As a parent, the toddler stage can be challenging for many reasons. While your child is finding their feet (quite literally) they’ll probably be more confident in expressing their likes and dislikes. Eating may be affected, and your child might become a picky eater, refusing food they once loved, or showing less interest in mealtimes than they used to.
Having a picky eater is understandably frustrating, not to mention anxiety-inducing. After all, you might worry that your toddler’s not eating enough for the energy they need, or getting all the nutrients they require for growth and development. Take comfort, however, that it’s fairly common for toddlers to go through a picky stage with food. We’re here to help, with tips and advice on how to improve eating habits and make mealtimes more fun with your little one.
Types of Picky Eaters
Before we look at tips on how to handle picky eaters, let’s take a closer look at the different kinds of behaviour that fussy eaters display1. Understanding what’s going on in your toddler’s mind can go a long way in helping them through this stage.
The Sensory Dependent Picky Eater
Ew, it’s slimy. Why is it stinky? Sensory dependent picky eaters are sensitive when it comes to textures, smells and tastes they are not familiar with.
Helping your sensory dependent picky eater discover new kinds of food is all about teaching them new sensory experiences2 — sometimes, this doesn’t involve food at all!
Cook together so that your child learns about different food textures. Cooking something as simple as waffles can teach them about hard eggs, runny mix, or crunchy waffles.
Play in the sand. There’s nothing like your child being able to get their hands dirty and really feel things. These experiences are great for their development and will teach them to be more familiar with a wide range of textures.
Get your child moving. A child’s inability to sit down at the table is sometimes connected to an absence of sensory input. Make sure your child gets lots of sensory activity before mealtimes, or provide sensory toys during mealtimes, such as a fidget spinner.
The Preferential Picky Eater
What’s that? I don’t like it. This kind of fussy eater just doesn’t want to try anything new. For preferential picky eaters, you can try to:
Serve new food with food that you know they already like3.
Make mealtimes fun. Providing an atmosphere of discovery can encourage picky eaters to try new dishes.
The Perfectionist Picky Eater
Are there bones? Why is it brown? If your toddler is a perfectionist, they may have “requirements” for their food. Maybe they will only eat food of a certain colour or want their food to be arranged in a specific way.
Research from the Journal of Child and Adolescent Behavior found a link between picky eating and a mother’s anxiety and perfectionism4. Children get much of their behaviour from their parents, so try to:
Relax and enjoy mealtimes. A relaxed, stress-free environment is essential for mealtimes.
Not be too authoritative about finishing food. Forcing kids to clean their plates or eat something they don’t like can create a negative association with food.
The Behavioural Picky Eater
Is it burnt? It’s too big. Like a master chef, behavioural picky eaters demand that their food be prepared exactly the way they want it.
Make sure your child arrives at the table hungry5. Getting plenty of exercise can help because your child will be too hungry to be picky about what’s served.
Provide regular times for meals and snacks. Doing so will give your child a predictable routine and they will match their behaviour accordingly.
Picky Eater Solutions: Try These Tips
Let Your Child Help
Even toddlers enjoy discussing what to make for dinner. Encourage your child to join in with the meal decision-making, grocery-store trips and simple tasks in the kitchen, as all of this will help them to feel more involved.
Prepare Your Toddler for Mealtimes
Let your child know when it’s nearly time to sit down and eat. This will help them establish their own sense of routine, and they’ll also have time to wrap up any playing, without feeling rushed.
Sit Down Together
Try to see eating together as an occasion where you can focus on bonding, and sharing. Being together at the table gives you the opportunity to demonstrate to your little one that mealtimes can be sociable and fun6.
Don’t Drag Mealtimes Out
You know your child best of course, but most toddlers have limited attention spans, so think realistically about how long yours will happily sit at the table. For example, if you notice they are happy for half an hour at the table, but get a little cranky beyond this, don’t let mealtimes exceed this time length.
Turn the Distractions Off
From cell phones to TVs, try to keep mealtimes free from tech. As a parent, when you model healthy screen habits, you’re more likely to encourage healthy routines7, and this really counts in relation to food.
Respect Your Toddler’s Appetite8
Children’s appetites will vary from day to day, and they’re typically quite good at judging how much they need to eat. If you’re worried that your child is not getting enough in terms of nutrients or energy, then always consult your doctor.
Set a Good Example
As a parent, you will be the greatest influence on your toddler’s eating habits so try to set a good example by making healthy choices. Try to include a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, proteins and wholegrains at every meal time9.
Always Offer a ‘Favorite’ Food
To avoid the disappointment or frustration that comes from your fussy eater leaving the table with an empty tummy, make sure there’s always one healthy food they love on their plate.
Keep Portions Small
A large plate of food can be overwhelming for even the most unfussy toddler. Start with a little food on your child’s plate, and if they finish everything, you can always offer a second helping. Small portions are also a good idea when introducing new food, or serving food that they may resist.
Make Food Fun
Avoid making mealtimes a battle of wills. Do the opposite: let your children eat an assortment of finger food or make a mess with tacos.
Introduce New Foods Regularly
Even if it’s a couple of bites of something new at every meal (breakfast is a good call, as your child is likely to be most hungry then), variety will keep things exciting. If you’re met with refusal, you’ve lost nothing. You can simply try another new food the next day!
Be Wise About Snack Times
Offering snacks too close to main meal times will risk your child losing their appetite by the time they sit down to eat. Raw vegetables such as pepper, celery and cucumber sticks won’t fill your child up too much, but can be offered as a finger food if your little one is getting impatient while waiting for lunch or dinner!
Reward Your Child
You could use a simple sticker chart to congratulate your toddler when they’ve tried something new, or sat at the table for a meal without fussing. Avoid bribing or punishing your child at mealtimes, as this can cause them to resist food even more. It’s far better to use encouragement to help them form a healthier relationship with food.
Go Easy on Yourself
As a parent, it can be easy to feel like you’re failing if a mealtime hasn’t gone to plan. But try not dwell too much on what didn’t go right – just clear the table and move on. The next meal is always only a few hours away, and gives you and your toddler the chance to wipe the slate clean and try again.
While you may be frustrated or disheartened that your child is not eating the foods you put in front of them, try to understand that this is usually just a phase. With a little patience and some trial and error, your toddler’s behaviour around food should improve over time.
Of course, if you’re concerned that your child is not receiving the nutrients they need10 or is losing weight, visit your doctor, and they’ll be able to share some dietary advice.
Dealing with a picky eater and not quite sure what to do? For more tips on managing mealtimes with a picky toddler, sign up with the Enfamama A+ Club today!
1. Picky Eaters Are Not All Alike
2. 5 Surprising Sensory Activities to Help Picky Eaters
3. Behaviors, preferences of picky eaters described
4. Picky eating in young children and its relationship to child and maternal characteristics
5. Feeding a Picky Eater: The Do's and Don'ts
6. When your child is a picky eater – Caring For Kids Canada
7. Screen time and young children
8. Children's nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters
https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948- See point number 1.
9. Guided by ‘Tips to help’ from Caring for Kids Canada ‘When your child is a picky eater’
10. Healthy Eating for children Health Link BC