Picky Eating: The Top 3 Mistakes Parents Make

If your experience as the parent of a picky eater is like mine, you're an expert on what doesn't work.  You've tried just about everything and NOTHING WORKS!

So why spend time reminding you of what doesn't work? 

Don't worry, I'm not here to scold you or tell you that what you've done has caused picky eating or that you are to blame.  If you remember, even as an expert in pediatric nutrition, I had a huge serving of humble pie with my older (and VERY picky) son.

The reason I'm sharing with you what doesn't work is to help you start to peel back the stress and struggle you currently experience around feeding your child.  In order to turn around picky eating, you need to be given permission to let go. 

What we tend to focus on is getting our child to eat certain foods or food groups. But the truth is, raising a happy, healthy eater is far more than eating bites of green vegetables or meat

Our most important job is to help our child have a healthy relationship with food.  This means that they are able to choose foods they enjoy (yes, even vegetables and meat) and eat them in amounts they find satisfying (not a required amount to have dessert or their iPad).

The problem is that  our well-intended efforts to help our picky eater can be making things worse.

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Picky Eating Mistakes


Here are the three most common mistakes parents make that sabotage a healthy relationship with food and contribute to picky eating.

1. Using pressure such as bribes, rewards and praise
2. Not following a schedule for meals and snacks
3. Being a short-order cook and preparing a separate meal

 

The good news is that these mistakes are easy to fix and that most families see a huge improvement in their child's eating when they take specific actions to address these three areas.  

Mistake 1: Pressuring Your Child

What's wrong with cheering for a bite of broccoli or requiring a bite of a certain food in order to have dessert?

Does pressure work? ….yes, well sort-of….

It depends on how you define “work.”

If getting your child to consume the correct number of vegetables each day is the goal, then you’ve hit the mark. 

However, research shows that pressure has effects that are less desirable, too. Children may eat a food under pressure, but are less likely to prefer the food.

Pressure creates a short-term win, but creates a long-term obstacle to helping your child have a healthy relationship with food.

What this means is that we must keep a long term outlook and provide no-pressure opportunities to try foods (including vegetables).

This means serving them at meals and snacks and keeping the response neutral.

No need to cheer a bite of veggies anymore than we would a cookie. Pressure can also come in the form of a desire to please you. Food is just food.

Teaching our children to be competent eaters and helping them have a healthy relationship with food is a long term goal. It doesn’t have the same immediate satisfaction of seeing a bite of vegetables consumed.  

I know it is hard to keep things in perspective when veggies have been on refuse “repeat."  You may fear that your child will NEVER eat vegetables without pressure.  

However, will your child learn to enjoy eating vegetables if it is learned under pressure?  Research says no!

The key to a successful, positive environment for meals is to NOT pressure your child to eat.

When you apply pressure (even subtle pressure), you create stress for both your child and you, and contribute to picky eating behaviors.

To learn no pressure ways to help your picky eater, check out this article I wrote on the topic.  

Mistake 2: Not Following a Schedule for Meals and Snacks

Does your child eat on a schedule?

A feeding schedule helps your child eat better.

Why? Children that graze throughout the day have a higher incidence of picky eating.

One of the first things I talk with my clients with young kids about, is the family’s schedule for meals and snacks. With the hectic nature of life, it’s easy lack needed routine.

common mistake I see parents make is offering a snack after a meal when they are concerned their child didn’t eat well.

This approach can contribute to picky eating behaviors. It can also make it more difficult for your child to develop an ability to recognize and respond to hunger and satiety cues.

If you remember, our goal is to help our child develop a healthy relationship with food.  This means fostering the ability to respond to hunger and satiety.  Picky eating is often dramatically reduced when a schedule is implemented.

If you are struggling to develop and stick to a feeding schedule, this article provides a 5-step plan to implement a schedule.

Mistake 3: Being a Short Order Cook

But he won't eat anything else!  

If you find yourself in the situation of preparing a special food or meal for your picky eater, you're not alone! 

Short order cooking is one of the most common ways we cope with picky eating. Typically out of sheer exhaustion and concern for our child, we get into a routine of preparing a separate meal or food.

There is nothing wrong with serving your child a preferred food at meals.  The prior statement is really important and a huge block that prevents many parents from making real progress with helping their picky eater.  I'm going to state it again.

There is nothing wrong with serving your child a preferred food at meals. 

In fact, every meal and snack you serve to your child should include a preferred food.  Does this mean that you have permission to serve pasta, chips, macaroni and cheese or breaded chicken bites with every meal?

Sort of...  Let me explain.  Stick with me on this one as it will take a bit of background information.

Family meals are the building blocks for raising a happy, healthy eater.  They give your child the opportunity to be exposed to new foods, you teach through role modeling food choices, and have quality time for conversation and connection. 

