Few parenting duties are more frustrating than trying to get a toddler to eat. Somewhere around age two, many young children suddenly decide to cut out all meats, vegetables and fruits from their diet and subsist on Minions yogurt and white bread. This makes meal preparation a breeze, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to convince worried parents their toddler is getting a substantial amount of vitamins, minerals and protein in their diets.
The good news is that you’re not alone — and experts have provided us with fantastic tips on how to get your toddler to eat just enough to stay healthy.
But first, let’s define “picky.”
“With one in three children experiencing typical picky eating, and about one in 10 with more ‘extreme’ picky eating, it is critical for parents to understand how to help if there are challenges and, more importantly, how to not inadvertently make matters worse,” says Dr. Katja Rowell, a feeding specialist and co-author with speech therapist Jenny McGlothlin, MS, SLP, of Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating: A Step-by-Step Guide for Overcoming Selective Eating, Food Aversion, and Feeding Disorders. “Typical picky eating is frustrating, usually starts around 15-18 months and lasts until around age 5. They often eat a variety until they just don’t! They may refuse to eat a favorite food one day and ask for it again the next. You can’t rationalize this issue away, convince them it’s healthy or yummy. They may have a tantrum about what is served, may try to get their favorite, but are able to calm themselves down and often make do.”
If you have what Rowell calls an “extreme picky eater,” you’re likely raising a little one who eats so little variety or amount that it can impact growth, nutrition or their social and emotional development. It can also be the source of a lot of power struggles or worry for parents.
“They may have a 90-minute meltdown over a food on the table, tend to be more anxious, also more commonly seen in boys, with sensory or other developmental delays or if there are or were medical challenges,” Rowell says. “Basically, anything that makes it difficult or painful or uncomfortable for a child to get food into her mouth, chew, swallow or digest it, puts her at risk for eating challenges. Children with extreme picky eating have often struggled from the start with breast or bottle feeding, or had difficulty starting solids or transitioning off baby foods. They also tend to avoid entire food groups, while a typical picky eater often eats at least a few fruits and veggies and protein or meat sources.”
Before we dive into a few ways in which experts say you can encourage your toddler to eat the right foods, it’s important to know that some toddlers simply don’t need to eat very much, Rowell says. Around their first birthdays, they become a lot more interested in the world around them, and food takes a backseat to discovery.
“They might only eat a bite of banana and a few bites of graham cracker and play happily for a few hours, when they might have a bigger meal,” Rowell says. “Many parents overestimate how much a toddler needs to eat at each meal, or how much protein (this is a common worry) they need. When parents worry about growth or intake, they may do things to try to GET children to eat more, and those tactics unfortunately often make kids eat less well and less amounts.”
Instead of thinking of ways you can trick your toddler or force her to eat, Rowell says there are many ways we can support their appetites and good nutrition without turning it into a power struggle. Simple things you can start doing right away include offering balanced, sit-down meals and snacks every 2-3 hours (with only water in between) and not grazing on the go or allowing a child to fill up on milk or eat whenever he or she wants.
“If they enjoy fruit, serve it often — fruit has many of the same nutrients, including fiber and vitamins, as vegetables,” Rowell says. “Cook veggies with sauces and flavor, maybe a touch of brown sugar and butter (studies show that sauces and brown sugar cut the bitterness of veggies and increase intake). Offer the foods over and over. Most parents give up on a food after three tries. Serve blueberries, for example, frozen, baked into muffins, in pancakes, freeze-dried if your child likes crunch, as jam, fresh, in smoothies.”
Above all else, do not pressure a child to eat, which Rowell says can backfire big time.
“Understand that children eat small amounts, some meals and snacks, and more at other times,” Rowell says. “Nutrition also tends to even out over a few days. Serve a veggie raw along with the cooked version. Have them help in the garden, shopping, simple cooking (mixing and dumping ingredients) to increase familiarity.”
Another good method to try is putting food on the plate you know they will eat and then one bite of a food that you want them to try and that you as the parent are eating, says Dr. Danelle Fisher, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“So if it’s a picky toddler that will eat a handful of Cheerios and one piece of string cheese, put that on the plate along with one bite of broccoli,” Fisher says. “If they ignore it, then no response, but if they eat it make a big deal of how good they are. Stick to this plan for days or even weeks — it will eventually pay off.”
Rebecca Lewis, a registered dietitian for HelloFresh, says it can take over a dozen presentations of the same food before a toddler is willing to simply taste the new food. Though we love the idea of honestly presenting veggies and fruits on your child’s plate, if you are at your wits’ end and in need of healthy and creative meal ideas that will appeal to young children, here are some of Lewis’ suggestions:
Zucchini: Add grated zucchini to your meatballs, hamburger patties or spaghetti sauce. For a healthy twist on baked goods, you can even add grated zucchini to your breads, muffins and cookies.
Butternut squash: Incorporating mashed or pureed vegetables like squash into meals and snacks adds creaminess without added fat. Butternut squash in mac and cheese gives a beautiful yellow color and a rich sauce that can still be flavored with cheese. Adding pureed pumpkin into ordinary oatmeal gives it an extra fiber boost and a bright color.
Beets: Beets taste amazing in tomato sauce, and they sweeten it up without added sugar. You can also add pureed beets into pancake or waffle mix, for pretty pink princess pancakes.
Cauliflower: Blend steamed cauliflower into mashed potatoes — they’ll never even notice it’s there! You can also try it in macaroni and cheese.
Spinach: Blend spinach into fresh fruit smoothies to give them both a nutrient and color boost. Mixing with sweet and tart fruits like banana and mango makes for a kid-friendly twist.
Berries: Ditch the jarred jams and jellies and puree fresh berries for toppings on oatmeal, pancakes, sandwiches and desserts.
Hang in there — your toddler will be out of the picky food phase before you know it!