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12 Tips to Get Your Picky Toddler to Eat

If you have a super picky eater on your hands, implement House Call Doctor's 12 tips on how to get them to eat more food and more variety - without turning every meal into a battleground.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
January 9, 2014
Episode #141

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When we are faced with the immense responsibilities of parenthood, our children's nutritional intake and growth becomes a vital daily concern. For me, feeding my kids well-balanced meals is something I think of every day - but it’s not always easy. 

The first year of life consists of seemingly-endless feedings – babies are growing very rapidly and require a lot of nutrition, and hence a good portion of your time may be spent feeding.  So it can be frustrating when your kids abruptly reach toddlerhood, hit the dreadful appetite slump, and slow down their intake. 

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What happened, you may be wondering?  All of a sudden, it may seem like they don’t want to eat any longer.  And they may turn out to be extremely picky. Here are some complaints I repeatedly hear from parents when describing their toddler mealtime behaviors:

  • The various foods on their plates can’t touch or may be considered “tainted” -- goodness forbid you serve a mixed food such as a casserole! 

  • They can’t seem to get enough of that pasta with red sauce today, but for whatever reason they seem repulsed by it the following day.

  • Getting them to try new foods? Forget it – it's worse than pulling teeth. 

  • You spend so much time, thought, and effort to prepare a meal that will be pleasing to the little tyke, only to become devastated when the first thing your toddler does is throw it on the floor without even so much as trying a bite.

Does this sound familiar? It can truly be maddening as a parent to try to feed a picky toddler, and it may often feel as though you are fighting a war with your own child at mealtimes.  Parents get understandably frustrated, sometimes to the point of a power struggle between a concerned parent and a stubborn toddler seeking to declare his independence (Just hope it’s not a glimpse into his upcoming teenaged years). 

Thankfully, I’ve been there, done that.  I have twin girls – two intensely picky, rambunctious, tantrum-throwing toddlers.  Double whammies at meal times for us, but we’re progressing nicely.  So…if we can achieve mealtime peace, so can you.

What Is “Normal” Toddler Appetite?

Infants may gain up to 15 pounds in the first year of life.  But after that rapid period of growth, they start to slow down after age 1 and normally gain only about 4-5 pounds per year during toddlerhood.  Since their growth slows down, they no longer require as many calories.  This is normal.  So it may appear as though your child is eating less, but she just likely requires less.

12 Tips to Stimulate Your Toddler’s Appetite

Here are 12 Quick and Dirty Tips to achieve mealtime peace in this war against your toddler in a tiara: 

1.       Wave the White Flag – End the War:  Let your child decide how much to eat.  You get to decide what to feed them, but let your child decide how much.  Your job, soldier, is a crucial one: to prepare well-balanced meals.  Avoid forced feedings and power struggles – all this will do is create negative associations that your child will form with food which will make every meal from then on a battle ground (this is the last thing you want).  Once you give up the war over food and allow your child to take control over how much to eat, these negative associations often resolve within a few weeks.

2.       Surrender Your Weapons:  Stop feeding your child yourself – let them pick up their food on their own.  Tricking them to eat via your spoon or fork and/or forcing it into their mouth doesn’t work in the long run.  Offer finger foods starting at 8-10 months, and once they are capable of picking up a spoon on their own (by 15-18 months) try to never feed them yourself again after that.

3.        Keep the Gun Powder DryLimit the snacking.  Allow a small, healthy snack in between meals (two total snacks daily) – such as pieces of fruit, cheese, raisins, etc.  Kids who over-snack will not be hungry at mealtimes. 

4.       Avoid the Liquid Bombs:  What we drink has the potential to actually comprise a large source of our daily calories - and can play a role in how hungry your child is at mealtimes.   Instead of offering juice between meals, serve water.  Water can be readily available whenever thirsty throughout the entire day.  In fact, limit juice to no more than 6 oz a day.  And limit milk intake to no more than 16 oz a day, and serve the milk with meals.  Drinking too much milk or juice can dull toddler appetites.

5.       Avoid Mission Impossible:  Avoid serving your toddler more food than they can possibly eat on their plates – this can simply overwhelm them and make them less likely to eat.  Serve appropriate portions, and allow your child to ask for more.  Avoid insisting that your child finish everything on the plate or finish the bottle.  Also, try to serve a variety of food groups at each meal, making it more stimulating and interesting for them to dig into.

One neat trick that has seemed to work well in my house is the use of partitioned toddler plates.  Ours come with four sections, and give us an idea as to what is a realistic portion is for a toddler.  Shoot to fill each divided section with a food from the various food groups at every meal – protein (meat, chicken, turkey, tofu, etc), carbohydrates (bread, pasta, etc.), veggies, and fruit.

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