As we learned from mistakes #1 and 2, having no-pressure meals and a schedule for meals and snacks are essential prerequisites for successful family meals. 

Let's revisit the the topic of preferred foods.  Meals should ALWAYS include one of your child's preferred foods.  The key however, is to serve this food as part of the family meal not as a separate food/meal for your picky eater.

The expectation with family meals is not that your child will eat all the food on his/her plate or even take a taste or smell.  Resist the urge to pressure your child.  Remember that the key to a successful, positive environment for meals is to NOT pressure your child to eat.

For some children, it is necessary to use a divided plate or put new foods on a separate plate or place mat and slowly work up to having new foods on the same plate. 

I recommend serving meals family style as it gives your child a chance for more exposure to new foods.  By serving their own food (even children as young as 2 can participate in serving food), children have the opportunity to see, smell and interact with new foods.  Over time and with repeated exposure and role modeling, your child will learn to eat new foods.   

The key to avoiding mistake #3 of cooking a separate meal or being a short order cook is to prepare and plan meals that ALWAYS include a preferred food.  This article offers even more insight on how to end short order cooking.

Conclusion - Picky Eating Mistakes

By exposing your child to new foods, creating a no pressure environment and a using a consistent schedule, you will find that your picky eater will begin to explore new foods and flavors. 

If this sounds like it won't work for your child, I challenge you to give it a try for 2 weeks.  You will be surprised by the dramatic changes you'll see in your child.  What will probably shock you even more is how much less stress YOU will experience related to meals.  

If you are ready to make changes that can help your picky eater, but aren't quite sure how to get started, book a complimentary discovery call where I can answer your questions and offer you personalized recommendations

You can raise a happy, healthy eater without doubt and struggle!

 P


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Clearing Up Picky Eating Myths and Misinformation

Trying to feed a picky eater? You might be wondering what works and what is just a myth.

While kids are notoriously selective about foods, for some children this can be more than just a phase.

This article separates fact from fiction for common myths and offers solutions that you can explore if you child’s picky eating has become more than just a phase.

 picky eater at table looking away from broccoli

5 Picky Eating Myths

Myth #1: All kids are naturally curious about food.

If you are struggling with a picky eater, you’ve likely scoured the internet for tips and suggestions.  You’ve probably come across countless recommendations to involve your child in preparing food or playing with food. 

In general, kids are curious about food.  However, for some children, especially those that have strong sensory reactions, this may not be the case.  If your child reacts strongly to the sight, smell or presence of certain foods, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

My oldest son would run from the sight of foods and start gagging when foods he didn’t like were placed near him. This wasn’t something I could just turn off. He didn’t have any interest in any play activities with food. My younger son is the complete opposite. He grabs unfamiliar foods and plays or just eats them.  His reaction to food couldn’t be more different.

Food curiosity is a myth and while one of my key strategies for working with children and families with picky eaters is to use elements of play, it is necessary to individualize the approach.  For example, foods may need to be placed in sealed plastic bags to be touched if engaging in play-based feeding therapy.

Myth 2: Picky eater children will eat when they are hungry

One dangerous and false statement that is made frequently is that children will eat when they are hungry.  This isn’t true. 

For some children labeled as picky eaters, there are difficulties with chewing or positioning of food in the mouth which may need the expertise of a speech therapist.  Other children may struggle to maintain proper positioning in their chair to eat and be unable to effectively eat.  An occupational therapist can be helpful in many elements related to the feeding environment.

Maintaining a feeding schedule to be sure your child has adequate appetite at meals and isn’t grazing throughout the day is essential.  However, this is very different that taking the approach of just letting your child get hungry enough to eat what is served or specific foods.

Myth #3: Picky eaters are just being difficult

Many people label children that struggle to eat as difficult and parents fall into the trap of thinking picky eating is a behavioral problem.  While some behaviors you may see at the table may appear to be just “bratty kid” problems, think again.  This is also a myth.

When a child is struggling to eat, their instinct is to escape. The behaviors at the table are usually a method of escape. It can be throwing food, not sitting in chair or many others.

The good news is that when the underlying feeding issues are addressed, the behavior improves as the need to escape is eliminated.  With an individualized approach and a thorough review of your child’s specific feeding problem, you will likely find that your child’s table behaviors change completely.

Myth #4: If you just offer the food 10-20 times, your child will try it.

Trying new foods does take many exposures to the food. However, there is no magic number of offerings before a child will accept the food. One specific example that is difficult for many parents (and children) is eating meat.

As a pediatric Registered Dietitian, I often hear from my clients, “my child won’t eat meat.” Meat is one of the most complex foods to chew because it requires rotary chewing.  Some children have difficulty with meat because they never mastered this feeding skills.  One of the first things I do is determine if the child needs any additional evaluation from a speech therapist for swallowing problem. 

