Picky eating in toddlers can be an incredibly frustrating source of stress for so many parents. In my health coaching work with families this issue just seems to keep popping up and I see how much it worries and frustrates my clients.
A lot of parents are at a complete loss when it comes to what to feed picky toddlers.
+ Meal time becomes a battle field
+ Resort to bribery, nagging, begging whatever it takes = exhaustion and frustration
+ The kids get really stubborn about their food choices, dig their heels in and wont give in. ( I have a post on my website called ‘the dinner time Mexican standoff’ with some good tips)
+ Leads to a stressful evening and a vicious cycle of negativity around food
+ Parents worry their child won’t thrive or will get sick.
+ End up having to make 3 different meals just to get everyone eating which is not ideal or sustainable.
+ It all seems too hard so you end up giving up and they eat what they want (and the cycle continues)
Any of these sound familiar?
There are many factors to take into account when looking at fussy or picky eating habits in toddlers (and children of all ages).
With toddlers, their developmental stage must be taken into account. This stage of development in a child’s life is all about autonomy and gaining a sense of control over their world. They want to do everything themselves and it is also around this time they tend to develop very clear ideas about what tastes and textures they do and don’t like. The baby who ate everything might suddenly become the toddler who won’t eat green things or crunchy things. It is important to remember that we all naturally have preferences when it comes to taste and texture. Majority of children also naturally go through phases of liking something and then not liking something. This in itself is not such a big deal as long as they are getting a wide selection of healthy foods. The picky eating becomes more of an issue when whole food groups are being refused and your toddler starts to refuse anything new or unfamiliar. They can get themselves into a bit of a food rut.
Your child’s individual temperament can also play a big role in how fussy they are as eaters. Some children are naturally more adventrous, others more cautious and senstive to sensory input such as taste, texture and smell.
It is also very important to look at your toddler’s appetite. It is natural for appetites to fluctuate day to day, meal to meal. Pay attention to when your child seems most hungry and make sure that’s when you offer the foods you want them to eat.
So what can you do when faced with a picky toddler who is refusing whole food groups or in a bit of a food rut?
The good news is there is so much you can do to help your toddler develop healthy eating habits.
It does require your efforts and consistency, I won’t lie, but it is worth it.
The younger you start to develop their palate the easier it will be to get them on the right path. For those with picky older children, don’t be disheartened, it can be taught and retrained at any age.
The long term goal is to build a healthy and happy attitude towards food,
Here are some tips on what to feed a fussy toddler and how to go about getting the goodness in.
1. Involve them in the process in any way possible and age appropriate
This can be chopping, washing vegetables, sorting them out before you chop, moving them into appropriate bowls, peeling, arranging on the plate. It can be as simple as helping with the weekly menu, helping at the supermarket and choosing one new thing to try each week. If it is difficult to get them to eat veggies – let them choose between two vegetable options that will accompany a dish – “peas or carrots for tonight?” This gives them that powerful feeling of ownership that they crave.
2. Get to know your child’s likes and dislikes and work from here
Work with what they love in term of flavours, textures, cooking styles and go from here.
3. Slowly introduce new and unfamiliar foods
A little portion of something new and unfamiliar on a plate of what they already like and are used to, will be a lot less alarming for them than a whole plate of it. Wean them slowly off the addictive flavours and chemicals of any processed foods they may currently be eating in order to recalibrate their taste buds.
4. Just one bite
A handy rule to set in place is that they must try atleast one taste. When children know they only need one taste rather than to eat a whole bowl, it can be less intimitading. Serve a little each meal and they just need one bite. They don’t have to love it and it’s ok for them to screw up their face and say ‘yuck’. You can gently explain that their toungue is slowly becoming friends with the new taste/ food. It is just slowly getting to know the food. It doesn’t need to be best friends straight away but just one bite to give it a chance to become familar so it won’t seem so wierd. This is really important because over time the once ‘weird flavour’ will become ‘ a familiar flavour’. It’s unlikely they are going to love every single flavour and food they eat (I’m guessing there are foods you don’t like), but what we are aiming for is an open minded willingness to try new things. Some foods are an aquired taste.
5. Look at your toddler’s current eating and snacking habits
When are they most hungry or likely to be devouring snacks?
Work with this and you are more likely to have success with your changes.
Watch the constant snacking as it could interfere with their appetite.
Snacks are useful for keeping little tummies satisfied on long stretheches bewteen meals but having a set time that works for your child and family is best rather than all day constant grazing.
Think about the time you do your meals … do they work?
Do you need to change dinner time and bring it earlier or make lunch a bigger meal?
It’s a matter of designing your life to work for you and your child, rather than doing things the way they have always been done out of habit.
