Fun
Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favourite dip or sauce.
Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Offer breakfast foods for dinner. Serve a variety of brightly coloured foods.
Recruit Your Child’s Help
Ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods at the grocery store.
Don’t buy anything that you don’t want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table.
Set a Good Example
If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more likely to follow suit.
Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices, or mix grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups.
Turn off the television and other electronic gadgets during meals. This will help your child focus on eating.
Keep in mind that television advertising might also encourage your child to desire sugary or less nutritious foods.
Don’t Offer Dessert as a Reward.
Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which might only increase your child’s desire for sweets.
You might select one or two nights a week as dessert nights and skip Dessert the rest of the week — or redefine Dessert as fruit, yogurt or other healthy choices.
If you’re concerned that picky eating compromises your child’s growth and development, consult your child’s doctor.
They can plot your child’s growth on a growth chart. In addition, consider recording the types and amounts of food your child eats for three days.
The big picture might help ease your worries. A food log can also help your child’s doctor determine any problems.
In the meantime, remember that your child’s eating habits won’t likely change overnight — but the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating.
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