In many cases, it isn’t related to a deficit in chewing or swallowing, but the texture of meat is to blame.  When you eat meat, the texture changes as you chew. 

This is a strange and uncomfortable sensory experience for some children.  They may not know what to do with the food as they chew it or have trouble managing the sensory experience.  They develop an aversion to eating meat and avoid this food.

Feeding is an incredibly complex activity and requires nerves, muscles, senses and much more.  Oversimplifying the process of eating a new food into a simple mathematical numbers game of exposures is certainly a myth.  If your child is struggling with a feeding issue, there is no number of times you can offer the food to make it be accepted.

Myth #5: There is nothing I can do about picky eating.

If you’ve tried everything to get your child to try new foods, you may fear that there is nothing you can do about picky eating.  The good news is that this is also a myth.

One approach that is particularly helpful for toddlers and younger children is play-based feeding therapy. Typically these sessions are run by an expert with you as a parent engaging in the session and learning skills that you can apply on your own.  By incorporating a play scheme that involves food, your child over time becomes more comfortable with new foods.

Food chaining is a specialized approach to helping picky eaters.  It is especially beneficial for those with strong sensory reactions to food.  For example if you child has very limited number of foods accepted or is extremely specific about texture, appearance and smell of foods.  

 

Is picky eating a disorder?

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is new term that is used to diagnose children with extreme picky eating.  There is little awareness of this relatively new diagnosis, but for some parents, it is the answer they have been searching for. 

Why ARFID occurs is unknown but can be related to some of the factors I mentioned above such as sensory response.  Other cases are thought to occur due to a traumatic event such as choking. 

Research on ARFID is limited as is information on the best treatment approached.  Finding a practitioner with expertise is essential to treat this disorder.


How do I stop picky eating?

For most children, there is a lot you can do to both limit picky eating behaviors and help your child try new foods. 

The three most common mistakes parents make that contribute to picky eating are:

1.       Pressuring their child to try foods

2.       Not following a schedule for meals and snacks

3.       Being a short-order cook

As a parent, you will see dramatic changes in your child’s eating behavior when you address the mistakes above. 

 

Summary

The truth about picky eating may not be easy to find, but there are myths that contribute to making it hard to solve the underlying issues.

Eating is an incredibly complicated activity for the body involving muscles, nerves, and senses.  Picky eating is the symptom you see when something in the eating or feeding process isn’t working just right. 

It can be tempting to label your child as a “picky eater” with a behavioral problem.

Avoid falling into the trap of believing the myths debunked.  Take action to correct any feeding mistakes you are making, and you might be surprised at the results you see. 

If implementing key feeding principles doesn’t help, seeking out the expertise of a professional with expertise in food chaining or play-based feeding therapy can help.

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Feeding Schedule for Toddler - Nutrition Guide

A feeding schedule for your toddler is essential. If you’re struggling to figure out when and what to feed your toddler this article will provide your with the basics of toddler nutrition and contains a sample toddler feeding schedule and meal plan. 

A feeding schedule helps your toddler eat better. Children that graze throughout the day have a higher incidence of picky eating. Taking the time to develop a feeding plan for your toddler is an excellent decision.

How Many Meals a Day Should a Toddler Have?

Most toddlers eat 3 meals and 1-2 snacks per day. It is important to remember that the incredible growth experienced in the first 2 years of life starts to slow down. You will likely notice that your toddler’s appetite may be variable and matched to this new pattern of growth. 

Intake at meals will vary from day-to-day and you may find that your toddler is hungrier at a certain time of the day or associated with a growth spurt. Don’t pressure or encourage your toddler to eat. Your feeding schedule will provide plenty of opportunity for your toddler to meet his nutrition requirements.  As a parent, it is your job to provide the food and your toddler will decide if he will eat. 

Avoid the common mistake of offering your toddler an extra snack after a meal that you feel he didn’t eat well at. This approach can contribute to picky eating behaviors. It can also make it more difficult for your child to develop an ability to recognize and respond to hunger and satiety cues. 

If your child has already settled into a frequent snacking or grazing routine, establishing a routine for meals and snacks is essential. 

How Many Snacks Should a Toddler Have Per Day?

Most toddlers need 1-2 snacks per day. It is not uncommon for younger toddlers to eat 3 snacks per day. Additionally, if your child is currently a frequent grazer, you may need to offer 3 snacks per day during the transition to a more consistent snack routine.

Snacks serve to supplement meals, not to replace what wasn’t eaten at a meal. Your snack schedule should be consistent and provide enough of a gap before the next meal that your child will have a good appetite for the meal. A sample feeding schedule is provided in this article.     

Portion Sizes for Toddlers

It is easy to serve more food than our toddler can eat. It can be very overwhelming for a toddler to have huge portions of food on his plate. A general rule of thumb is to serve 1 tablespoon per year of age (up to age 10).

