Knowing what to do when kids are picky eaters can be seriously daunting. But I’m going to walk you through the common issues, questions, and dilemmas step-by-step to help you worry and stress less about picky eating—and to hopefully make meal times happier for everyone!
Sometime between 1 and 2, most kids go through a normal phase of picky eating. They become more selective than they were as babies and many times, it catches us parents totally off guard. We don’t know what to feed them because they suddenly won’t eat the foods they loved… and they are vocal about it.
It’s seriously stressful. The good news? There’s a LOT we can do in terms of expectations and perspective that can make it better.
Best Tips to Help Picky Eaters
Since I know that many of you want to jump right into the meat of the matter, here are some tips to get you started helping your picky eaters.
- Lower your expectations.
- Remember that portion size can be small.
- Space out meals and snacks to allow hunger to build.
- Serve water between meals (because milk is filling and can interfere with hunger!).
- Serve meals family style to reduce power struggles at the table.
- Resist forcing bites.
- Resist commenting on intake.
- Try to avoid making another meal if the one you’ve served is refused. (They’ll then expect that!)
- Include 1-2 foods they usually like in each meal.
- Encourage and model enthusiasm around food.
- Explore food outside of the table.
- Avoid comparing your child’s eating habits to other kids. They’re all unique!
- Remember that it’s okay for kids to have likes and dislikes.
- During meals, focus on everything but the food. Tell jokes, stories, and talk to the kids!
- Serve a variety of food throughout the week.
- Remember that eating phases come and go.
- Have compassion (and avoid name calling).
Daily Toddler Nutrition
But first things first, let’s review the basics of what toddlers need to eat each day. The serving sizes may be smaller than you realize, so it’s important to take a glance at the baseline recommendations for perspective.
Sample Toddler Meal Plan
Feeding kids everyday can be a lot of work, but knowing when and how much to offer can make a big difference in the way the food is received at the table. These sample daily toddler meals and feeding schedules re a great way to get a handle on whether something is off in your own schedule.
What causes picky eaters?
Did you know that selective eating is TOTALLY NORMAL from around age 2 to 6? It is. Which is just to say that if you’re experiencing picky eating, you’re not alone and your child is likely right on schedule.
How to Approach Mealtimes
When thinking about your role in feeding your child, I like to recommend a feeding principle called the Division of Responsibility from Ellyn Satter that clearly defines our role as parents and caregivers and the child’s role. It can be summed up as:
- The parent is responsible for the when, the what, and the how of what food is being served.
- The child is responsible for how much they decide to eat and which specific foods they want.
The beauty of this approach is that it allows you to stop worrying about monitoring every bite your child takes so you can simply enjoy the together time at the meal instead. Serving meals family-style can really help with this too.
What should I do when my toddler won’t eat vegetables?
I do realize that stepping back and allowing the kids to decide what to eat from what you serve may mean that they don’t eat any veggies, but these tips should help. (My favorite is being sure to expose them to veggies away from the table too!)
How can I help my toddler try new foods?
Ah, new foods. They can be scary for toddlers and picky eaters, but this too is a normal part of this age. There are some simple things you can do to help the little ones try new foods though including keeping serving sizes small, avoiding too much pressure, and more.
My toddler won’t eat dinner—what can I do?
If you have a toddler who won’t eat dinner and it’s been going on for a while and is not a one-off thing, I urge you to look at overall feeding habits (jump back up to the Division of Responsibility!).
But also this: Many toddlers, especially 2 and 3 year olds, are not hungry come dinnertime. They’ve eaten their fill earlier in the day and may be too tired to calm down enough to eat. That can be totally normal.
My toddler seems like he doesn’t eat enough. What should I do?
A general rule of thumb from Jennifer Berry of Thrive by Spectrum Pediatrics is that as long as a child is growing, gaining, and meeting milestones, they are eating enough. It may not seem like enough to you, but they are their own person with their own hunger so it can be a great thing to trust them.
