Help! My Picky Toddler Won’t Eat… Anything

Help! My toddler won’t eat anything! He was so adventurous, and then toddlerhood kicked in and suddenly, he is impossible to please. I am so unsure of which tactic to take — offering a million things to get him to eat, being super strict and saying if he doesn’t want what’s available he doesn’t get to eat or something in between I haven’t thought of.

Ah, the joys of a picky palate! Toddlers are tough enough as it is. But how do you deal with a kid who’s a picky eater? The good news: Your son’s obstinate ways may make him pretty damn successful as an adult. The bad news: We can small your fear of your fussy eater from here, which means he can too. (Yeah. They’re like dogs. Sorry, somebody had to say it.)

Look, we get it. You’re worried your child will become a couch surfing fast-food addict with type 2 diabetes and it will be all your fault.

So we’ll tell you a secret: This too shall pass. And your kid will be fine. More than fine. Chances are good he’ll kick his old habits. He may even fall in love over a shared bowl of pho someday, you never know. Humans are crazy like that.

But don’t take our word for it. Just for you, SheKnows consulted with Dr. Childsy Art, a pediatrician in Western Massachusetts who’s seen it all — and has consulted with parents of fusspot grazers for years.

“Definitely, picky eaters are a source of much frustration to parents. Although it is really frustrating to parents to have their children eat the same five foods all the time, it probably isn’t harmful,” Art tells SheKnows. “You should try to make sure they cover at least something from the major food groups daily: fruits, veggies, protein, dairy and grain. But if they only eat one vegetable but eat it regularly, don’t sweat it.”

Be creative (& persistent)

Art also advices you not be afraid to use a little stealth. “Sneak in some new seasonal fruits or veggies onto the plate. Cut [them] into fun shapes and add some delicious dip to entice them. But don’t get discouraged if they don’t eat them. Just keep trying.”

But your kid hates green things, you say? No problem. If you have a movie lover on your hands, you can always use the old “Remember when Bambi woke up to spring and ate fresh green grass? Mmm” approach this writer used with spinach to coax my picky eater. (Feel free to use whichever Disney flick plays best to your audience.)

“Bambee gwass?” she asked, eyes wide in wonder. “Dis Bambee gwass?”

It’s spinach!” growled her older sister.

“NO IT BAMBEE GWASS!” my fussy child howled. (Then she ate it to spite her older sister. Whatever works is the moral of the story.)

If the green aversion is too keen, that’s OK. Cauliflower is your friend, especially cauliflower rice, which now comes in bags in the frozen food section. Add some cheese and they’ll think they’re eating cheesy rice while you down a glass of white wine in your “OK’est Mommy” coffee mug! High five! There’s even (an admittedly expensive) cauliflower crust pizza out there now. You do have options. Just breathe.

Got a kid who skeptically inspects their food for specks of anything resembling a spice? Go with white pepper instead of black pepper so the rest of the fam doesn’t fall asleep in their food due to lack of seasoning. Magic! Even better: Got a pink lover? Himalayan sea salt (aka magical unicorn crystals) may be just the ticket to get a truculent eater interested in seasoning their own food. And kids are unlikely to oversalt food. Don’t sweat it.

Try things of the same color: high-protein chickpeas instead of Cheerios. Add the word “chips” to any food (sweet potato chips, kale chips), and suddenly, it sounds like a treat.

Need more inspo? Here are three go-to websites parents of picky-pants can go to for help:

Don’t give into guilt trips or tantrums

Really. Don’t you dare. Ignore crap behavior from your pint-size mealtime Mussolini. You will create a small monster. The planet has enough of those already. Quit being a wimp.

Art agrees. “Don’t fall into the trap of thinking they will starve if you don’t give them exactly what they want, [especially] if there’s no nutritional value. Just make sure there is at least one thing on their plate that you know they like,” Art says.

Cultivate serious chill

Do not argue, plead or cajole. You have a rep to protect. Be cool and eat your hummus and become the Buddha of family mealtimes. It will pay off in the end.

Get your fussy eaters involved

Art suggests getting your kids involved in meal prep — or even better, growing food at home and harvesting it or volunteering at a local food co-op if you’re the overachieving type (we see you out there, overachievers, clutching the co-op volunteer application in your sweaty little hands). “It definitely makes a difference overall in their willingness to try things,” Art says.

Set a good example

Art says it can make a big difference if parents set a good example when it comes to eating a varied, healthy diet. “Kids notice,” Art explains, “and if their parents just eat fried and carb-laden meals, they will likely follow suit.”

If all else fails

You tried. If they keep breathing and ingesting solids and liquids of any sort, you’ve succeeded as a parent. And the Bambi grass story will make a good wedding anecdote someday.

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