While 2 tablespoons of a food may look like a very small portion to you, remember that your 2 year old has a much smaller stomach. If your toddler is still hungry after eating the initial portion, you can always offer more.


Letting Toddler Serve Own Food

It may seem like a disaster waiting to happen and a recipe for a messy meal, but allowing your toddler to serve his own food is a best practice. In addition to giving your child a chance to develop fine motor skills, it allows your child to be exposed to new foods.

Typically with family-style meals, each person takes a portion of each food offered. For your toddler, you will likely need to offer some assistance with the serving utensil, but allow your child the space to learn new skills.   

It is likely that your toddler may not be excited about each of the food served at a meal. Stay calm and communicate that he doesn’t have to eat it.   Remember that trying new foods takes many exposures. By interacting with the food from a visual and smell perspective is helping your child to develop the skills to try the food in the future. 

Sample Toddler Feeding Schedule

A feeding schedule for a toddler will typically include 3 meals and 2 snacks per day. A bedtime snack is optional and may be necessary for some children. 

The table below shows a sample feeding schedule for a toddler.

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Sample Toddler Meal Plan

The foods your family eats will likely be different, but this sample, one-day menu shows food groups and serving sizes for your toddler. Below the sample menu, you will find a list of food groups and serving sizes.

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Recommended Servings for Toddler Meals

Recommended servings are based on a 1,000- to 1,400-calorie food plan. A toddler's needs will vary depending on age and activity level. To create an individual plan for your toddler, log on to choosemyplate.gov, click on "Daily Food Plans," then choose the age of your toddler.

 

Dairy: 2 cups per day; be sure to choose lower fat selections.

Count as 1 cup:

1 cup (8 ounces) 1% or skim milk

1 cup low-fat yogurt

2 cups low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese

1½ cups low-fat or fat-free ice cream

1½ ounces of low-fat hard cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, or Parmesan)

⅓ cup shredded cheese

1 cup pudding (made with milk)

1 cup of calcium-fortified soy milk

 

Protein Foods: 2- to 4-ounce equivalents (or the amount of a food that has a similar nutrition value as 4 ounces of meat).

Count as 1-ounce equivalent:

1 ounce lean meat, fish or poultry

1 egg

1 slice lunch meat

1 tablespoon peanut butter

¼ cup cooked kidney, pinto or garbanzo beans

 

Fruits: 1–1.5 cups

Count as 1 cup:

1 medium banana or orange

1 small apple

1 cup canned fruit

½ cup dried fruit

 

Vegetables: 1–1.5 cups

Count as 1 cup:

1 cup raw vegetables

1 cup cooked vegetables

2 cups raw, leafy vegetables

 

Grains: 3- to 5-ounce equivalents (or the amount of a food that has a similar nutrition value as 3–5 ounces of a grain).

Count as 1-ounce equivalent:

1 slice bread

1 cup ready-to-eat cereal

½ cup cooked cereal, rice or pasta

1 "mini" bagel

1 small tortilla, 6 inches in diameter

1 pancake, 4½ inches in diameter

 

How Do You Feed a Picky Toddler?

If your toddler seems disinterested in eating the foods you’re serving, stay persistent. A toddler’s appetite is fickle and often will take 10 or more offering of a food before it will be accepted. Avoid pressuring your toddler to eat and utilize age-appropriate strategies to help your child.

Most importantly, remember that your responsibility is to offer foods and allow your child to choose which of the foods you’ve offered will be eaten (if any). Keep committed to your feeding schedule and resist the temptation to offer an extra snack or fall into a grazing pattern of eating.

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Toddler Meal Ideas

Are you constantly searching for toddler meal ideas? Do you struggle to find foods and recipes that your toddler will eat? 

I have an important truth bomb to drop here. If you regularly prepare a special meal or serve foods that are different from what you eat, you are setting up a future that involves preparing two different meals. 

Your picky toddler will not wake up one day and decide that he prefers the regular chicken you make over the special breaded chicken pieces you prepare for his meal. 

Right now, you can be teaching your child how to enjoy the foods YOU eat! Feeding a toddler doesn’t require special foods or recipes. If you are skeptical and sure that this approach isn’t going to work for your picky eater, read on.   

This article shows you how to create toddler friendly meals from the foods you like to prepare and eat. You will be able to end the time-consuming searching for toddler meal ideas and simplify mealtimes.

My other articles on feeding children offer even more ideas and resources to help you feed with confidence.

Building Blocks of Toddler Meals

Your active, growing toddler needs nutrient dense foods. The foods that meet his nutritional requirements are nearly identical to the foods you need, too. It isn’t necessary to serve special foods or recipes for your toddler. While you may find that you need to make small adjustments to your meal plan to accommodate your toddler’s feeding skills, remember that you are teaching your child how to eat the foods you enjoy, not serving the foods you think he wants or likes to eat.