If a child suddenly dips or jumps off of their own growth curve, that would be a cause for more concern. So be sure to mention that to your pediatrician.
Is it possible to overfeed my toddler?
If you set regular meal and snack times, and avoid letting the kids graze all day, you should be able to trust a child’s hunger at this age. Sometimes kids are hungrier than we expect them to be due to a growth spurt, a busy day, or a normal phase of increased hunger. And sometimes portion sizes are off in our own minds.
I would urge you not to judge their intake in any negative way, but instead to look at their eating patterns over the course of a week. Do they eat more at one meal than the other? Are they seeming to eat one nutrient more than others?
And if you’re worried about the amount of snacks or processed foods the kids are eating, new research suggests that it’s easier to eat more of those sorts of foods (and to eat them faster) than whole foods. So you can try to adjust the proportion of the types of foods you’re feeding the kids.
How do I know if my kids are truly hungry…or just wanting snacks?
Well first, snacks are delicious and are often more fun than the foods we serve for meals. So here are some ideas to help suss out true hunger.
- Consider snacks mini meals and try not to serve different sorts of foods at each time.
- Stick to set meal and snack times to create a habit of when we’ll eat. (Just like at a preschool—kids eat at snack time and not during other activities!)
- Let the kids eat their fill during meals and snacks without commentary. Let them trust their hunger.
- If they are asking for snacks and they just ate, try to divert their attention to an activity. Most of the time this works really well with little kids!
- If they seem upset and are saying they are hungry, they may be using that word to ask for attention—so give it.
- Remember that kids in other countries don’t snack as much as we do—and we didn’t used to snack so much here—so much of our snacking is habitual.
- If a child truly seems hungry, they probably are. And that’s okay!
My toddler seems to have issues with different textures. How can I help her?
There are a few different issues that could be happening with texture difficulty, so it’s hard to give one blanket answer. If they have issues with slippery foods, add something to them to make them less so—such as rolling banana slices in hemp seeds or coconut. If they prefer textures to solids or foods with textures, start slowly adding more in.
You can also encourage them to touch foods with their fingers and to their faces to get more used to them without the scary factor of having to put them into their mouths.
Why won’t my picky eaters eat meat?
The texture of meat can take a while for kids to master and some just don’t love it. It’s normal for a toddler to not love meat and there are plenty of other ways to get similar nutrients. That doesn’t necessarily make them picky eaters!
What should I do if my toddler only wants snacks?
If you have kids who beg for snacks and seem to just prefer snack foods, you’re not alone! But if it’s bothering you, remember that you can set the kids up to eat more nutrient-dense foods by buying more of the foods you want them to eat.
It may seem scary to do that, but you are in charge of the food that comes into your house so you get to make those decisions. Really! And kids are remarkably great at adjusting if we allow them time and compassion.
TIP: Try This Easy Healthy Food Habit (Hint: It’s All About What You Buy)
How can I worry less about what and how much my kids are eating?
I hope that everything above in this post can help with that, but you should also know that there’s a really large range of normal caloric intake for kids. And there’s no way to know what’s exactly right for your child without trusting their hunger. Which is hard when it seems to us like they aren’t eating the “right” amount or the “right” foods.
I urge you to take a step back and look big picture. This developmental stage is challenging but it’s just a phase.
What’s the best diet for picky eaters?
I am a big proponent of making and serving your kids the food you want them to eat, but also including 1-2 foods they usually like in each meal so they always have something they like enough to eat. I would encourage you to not just serve them the foods they want as that can make picky eating worse.
TIP: If there’s a medical condition related to diet, consult with your care provider.
If you want to read more on picky eaters, I have a collection of books that are approachable for the average person and really great tools to have in your arsenal.
Finally, Remember: This is a Phase
And it will pass. Most kids come out of the worst of it around 6 years old. Which may sound like a lifetime when you’re in the thick of it, but as you probably already know, time goes so quickly when raising kids!