Feeding little kids is a challenge, but it’s quite possible that their eating habits and behavior are totally normal. Picky eating is actually a very normal and expected developmental phase, so if you know what to expect, you can handle the ups and downs with grace…and patience.
Trust me, I’ve been there. There’s the refusal to eat a meal you’ve made. Not wanting to eat foods they loved yesterday. Changing their minds about the foods they want in the middle of a meal. Having no appetite one day, then eating everything in site the next day.
It can make our heads head spin. By nature, toddlers are very (very) fickle eaters. This normal nature of selective eating can be intensely frustrating and unpredictable, and it can make us feel like we’re chasing a moving target at the table. Plus, when you combine it with the love that our toddlers have for routine, the expected, and the known, it’s easy to find yourself in a situation where your 16 month old only eats one very particular type of bread. Or your three year old refuses everything except crackers and cheese for lunch.
Every single day.
The Importance of Exposure
For kids to feel comfortable enough to try a food, the newness has to go away. “It doesn’t go away in 2 offerings or 5 offerings, and often not in 10. Kids need to see things consistently in different settings by different people. It’s normal that your child doesn’t try things in the beginning and that they reject them in the beginning. It’s a normal phase of development,” says feeding therapist Jenny Berry.
“We can expose kids to a wide variety of foods by eating it ourselves, by having them be involved in the preparation of it, by taking them to the grocery store. We can expose them to a lot of foods without putting that insane pressure on ourselves,” she says. Our job isn’t to dictate what goes into their mouths, even though most of us assume we need to do that.
The Five Internal Drives to Eat
When assessing how things are going with food and your child, Jenny recommends looking at all of the internal drives to eat—which includes more than just hunger. These five drives are the natural reasons to eat and we need to learn all of them in childhood to be well rounded, healthy eaters.
If you can step back and keep those at the forefront of your mind, especially when you’re feeling conflicted about what to feed your family or yourself, it can help. If you’ve got one of those 5, like if your child is enjoying time with a friend and food is involved, then one of the internal drives to eat is being met and you’re good.
“Health is about more than food, it’s about the whole child. Are they happy and participating in school? Are they affectionate and emotionally doing okay? Are they meeting milestones and progressing? Then we’re in a good spot and we don’t have to make it about the food all the time,” Jenny wisely explains. (Hear more of her advice on feeding kids in episode 53 of our Comfort Food podcast.)
TIP: Remember that you want the kids to feel safe and comfortable around food for years to come.
When Picky Eating Isn’t a Problem
Most kids go through a stage called neophobia between 2-6 where they are naturally more skeptical of new foods. (And in this context, “new foods” can mean foods they haven’t seen in a while and don’t remember.) If you can realize that this is normal, expect them to bring this outlook to the table, and know that this way of eating isn’t necessarily a problem in the long run, you’ll be much better equipped to handle your own feelings about what they may or may not be eating.
Here are a few examples of how this could play out and how you might want to handle them.
A Toddler Isn’t Hungry for Breakfast
At breakfast, you offer cut up peaches, plain yogurt, and a little toast. Your toddler only eats the peaches and throws the rest onto the floor and smears the yogurt all over. You get frustrated because, well, such a mess! So disrespectful of your efforts!
Reality Check: It’s entirely possible that your toddler isn’t a big breakfast person and simply wasn’t hungry for much more than fruit. You could try pushing breakfast back 20-30 minutes (if you have the time), drastically cutting back the amount of food that you serve so your expectations for the amount that they will actually eat are naturally lower, or even thinking of breakfast as a “snack” and the midmorning snack as “breakfast”. They may surprise you and eat a ton at 9 am versus 7!
A Toddler Doesn’t Eat Much of a Food They Usually Like
One night at dinner, you serve up a big bowl of the pasta that your toddler typically inhales. He eats some, but not as much as you think, and skips the broccoli that’s on the side. Argh! Why isn’t he eating as much as he normally does? He loves this meal!
Reality Check: Maybe he’s tired or teething or simply had a bigger or later afternoon snack than the last time you made this meal. Maybe the texture of the broccoli just wasn’t doing it for him today. Who knows!
If we try not to compare our toddler’s intake with previous meals and simply let it be what it is, we’ll be able to accept that they’re simply trusting their own hunger cues. Try not to push and don’t coerce bites—which often turns into a power struggle at that meal and meals going forward, which is no fun for anyone—because it’s really up to them to decide how hungry they are.
Your Toddler ONLY Wants Blueberries
You put out a bowl of blueberries (or another favorite food of the moment!) as a pre-dinner snack and your toddler eats them all and wants more. She wants more so badly that she turns into a sobbing mess. There literally aren’t any more blueberries in the store and you try your hardest to get her to understand you. She doesn’t and refuses to eat dinner.
Reality Check: Toddlers feel many things very intensely and this goes for their food preferences too. And the concept of running out of foods is still a little fuzzy to them, so in their mind, they simply want more and you aren’t giving it to them. It’s upsetting!
