If you’re frustrated by having a picky eater and you’re looking for a simple way to improve the situation, it might be time to start with changing your own perspective on the situation. Starting with the labels you’re using…
Do you have a “picky” toddler?
Picky eating. It’s a topic that I am sure you’re all very familiar with because at one point or another (or everyday?), every parent looks for help in dealing with their “picky” eater. And I know firsthand that this can be really (really!) difficult to manage. But lately, I’ve been hearing the word used to describe kids that actually eat a wide range of foods and to be honest, it upsets me on their behalf.
“Picky” is not usually a nice word, it is often used when a parent really means something else, and it can set a child up for failure. Let me explain.
What does picky eating mean to you?
I think that often, when a parent says that a child is a “picky” eater, they really mean that they are frustrated by what the child does and does not eat. That the child doesn’t always necessarily eat everything they are given. And that the child sometimes exerts their will and their power at mealtimes.
I know that there are extreme cases of selective eating and there are certainly feeding issues that sometimes need professional help, (this is a good resource if you think you might be in that camp) but those cases are actually quite rare. For the rest of our kids, here are a few things to keep in mind when that word is on the tip of your tongue.
Fact #1: Toddlers are often less hungry than they were as babies.
During a baby’s first year, they grow at an incredibly fast rate. They need to eat really regularly to keep up with their caloric burn, so we come to expect that of our toddlers. And while it doesn’t happen overnight the day they turn one, there is a very normal decrease in appetite during the toddler years.
This means that your toddler might not be “picky”—they legitimately might not (yet) be hungry. You may need to lengthen the time between snacks or meals and limit in between snack/meal drinks to just water. Sometimes just 10 minutes can be the difference between resistance to a meal and eagerness.
Fact #2: Toddler appetites naturally fluctuate.
What and how much your toddler eats might vary considerably from day to day. This is totally normal. It could have to do with how they are feeling, whether they are going through a growth spurt, if it’s really hot outside, or some other unknown factor. Or, they legitimately might not like the taste of something.
Focusing too much on the daily intake—or the intake at one meal— can make you crazy, so it can help to simply try to vary the foods you serve over the course of the week to help them eat a variety of foods.
Fact #3: This is a normal stage of child development.
“When kids are highly food neophobic (afraid of foods), which peaks between 2 and 6, they can be very adamant about new foods, saying things like ‘I’ll never eat that!’. If a parent doesn’t understand the child’s development, and that this is normal and will lessen with time, they’ll be more likely to fight against it making the stage last longer.” This quote is from MaryAnn of Raise Healthy Eaters and it’s so useful. This is a normal phase of childhood development!
Introducing new foods to toddlers can be intimidating simply because it’s unfamiliar or the texture is different. And just because your child rejects a new food doesn’t mean they are picky—it means they are being a completely normal toddler! You may need to introduce a new food over and over before they take a taste, but that’s okay. Simply serve the foods you and the rest of the family like to eat and try to let the little ones see a variety of food. Exposure is the first step.
Fact #4: Textures can be tricky.
The texture issues can be a much bigger issue that many parents realize. It can take kids time to learn to manipulate certain textures in their mouth. So, sometimes, younger toddlers “dislike” foods that are really just difficult for them to chew. So if your toddler doesn’t seem to like sandwiches, raw broccoli, muffins, or meat, they may simply be too hard to chew.
Be patient and give them time to practice by offering those foods in softer versions—shredded chicken instead of cubes, deconstructed sandwich elements in small cubes—and see if that helps.
Fact” #5: It’s just not nice.
Let’s say that one evening while you are making dinner, your toddler takes everything off of the fridge. You’re stepping on magnet letters, daycare papers are everywhere, and the kitchen looks totally chaotic. If you think of it as a deliberate attempt to irk you. you will likely get upset and resent their natural curiosity. You might even yell.
But, if you think of it as normal exploration—they might just want to see what happens if they drop a paper onto the floor, or what it will sound like if that magnet hits the floor—you might find it entertaining. Perspective can be the difference between parental outburst and a normal moment.
Consider this: If you regularly call your kid “picky”, you may start to resent what they don’t eat at mealtimes, when, in fact, they might be doing a great job of deciding what and how much they need to be eating at any given moment. Using that word might be setting the child up to fail in your eyes no matter what they might eat.
It is absolutely unrealistic to expect our toddlers to eat everything we serve them. It is realistic to expect them to make choices about what they want to eat based on what we serve them, how hungry they are, and what looks and tastes good to them. If we give them the opportunity to do that without judgement, then I think we’re setting them up for a much healthier relationship with food—and their bodies—for years to come.