Make sure the snacks you offer are as nutritious as possible.
Some nutritious snack ideas are:
- bliss balls
- fruit – my kids love things like passionfruit/mangosteen/kiwi fruit/ melon or dragon fruit they can cut in half and scoop out with a spoon.
- mini sweet or savoury pancakes
- baked crispy kale chips , sweet potato fries or beetroot chips
- cookies – made with whole grain flours and fruits
- muffins – banana bread/carrot cake loaf
- home baked muesli bars
- little meatballs
- popcorn with coconut oil / sea-salt/ brown rice syrup or vanilla and butter/cinnamon
- Frozen fruit smoothies – Grab some freezer safe glass jars, fill them with a smoothie then freeze and take out with you, an hour or so in the heat will be ready to drink.
For more snack ideas/recipes surf the nourish section of my site, download my free ‘nourish your babes’ e-book or follow along on my instagram + Facebook pages
6. Develop your own clever marketing techniques
You can make foods more exciting and appealing simply by how you choose to market them to your children. Use language you know will appeal to them and capture their interest.
My son’s vegetables are ninja food! “These are the ninjas that go in and protect your body from any baddies trying to make you cough or have runny noses or headaches – they make your body super strong. My son always asks what the vegetables are saying to the baddies now? “Hey Mr cough move over, I’m here now and I’m so strong you will never beat me.”
My daughter loves art. So for her we talk about all the colours of the rainbow going in and then glowing a beautiful light out from within – making her glow, adding beauty and colour to her insides and outsides.
7. Make it fun
Toddlers and fun go hand in hand. I’m not saying every single meal time has to be a circus but try to remember to add an element of fun and humour when you can. Here are some ideas. (My Instagram page has a constant source of ideas and images to inspire this too).
+ Make up a funny name for the meal
+ Taste test – then rate it or describe it -crunchy, soft, squishy, runny, gooey (great for language development)
+ Add some thought to the presentation – some veggies arranged in a scenery or cut in a slightly different way can work wonders;
+ Serve it in an unexpected way – A platter with tongs rather than all mixed up on a plate;
+ Food faces work every time in our house.
You will find a whole post about making healthy food fun here
8. Engage their senses
Especially important for little ones who are weaning. Allow them to explore their foods with all senses … hands, mouth, smell, sight and listening to it crunch or ooze. This can be a little messy but the advantages are that they are familiarising themselves and enjoyng the process immensely. It is an invaluable learning opportunity. Put out an old sheet or take them outdoors if you are worried about the mess.
9. Create consistent rituals and routines around meals and eating habits
You want to simplify your role as a parent – not overcomplicate it. Predictability and routines help with avoiding the chaos . Have a few guidelines in the house that you all live by. Eg. A small afternoon snack at around 3pm then dinner by 530pm each night. This keeps things predictable. The other part of our ritual (to avoid boredom) is to break out of the usual routine and on Friday nights, we do things differently to celebrate the beginning of the weekend, such as dinner by the pool, dinner with friends, a picnic outside, etc. They love coming up with new ways to celebrate Friday. It is also crucial to enjoy family meals together whenever possible , this positive experience is the foundation of happy families and a positive relationship with food.
10. Be a positive role model
Getting your kids to eat better can be a perfect time to start making positive changes to your diet too. Be the healthy eater you want your child to be. Get excited and motivated by beautiful, healthy foods and your children will pick up on this vibe.
11. Make it as tasty as possible
If they are used to highly, processed foods you may need to add some delicious flavours and smells to the vegetables such as ginger and garlic or oils like coconut, sesame and olive. Healthy home-made sauces help to make dishes more appealing too. If your little ones like commercial tomato sauce on everything – make some healthy tomato sauce for them to dip everthing into. [saute some garlic, onion and herbs and pour in a jar of pure tomato passata, add fresh basil, pasley etc and blitz until smooth].
12. Small steps every day
The most important thing when dealing with picky toddlers is to take your time. Go slowly and don’t try to (over)do it all at once. Try not to allow heightened emotions to create a crazy amount of pressure to the moment. Keep it as relaxed as possible and remember the mantra ‘baby steps and consistency’ together, will get lifelong results.
As a last resort sneak the veggies in anyway you can. Grate or blitz them into soups, sauces, meatballs, casseroles, smoothies and ice-blocks.
* Please note for some children the picky eating may stem from something more than just asserting autonomy or a normal developmental stage. If you feel the situation is extreme and you are very distressed, it is always worth seeking a professional opinion to explore any more serious factors (physical or emotional) that may be contributing to the picky/fussy eating.
If you would like my coaching support to get your children to develop healthy eating habits, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me here.