Picky Eater

"Is your toddler eating enough?"

Does your child eat from only one food group?

  • Refuse to sample anything new?
  • Somehow seem to survive on thin air?
It seems as though, as infants, children eat just about everything you feed them but as they grow, "different" foods become "disgusting" foods. Parent's typically try new foods with their children and become hurt or disappointed when the child persists that they "will not like it", "it's yucky", "I'm not eating it".

While toddlers know when a food is new, they haven't yet developed the capacity to accept a parent's reassurance that it's good. At age two or three, kids aren't at the stage of development where they can understand the concept of 'Trust me, you'll like this'.

A toddler's rejection of a new food may be one of those attempts at independence that are common and quite healthy at this age. This is a time when children want to be in control of their own choices and toddlers can also be profoundly conservative in ways that go way beyond eating.Week after week, they may want to wear the same clothes, hear the same stories, watch the same videos. They generally don't like anything new: Routine and predictability gives them a strong sense of security.

Individual temperament also plays a role in how willing a child is to try new food. If he has a hard time adjusting to new experiences in general, he'll probably be especially slow to accept changes at the dinner table and we must remember that kids have food likes and dislikes, just as adults do.

Letting toddlers approach food in their own way makes psychological sense because it teaches them to listen to their body's cues. Children are wonderful in terms of knowing what they need nutritionally and if we can let them trust their own hunger as a guideline, we're doing them a big favor.

Getting into a battle over food sets up a lot of issues that become hard to eliminate as kids get older. One is a parent-child power struggle. Another is that they may learn to eat to self-soothe or out of anger, not for pleasure or nutrition. Don't stop trying the new foods, you don't want your child to get the message that you don't expect her to eat it. Just be sure to put out a variety of foods at the family table so there's something that your toddler will want to eat. Eventually the child will try the new food but it may take several tastes before they actually like it.

Keep in mind that toddlers do not eat as much as when they were an infant so they will naturally eat less. It may be common for him/her to eat only one good meal per day. Here are some tactics that have worked in the past in getting toddlers to eat, whether it is food in general or new foods that they are skeptical of trying:

  • Meal times are a learning experience - it helps to enhance social, motor and language skills. Keep meal times pleasant and enjoyable - talk with your child, avoid confrontations.
  • Talk about the color, texture, and shape of new foods to interest your toddler. Try saying things like "there are ten peas on your plate, how many do you think would be left if you ate three of those?"
  • Include your child in the preparation of the meal when possible
  • Place the food in a plastic cup and give them a spoon. With this new "toy" as a distraction, you may be able to introduce new foods, even vegetables.
  • Toddlers are curious about what is on mom or dad's plates - ask if they'd like to try it from your plate
  • If your child has a favorite stuffed animal or doll, set it at the table and let it "eat" something first. If your child sees that her favorite animal is eating then she may be more likely to try it.
Toddlers are notorious nibblers. But are they getting the nutrients they need? The good news:

  • Grazing on pint-size portions is perfectly healthy for 1 to 3 year-olds. While kids pushing preschool age may need more, and younger ones may need less, children don't have to eat from the five food groups every day, as long as they consume a balanced diet over a month.
Here is a crash course on little-kid servings with the five food groups (two separate charts):

Concerned that your toddler may not be eating enough fruits, vegetables or meats?

Giving him/her a multivitamin can help balance their diet but consult your pediatrician first. Fat is needed for brain, nerve and overall physical growth. Try to maximize the calories with what he/she will eat - extra butter, peanut butter, cheese, gravy (Pediasure can be added to almost anything - pudding, potatoes, macaroni and cheese).