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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
7-minute read
Episode #141

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.

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. 

It may appear as though your child is eating less as they get older, but they just likely require 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.

6.       Close Ranks:  Try to incorporate as many family meals together as possible.  When kids join the dinner table and eat with the family, they witness you eating, and will try to emulate the example you set.  If you use a fork, they too will be more motivated to use a fork.  If they see you saying “please” when passing the bread, they too will do the same.  If they see you eating the vegetables, they too will be more likely to try the mysterious green things.

7.       Bite the Bullet:  If your child infrequently and strongly dislikes a family meal you have prepared on a certain occasion, it’s okay to bite the bullet and substitute the main dish for something else.  As long as it’s not a frequent occurrence and you are not turning yourself into a short-order cook.  Kids should understand that they are expected to eat what the entire family is eating.  As a side note, even skipping an occasional entire meal is harmless (as long as it’s not a common occurrence) — so if they are simply not hungry at one particular meal and want to skip it, it will not hurt them.

8.       Consider Changing the Plan of Attack:  If you have a picky eater, you can try to change the presentation of some foods to see if it sparks their interest.  For instance, my kids will not eat a cooked piece of intact carrot, but if I cut it into circles well, then that changes everything.  I’ve seen some parents also cut food into neat shapes using cookie cutters. 

9.       Surrender, But Never Abandon:  Continue to introduce new foods.  Your child may not touch any new foods when introduced initially.  In fact, it may take 10 to 20 times of seeing that new food on their plate (and other people eating it) before they finally taste it.  New foods are often acquired tastes for toddlers and this process often takes time to develop.  Don’t force them to try the food or take a bite, just leave it on their plate and they will taste in when they are ready. 

10.    Avoid Enemy Scrutiny:  Avoid conversations about food and eating at meal times.  Shift the focus and scrutiny away from their intake.  Set a fun and cheerful tone, talk about your positive experiences from your day.  Engage the kids in conversation.  Also, avoid praising them for eating a lot — they should be eating to please themselves, not their parents.

11.   Replenish the Troops:  If you are concerned about your child’s nutritional intake, consider a daily multivitamin. Consult your doctor first! 

12.   Counting Casualties:  When reviewing your toddler’s nutritional intake, try to avoid viewing it from a daily perspective, but instead from a weekly one.  That's because it’s very normal for toddlers to eat well one day and not the next.  If they don’t eat well one day, it’s okay.   Don’t get worked up over what they did or didn’t eat today — as long as they are getting a variety of foods over a weeklong period, they are fine.

Mealtime Battle Warning Signs

Your child’s doctor will plot his growth at every well child check-up — ask your doctor about your child’s growth.  Children should be maintaining their growth along the same curvature on the graph (and not dropping). 

However, if your child experiences any of the following issues, please discuss it with their doctor right away:

  • Weight loss

  • Lack of any weight gain for 6 months

  • If they are feeling ill in any other way — diarrhea, fever, fatigue, etc

  • If your child gags on or vomits certain foods

  • If despite the 12 tips mentioned above there is no improvement in their intake

  • If you are concerned for any reason

Well, soldier, it’s time to begin some serious boot camp training and prepare for your upcoming mealtime obstacle courses  all is fair in love and war (it’s mostly love, don’t worry, I know).

 

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.