In general, aim to serve 1 tablespoon per year of age for each of the foods at a meal. It’s easy to overwhelm your little one with more food than he can eat. 

By keeping portion sizes age-appropriate, you will be setting your child up for success and be more able to recognize hunger and satiety cues. 

Include a protein such as eggs, beans, tofu, meat, fish or poultry. Dairy products such as milk and yogurt are also a great source of protein, but are low in iron, a key nutrient for toddlers.

Calcium rich foods such as dairy products, beans or fortified plant-based foods such as tofu should be offered at meals and most snacks. Include a fruit or vegetable (or both) at meals as well as whole grains.

Be sure to include healthy sources of fat such as nut or seed butters, avocado or plant oils.  Egg yolks are also a source of fat for your toddler. Fat offers a concentrated source of energy for your toddler and helps to promote fullness.

As adults, we should be aiming for 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, so offering fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks helps you meet your requirements and gives your toddler plenty of opportunities to be exposed to a wide variety of options as well. Keep your child’s skills in mind and serve pieces that are easy to pick up or eat with utensils. Your toddler needs practice with feeding skills but can become frustrated if foods are difficult to eat. Keep a balance of skill building and easy to eat foods.


Choose Recipes that Can Be Deconstructed – Toddler Meal Ideas

An easy way to find toddler meal ideas is to choose recipes that can be deconstructed, and various elements served separately. This might mean serving pasta separate from the sauce and meatballs or serving the ingredients for tacos separately. Help you toddler explore various foods by playing games without pressure to eat the food.

It may take many times of offering a food or combination of foods before your child decides to try a taste. 

Playing with food, touching and smelling it are all necessary steps on the journey to trying new foods. 

Toddler Meal Ideas - Include an Anchor Food

A toddler palate can feel limiting when planning meals for your family.  Including an anchor food at meals will allow you to prepare a wide range of foods, but still offer foods that are accepted by your toddler. An anchor food is a food that your child easily accepts.  This might be bread, pasta, rice, fruits or crackers. When you are serving a new food or one that is less preferred, including an anchor food will provide your toddler with a food that he can “fill-up” and prevent you from worrying about if he is hungry or has eaten enough. 

Summary for Toddler Meal Ideas

The search for toddler meal ideas can start you on a path that leads to preparing a second meal for your child. However, remember that your real goal is to teach your child to enjoy the foods you eat. 

Each culture and family has a different tradition when it comes to food as well as flavor profiles. By taking a feeding approach that is aimed not at serving what your toddler seems to like eating, but instead is focused on helping him eat the foods enjoyed by your family, will help create a positive and low stress mealtime environment.

Understanding the building blocks of a toddler meal and choosing recipes that can be easily deconstructed are valuable for successful meal planning. Including an anchor food with meals allows you to expose your child to a wide range of foods.

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Toddler Won't Eat? How to Help Your Child Eat Better

There are few things more frustrating as a parent than when your toddler won’t eat. You want to help, but don’t know how to get your child to eat.

Reasons Your Toddler Won’t Eat

Normal development explains the primary reason that toddlers become difficult to feed. The energy needs for a toddler are substantially less than infants when evaluated from a per pound of weight basis. The growth and weight gain in the first two years of life starts to slow which translates into decreased intake and appetite.

Appetite is correlated with growth and toddlers are notorious for highly variable intakes. It may seem like some days your toddler is eating twice as much as normal and other days surviving off of bites of food. Expecting your child to have a consistent appetite is not reasonable. In general, toddlers are more in tune with their hunger and satiety cues than most adults.

Toddlers are also developing independence and are becoming increasingly curious about the world around them. This means at mealtimes, they will often be distracted and have a strong desire to express their independence which may take the form of refusing to eat dinner.


How to Help When Your Toddler Won’t Eat

Helping your toddler eat means that you need to recognize and support your child to develop curiosity about new foods and flavors. Typically parents focus most of their attention on how many bites are consumed, rather than focusing on encouraging their child to be a food explorer. While touching, smelling, licking food or smashing it on their head or arm may not seem like productive eating behaviors, this is how toddlers learn to eat.

When a toddler won’t eat the food you’ve served, it can be easy to resort to using pressure, bribes and other coercive approaches like sneaking vegetables in other foods to get your child to eat. While these tactics may work in the short term, they have negative long term effects and can create battles at meals that quickly create stress for the entire family.


What to Do When Toddler Won’t Eat

  1. Get messy - Toddlers are learning to eat. Wearing your food is part of the process of learning to eat that food. It is important to remember that your child has far less experience with food than you do. Expecting your toddler to excitedly put a new food in his mouth is unrealistic. A more normal reaction would be to first get comfortable looking at the food then perhaps exploring it with a finger. The next step may be smashing or spreading the food on his arm or hair. These are steps your toddler is taking towards eating the food, but are often unappreciated, as parents we focus on “take a bite.”