Your toddler is not crazy for losing her mind. She’s tired at the end of the day and is disappointed. She will not waste away if she skips dinner. She won’t grow up to be unable to control her emotions as an adult. She’ll go to bed, sleep well, and will likely be super hungry for breakfast the next day. And she might even consent to eat something other than blueberries! (This should improve as they get older.)
A Toddler Only Eats Three Foods
Your toddler only eats mac and cheese, yellow cheese, Cheerios, and bananas and you’re losing your mind because you can’t get her to eat anything else. Won’t she be malnourished without eating a wider range of foods!?!?
Reality Check: While it can often feel like our kids don’t eat anything other than a few things, I challenge you to keep a running list of everything they eat over the course of a week, not simply a day. You might actually be surprised to see the list get longer than you expect. (And, hey, your toddler does eat mac and cheese, yellow cheese, Cheerios and bananas, which is something!) But if you do find that your toddler is relying on his favorite foods at most meals, try these simple tips to encourage her to try new foods.
And always continue to offer a range of food in addition to these favorite foods to make sure you’re exposing the child to other foods. Serve them in small portions and make sure they taste good to you. Hopefully they will eventually become less fearful of these other foods and will taste them—as long as dinner doesn’t turn into too big of a power struggle, so do your best to stay neutral about what they eat and not push too hard.
TIP: Read more about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding here, which will give you a helpful framework for serving kids food.
Toddler Refuses Dinner…But Wants All the Snacks
Dinner is often refused, but your toddler routinely asks for a snack when it’s time for bed. You usually give it to him because you don’t want him to go to bed hungry, yet you hate that he’s turned into such a picky eater!
CONSIDER: Kids are smart and if they know that they can hold out for preferred snack foods instead of eating dinner, and buy themselves a bit longer before bedtime, they will do it! So you need to decide on a plan.
Either make a bedtime snack a regular thing and choose healthy foods that aren’t too exciting (fruit, cheese, plain cereal). Or, take it off the table as an option by explaining that the kitchen is closed after dinner, there will be no snack, and if you don’t eat your dinner, you can be hungry for breakfast. And then stick to it so that it becomes the new normal. (We do this in our house and my girls are totally used to the system!)
Toddlers Don’t Eat the Range of Foods They Did as Babies…Why?
Your toddler always, ALWAYS, wants the same snack. And refuses foods she eat with gusto when she was a baby. Why won’t she eat a wider range of foods like she used to?
Reality Check: Toddlers love routine and in many circumstances, this is a great quality because it helps them to make sense of the world as they move throughout their day. But when it comes to food, routines can quickly turn into set-in-stone habits that are crazy hard to break. I always joke that if I do something twice with my oldest, I’ll have to do it everyday for the rest of my life…so keep that in mind with snacks and favorite foods.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when choosing snacks for kids:
- You can change up the snacks ever so slightly—try crackers with string cheese instead of cubed cheese, or quartered purple grapes instead of green.
- Or simply don’t serve the same foods for the same meals two days in a row.
- Continue to offer small portions of a wide range of foods so they’re familiar and not scary.
- And remember to explain to your child what’s going on if you make a change to how things usually work. Then, keep at it until it’s the new routine.
TIP: You can also simply not buy the favorite snack food one week to prove to yourself that they will move on and eat other things!)
How do YOU feel when you have to eat something you don’t want?
I think it’s also important to remember how we feel when we have to eat something that we don’t want. It kind of sucks, right? Here’s an example from my life:
Every Sunday morning my husband cooks us hash browns and eggs. This is hands down one of my oldest daughter’s favorite meals and the little one usually loves it too. Unfortunately, I am not a savory breakfast person so this meal is a bit of an uphill battle for me. It really takes a lot of mental energy for me to eat it and I’m a mature adult! It gives me a lot of empathy for all the times that I serve my kids something that they don’t really want. (I did recently convince my husband to make it for dinner and I happily dug in!)
Serve Foods You Want Your Kids to Eat
As much as possible, serve the foods you want your kids to eat and let them decide what of it to put into their mouths. They will not waste away if they don’t eat a good dinner every night. They will not have stunted growth if they never touch kale until after college. You are not a bad parent if you can’t get them to eat their broccoli!
And as with all things kid-related, remember that this particular phase you’re in with feeding your little ones will soon pass (and if it doesn’t, the Division of Responsibility is still a great way to handle it) and they’ll be on to challenging you with the next thing. They will not live on cheese crackers forever, I pinky swear. Stay calm, try not to take it personally, and remember: They’re just being toddlers!!
When to Seek Medical Help
If you’re ever very stressed or worried, if your child is not gaining weight, growing, and meeting their milestones, if something about their overall health or demeanor seems off, or they are having serious texture aversions, please check in with your pediatrician. This post is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice.