Picky Eating in Toddlers, How to Stop It

Is picky eating in toddlers just normal and something they will grow out of?  The truth is that feeding toddlers is difficult for a number of reasons, but there are tried and true strategies that you can use to help your toddler try new foods.

What is Picky Eating?

This is a term that is commonly used to label kids that are resistant to trying new foods or when parents are having difficult or stressful mealtimes. However, labeling our child does little to help the situation.

What we really want is to raise a happy, healthy eater that has a positive relationship with food.

Achieving a specific number of foods eaten or food groups to no longer be labeled as “picky” does little to achieve this goal.

It is more important to understand the key feeding strategies that will help your child try new foods and avoid the pitfalls that result in resistance and selective eating patterns. 

The good news is that the keys to helping your child be a better eater are not complicated and can be easily implemented. 

However, some of these approaches may feel counterintuitive and you may be skeptical. If you’ve been struggling with picky eating in your toddler, you have probably tried more than a few different techniques and received a great deal of advice from friends, family or Google. 

Before we dive into the keys to help your toddler, we need to talk first about normal toddler development and why picky eating seems to become a problem for so many during this phase.

Picky Eating in Toddlers is Normal

In toddlers, it is important to remember that developmentally, they are starting to become more independent and want to make decisions themselves. From what clothes to wear, toys to play with and yes, foods to eat. This coincides with a decrease in calorie requirements that are the hallmark of the rapid growth in first year of life.

With these changes comes fickle eating habits and highly variable appetite and preferences. It is during this time that by using key feeding principles offer a haven of sanity and consistency that both you and your toddler need. 

How Do You Deal with a Picky Eater?

The most important steps you can take to help your picky eater try new foods and decrease stress at meals is to follow essential feeding principles.  These strategies may seem simple but are not necessarily easy to implement.  They will take patience and persistence, but when utilized consistently will transform your toddlers eating. 

Do Not Pressure Your Toddler to Eat

Pressuring your toddler to eat can take several forms including bribing with rewards or even positive praise for eating certain foods. Pressure can also be allowing distractions such as digital devices during a meal or reading a book to your child while he eats. Another form of pressure is using well-intended statements to induce guilt or convince your child to eat. This could be explaining to them why a certain food is important and how they need good nutrition. 

It is natural to feel the need to pressure your child, especially when they aren’t eating.  However, this is the single most important change you need to make if you want to help your toddler eat better and reduce picky eating.

Pressure creates stress for everyone at the meal.  It fosters an unhealthy relationship with food and can make your child not trust you and can further perpetuate negative behavior and picky eating.  Here are my best tips to help your child without pressure. 

A positive meal time is more powerful than any pressure you might apply. 

A positive meal time is the single most important part of a successful feeding plan. It builds trust and creates an environment where new foods can be explored without your child constantly being on the defensive and you feeling frustrated and stressed. 

But you may worry that without pressure, your child will only eat preferred foods or nothing at all. Next, we’re going to cover exactly what your role is at meals and what to leave up to your child. It may feel strange to give up some of the responsibility and trust your child to do his job, but raising a happy, healthy eater means your child is able to develop his innate ability to eat a wide variety of foods. 

Parent Provides and Child Decides

You have an important job as the parent, but there is a specific division of responsibility when it comes to feeding. You are responsible for the when, what and where of meals. 

Your child decides if and how much. Period. No pressure, no coaxing, no convincing. 

If this sounds familiar to you, its because this feeding approach is based on the work of Ellyn Satter, a leader in child feeding.   

The when of feeding means that you set the schedule for meals and snacks. Your child doesn’t graze throughout the day and doesn’t get a snack an hour after a meal when he chooses not to eat. If you need help transitioning your child to a schedule, you can use this 5-step plan. Not sure how often your toddler should be eating? Use this feeding schedule sample as a starting place. 

The what of feeding means that you select the foods being served at a meal. This is where many parents get stuck. They struggle to choose a balance of preferred and non-preferred foods. Your job is to expose your child to new foods as well as offer foods that are comfortable and accepted.  In practical terms, this means that you include a preferred food at each meal.  A preferred food is one your child will eat 50 percent of the time when offered.  One approach that is helpful for choosing non-preferred foods to offer is to use food chaining.    

The where of feeding means that you decide the location meals will be eaten.  Ideally, eating at the table without any distractions of digital devices or toys.  Taking it one step further, it also means sitting down with child whenever possible and eating together.  This means eating the same food, not just taking a seat while your child eats.  Eating with your child is a powerful learning experience and allows you to set an example.  When you have a positive and stress-free mealtime environment, most children and parents rate eating together as one of most valuable experiences.  As your child ages, these mealtimes will become even more important and essential.

Picky Eating in Toddlers Summary

Picky eating in toddlers is common and can create a great deal of worry for parents, stress at meals and if correct strategies aren’t used can make it difficult for your child to develop skills needed for lifelong healthy eating habits.

To get your toddler to stop being picky and try new foods, there are 3 essential strategies you need to consistently utilize.

1.       Create a positive environment for meals by not pressuring your child to eat.

2.       Follow a feeding schedule for meals and snacks.

3.       Let your child have the responsibility to choose if and how much to eat of foods you serve.  Follow the division of responsibility.

Next Steps:

If you need extra support to implement these feeding strategies, I offer both in-person nutrition counseling (locally in Newton, MA) or virtually (nationwide).  Book a complimentary discovery call where you can ask questions and explore options for working together.

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