  2. Make food fun - To help your toddler eat new foods, use your most valuable tool, play. This can mean peek-a-boo or hiding a food under a napkin. It can be helping your child stack and topple over foods, or singing favorite songs with a food theme. Your toddler is learning to eat and you need to accept that it won’t be a neat and tidy stage of development. Encourage messy fun with food.

    In addition to play, think about how you present foods and get creative by cutting food into fun shapes with cookie cutters. Just as toddlers are drawn to colorful and engaging toys and activities, they will be drawn to foods that elicit their imagination and love of play.

  3. Trust your toddler’s appetite - It can be difficult to avoid encouragement when your toddler is not eating. As a parent your job is set the schedule for meals and snacks (when food is served), the location eating occurs (i.e. table, car, picnic at the park) and which foods are served. Your toddler’s job is to decide if they will eat from the food you have offered and how much.

    By using the power of play and fun, you can create interest in exploring new foods without pressure to eat. You might be surprised how effective messy meal and playtime at the table is for your picky toddler.

  4. Create a meal/snack routine - toddlers thrive with routine and this can be used to your advantage at meals and snacks. Be consistent with the steps you follow before meals, the way foods are presented and how you respond to behaviors. You child will feel more comfortable and have an easier time exploring unfamiliar foods when the rest of the meal environment is very predictable.

  5. Don’t attempt to reason with your toddler - toddlers are not capable of understanding cause and effect. Toddlers are in magical thinking and are not able to easily make the connections between events or apply to new situations. Fight magic with magic. Instead of trying to explain why they need to eat or offer reasons why eating vegetables is important, use play and fun to engage your toddler in exploring food.

  6. Implement a meal and snack schedule - Snacks are an important part of a child’s diet but can also create meal time difficulties when an unstructured approach is taken. A common reason why parents allow frequent snacks between meals is because their child doesn’t eat well at meals. However, this approach creates a situation where your child isn’t hungry at meals. Snacks serve to supplement meals, not to replace what wasn’t eaten at a meal. This article offers details on how to implement a snack schedule.

Other Reasons Toddler Won’t Eat

However, there are other reasons for a toddler not eating. Some children struggle with a feeding problem. This can occur for a number of reasons from prematurity, sensory processing or autism spectrum disorders as well as other problems related to the development of oral motor skills needed to master learning how to eat.

The incidence of pediatric feeding disorders is not well defined. However, research shows that in autism spectrum disorders, up to 90% struggle with food selectivity (1). For babies delivered extremely premature, the rates are about 25% (2).

It is important to note that picky eating or struggling to feed your toddler doesn’t mean your child has a feeding disorder. What the evidence does show is that picky eating is far more likely to occur in some populations and may be one of the first symptoms identified (3). Picky eating can be a symptom that requires more in-depth evaluation.

Typically many parents are told that picking eating is a phase and that a toddler not eating will “grow out of it” or will eat when they get hungry. This is not true for children with a pediatric feeding disorder. This resource compares common symptoms of problem feeding vs. picky eating and can be used to help you identify if your child has a more severe feeding problem.


Feeding Therapy for a Toddler Not Eating

Eating is a learned skill and for some children, additional support is needed to help them master this skill. Feeding is a highly intense experience from a sensory perspective. For some children that have under or over responsiveness to senses such as touch, vision and smell, learning the skills of feeding can be difficult.

The oral-motor demands for feeding are often not appreciated. Learning to maneuver the tongue, use teeth for chewing and positioning food in the mouth for a successful swallow can be a challenge for some children. This can often be masked as a picky eating or a preference for certain food textures or foods. Children that are struggling with oral-motor aspects of eating can be difficult to identify and many of the symptoms are subtle and may not be recognized in regular child visits.

Feeding disorders typically require intervention by skilled professionals. Feeding therapy can help your child develop skills needed to eat and provide you with education about feeding strategies. Typically feeding therapy is conducted in a clinic or can also be performed in home. Play-based feeding therapy with a focus on sensory exploration is a popular approach for toddlers.


Conclusion: Toddler Not Eating

A child refusing to eat is a frustrating experience. It is important to distinguish picky eating from problem feeding and seek out additional evaluation for your toddler if you are concerned the symptoms may indicate a feeding disorder.

Using the strategies presented can help your picky eater toddler explore new foods and develop confidence at meals. Eating is a learned behavior and takes time and practice for your child to develop.

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References:

1. Williams, K.E. et al (2010). Food refusal in children: A review of the literature. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31, 625-633.

2. Samara, MR et al (2009). Eating problems at age 6 years in whole population sample of extremely preterm children. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.

3. Sharp, W.G. et al (2010). Pediatric feeding disorders: A quantitative synthesis of treatment outcomes. Clinical Child and Family Psychology, 13(4), 348-65.

Is Snacking Making Your Child Picky? 5 Steps to Implement a Schedule

Your child eats frequent snacks or seems to prefer to eat throughout the day and not at meals.  It is common for parents to let children graze between meals.  It is even more likely when a child is a highly selective eater.

Snacks are an important part of a child’s diet but can also create meal time difficulties when an unstructured approach is taken. A child that isn’t hungry at a meal or knows that a snack will be available soon after a meal may lack interest or eat very little.

While this may seem to give a poor eater more opportunities to meet their nutritional requirements, it hinders your child from responding to his internal hunger and satiety cues.  In order to be adequately hungry at meals, your child needs a feeding schedule.

The step-by-step approach described will equip you with a plan and confidence to implement a meal and snack schedule.


 food arranged on plate as clock for picky eater meal

The Truth About Grazing

A common reason why parents allow frequent snacks between meals is because their child doesn’t eat well at meals.  It is a natural reaction to be concerned that your child isn’t eating enough and offer snacks to provide a chance to make up what was missed at the prior meal. 

However, this approach creates a situation where your child isn’t hungry at meals.  It also makes it more difficult to ensure that intake of key nutrients are met.  Meals often include the most nutrient dense food options each day.  Remembers, snacks serve to supplement meals, not to replace what wasn’t eaten at a meal. 

Establishing a Snack Schedule

The number of snacks that a child needs depends on their age, but in general toddlers need 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day.  Older children need 3 meals and 2 snacks.

If your child currently eats frequent snacks or is grazing, you can use this stepwise approach to transition to a structured snack schedule. You will find that appetite at meals will improve and you will have more quality time to sit down and eat with your child.  This gives you the opportunity to model healthy food choices.  It also gives your child the needed experience with recognizing and responding to hunger and satiety.

Step 1: Create a Snack Schedule

If you don’t have a structured schedule for when your child eats snacks in relation to meals, this is the first step in the transition.  How to make the transition will be discussed in step 4. 

Mealtimes should be consistent, so your child’s snacks can be planned between meals. If your meal times are currently highly variable, you will need to plan the times for these as well.  Choose a snack time that is no less than 90 minutes before the meal to ensure adequate appetite for meals.  Remember that snacks serve to supplement meals, not replace them.  

It is best to write down your schedule and post it in the kitchen and keep a copy handy in your purse or wallet.  You will likely need to reference it, take notes and make updates as you make the transition.  It may be necessary to move the snack times by up to 30 minutes based on your individual child’s needs.

Step 2. Explain the Change and Involve Caregivers/Family Members

If your child is old enough, be sure to sit down and have a conversation, share the new schedule and tell him about the change.  Answer questions and provide reassurance that he will have plenty of opportunities to eat and that the foods you’re serving aren’t changing, you’re just going to eat at specific times.

If there are other people that feel your child, be sure that you have a conversation and clearly explain the schedule so they can support your efforts.  Consistency is important and will make the transition easier.

 

Step 3: Make Just One Change at a Time

If you are implementing structured snacks as part of an overall revamp including types of food you serve, consider making each change separately.  Too much change can be hard for your child (and you) to manage.  By first implementing the change to structured snacks, you are creating an ideal environment for your goal of offering more nutritious foods at snacks and meals.  Your child will be arriving to meals and snacks with more appetite which is essential for meal time success.

 

Step 4: Make the Transition Gradual

For many families, a gradual transition is better accepted and creates less stress and protest by the child.  By increasing the length of time between meals and snacks over a few days or up to 2 weeks, you can help to blunt the response to the change. 

Determine the usual amount of time between your child’s snacks.  If the amount of time is less than 30 minutes or your child is currently used to carrying around a snack container, start with 30 minutes as your snack interval.  Otherwise, set this interval as your usual time between snacks, but not more than 90 minutes.  By avoiding too long an interval to start, you reduce the likelihood of tantrums. You can always increase the time quickly if there is little objection.

After serving a meal at the scheduled time, set a timer.  Be sure to explain to your child that when the timer is up, it will be snack time.  If your child asks for a snack before the timer is up, remind him of the schedule and let him know how much longer until he will eat. 

Be calm, persistent and consistent.  There may be some objection to this new routine.  To minimize, do not make the new interval too ambitious.  You can gradually increase over a period of a few days.

At the end of the interval, offer a snack and when finished, reset the timer.  Snack time should not last more than 15-20 minutes.   Ideally, snacks should be eaten sitting down with digital devices/screens turned off.

Be sure to prompt your child to check in with his hunger/fullness cues to reinforce these skills. If your child is old enough to verbally communicate, provide additional food only after asking your child if he is hungry and remove the snack when he says he’s full. For younger children, look for signs he is full such as pushing food around or a lack of interest in food.

For the snack interval before a meal, be sure there is at least 60 minutes before the meal to promote appetite.  As you lengthen your snack interval, you can transition to 1 or 2 snacks between meals and then to just 1 snack between meals. 

Step 5: Evaluate Results and Adjust the Schedule (if needed)

After you have settled into a routine with your snack and meal schedule, now is the time to evaluate and make changes.  While it may be tempting to make modifications within the first 2 weeks, try to give the new schedule time to become a routine so you can separate out normal issues with change, versus a true need to adjust the schedule. 

You may need to change the time you’ve selected for meals or snacks.  If your child is hungry before the meal, you may need to evaluate the composition of snacks and be sure you are including both protein and fat to provide sustained energy/fullness. 

It may take a few adjustments to find a routine that works best for your child and family’s schedule.  Keeping notes and recording your child’s response to changes will equip you with information to make decisions about how to best adjust the schedule.  

 

Summary:

A consistent structure with meals and snacks helps your child eat and gain skills to become a competent eater.   While making the transition can seem a bit overwhelming if your child is currently grazing throughout the day or your meal schedule is a bit chaotic.  However, taking a gradual approach and using information to make adjustment will ensure a schedule that works for your child.  The stepwise approach provided will make the process easier.

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Engaging Podcast Episodes for Picky Eaters

There are a wealth of educational podcasts aimed at kids.  They are engaging, funny, and as a parent I enjoy learning and laughing with my children.   While answering questions like "Why is milk white?" or "How to make bread?" isn't a magic bullet, it can help to build curiosity about food. 

For younger children (ages 3 and under), podcasts with plentiful use of songs, silly sounds and short stories are a great option.  Older kids enjoy those that answer questions and explore science.

Some of my favorites are listed below with some personal insight about how they can help to foster conversation.

VPR But Why, November 22, 2016: Why Do We Like to Eat Certain Foods? 

This episode is perfect for science lovers and very curious kids.  It explores the sense of taste from food, brain and chemistry angles.  Experts answer questions submitted by kids and offer a number of fun activities to test your own sense of taste. 

My favorite part about this episode is when one of the experts shares "if you don't like broccoli then you shouldn't eat it."  My picky eater became excited, jumping out of his seat that he now had "real ammunition" against eating broccoli. 

Fast forward about ten minutes in the podcast when a different expert was addressing why flavor preferences vary with different cultures.  She focused on repeated exposures to foods creating a tolerance and affinity for certain flavors.  My son then stated "that's what happened with broccoli."  It is now a vegetable that he eats regularly although he is quick to share that he likes ice cream more.  

 

Sugarcrash Kids  S2E5: EAT! 

This episode explores what it means to eat healthy.  It tells a number of stories that will resonate with kids.  For example, getting asked to eat broccoli before being allowed to have another piece of pizza or eating so much cake at a party, that you start to feel sick and have to leave and miss the fun.   The style is very engaging and it does a great job of using different voices and background music.

I love the storytelling element which offers a natural transition into asking your child to share his own stories.   You might be surprised at the observations and knowledge that your child has about food and eating.  

The general message is "it's all about balance."  At the end of the episode you can transition into a great conversation with your child about making healthy food choices.

 

Ear Snacks Episode 1: Fruit

This is a fun, song-based episode that has a healthy dose of silly.  It is perfect for toddler and preschool age kids.  The episode begins with the ABCs of fruit and then some fun audio of kids talking about fruits and answering silly questions.  

While there isn't a strong educational element, there is an engaging conversation by one of hosts at the end of the episode.  She tries a mulberry and shares that she really didn't like it.  However, the focus was "at least I tried it!"

This episode was embraced by my toddler and we ad lib during the episode with out our fruit names and silly sounds.  You might find that your little one finds the hosts to be an overdose of silly!

 

Other Episodes of interest:

But Why, July 7, 2017 How Do You Make Bread?

But Why, June 22, 2018 Why is Milk White?

Wow in the World, July 27, 2017 Cuckoo for Cocoa: Journey To the Chocolate Forests of South America

The Past and the Curious Episode 7: Food Tales - Potatoes, Tomatoes, Ice Cream Cornucopias and Chicken Pie

Saturday Morning Theatre Episodes 111-113: The Prize Potato Caper Parts 1-3 - The Mysterious Mysteries of Toby Taylor, The Fruit Magician

Story Time Episode 74: The Snack Captain

Story Time Episode 48: Buffy Bunny Can't Cook

 

Conclusion

Podcasts are a great way to strike up conversations with your picky eater about food in a no pressure and fun way.  You might be surprised what your learn and I'm pretty sure you'll get a few belly laughs, too! 

 

MY FREE ONLINE WORKSHOP TEACHES KEY FEEDING PRINCIPLES TO REDUCE PICKY EATING AND HOW TO CREATE A POSITIVE MEALTIME ENVIRONMENT.

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