You’ve tried it all: the bargaining, the pleading, the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. And still your toddler won’t eat. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Toddlers are notorious for their, ahem, selectiveness when it comes to food.
Still, after a lengthy hunger strike from your little one, you may wonder: Are you dealing with a run-of-the-mill picky “threenager” — or is this a sign of a more serious problem? And, either way, how can you best approach the issue of a kid who won’t eat?
While picky eating (or even a temporary hiatus from eating altogether) is usually not a cause for concern, there are times when it’s best to get professional help. We’ve got the scoop on when to call the doctor, when to hold your ground, and how to up the chances of your kid joining the ranks of the Clean Plate Club.
Just like the ups and downs of potty training and the occasional nap time meltdown, picky eating comes with the territory of toddler parenting.
If your toddler turns up their nose at absolutely everything you put in front of them, it’s probably not a reflection of your parenting skills or a medical problem. It’s far more likely that your child is going through a normal developmental phase.
“Selective (or ‘picky’) eating often shows up between 12 and 18 months,” says Yaffi Lvova, RDN, who focuses on prenatal, infant, and toddler nutrition. “The official term for this is ‘food neophobia’: the fear of new foods. This phase coincides with the ability to walk. The prevailing theory is that neophobia is a protective measure to benefit a child who ‘wandered out of the cave,’ so to speak.”
Plus, after extremely rapid growth in the first year of life, children begin to gain weight more slowly. This may naturally decrease their hunger, making them more likely to eat smaller portions.
Your toddler’s growing interest in the world around them can also contribute to their dwindling appetite. With so much to see and do now that they can walk, they simply may not have the patience to sit down to a traditional meal.
The good news is, kids this age are often quite good at taking notice when hunger really gets their attention. Pediatricians have long advised toddler parents to “look at the week, not the day” when it comes to food. You may notice, for example, that your kid subsists on goldfish crackers all week, then suddenly wolfs down a chicken dinner on Saturday night.
Considering broader patterns can help you see adequate intake over time, rather than in the moment. (Though that moment can sure be aggravating when it involves wasted milk and couscous ground into your carpet.)
While picky eating is a normal phase for most toddlers, there’s definitely a time and place to call the doctor. Your pediatrician can rule out or diagnose possible underlying causes for your little one not eating, such as gastrointestinal disorders, swallowing problems, constipation, food sensitivities, or autism.
According to Lvova, it’s a good idea to seek help from your doctor or a pediatric dietitian when your child:
- accepts fewer than 20 foods
- is losing weight
- dislikes or refuses entire food groups (grains, dairy, proteins, etc.)
- goes for several days without eating at all
- is committed to certain food brands or types of packaging
- requires a different meal from the rest of the family
- is anxious in social situations because of food
- has a dramatic emotional response to disliked foods, such as screaming, running away, or throwing objects
Assuming there’s not a health problem causing your toddler’s picky eating, it’s time to get creative! Here are some tactics that may help make mealtime with your little one more successful.
Constant cries of “I do it!” can be frustrating, but your child’s desire for independence is actually a useful tool when it comes to food. Giving them appropriate levels of self-determination creates the sense of influence toddlers crave, which may lead to better eating.
Bring your child into the kitchen with you as you prepare meals and snacks, encouraging them to smell, touch, and observe different foods. You can even let them help you cook! Actions that use motor skills, such as stirring, pouring, or shaking are all fair game for toddlers (when supervised).
At mealtimes, stoke the independence fire by offering choice:
- “Do you want strawberries or banana?”
- “Would you like to use a fork or a spoon?”
- “Should we use the blue plate or the green plate?”
It’s wise to go with just one pair of options per meal so as to not overwhelm your child, and this works best if these choices are already part of the planned meal. Even these small personal selections can pave the way for better mood and more interest in eating.
Think outside the box
Part of what makes toddlerhood fun is its unpredictability. Underwear worn on the head? Sure. A random sock as a favorite plaything? Why not? Follow your toddler’s unorthodox lead at mealtimes by experimenting with different preparations of foods. If your child isn’t a fan of steamed veggies, try them roasted. If poached chicken goes untouched, try it grilled.
The same principle goes for switching up foods associated with certain meals. When eggs don’t go over well in the morning, serve them at dinner instead. And there’s no reason why fish or poultry can’t grace the breakfast table.
Make it a family affair
At any age, there’s a lot to be said for the social element of eating. Help your toddler feel relaxed and included at mealtimes by creating a pleasant, undistracted environment whenever possible. And don’t make separate meals for your little eater, as this can give the impression that there’s a difference between “kid food” and “grown-up food.”
You can’t force your kid to eat — and when you have an extremely picky eater, you may need to re-evaluate your definition of success at mealtimes.
But don’t give up! Continue putting a bite of food on the plate, and don’t draw too much attention to whether your toddler eats it or not. With time and repeated exposure, you’ll begin to see progress.
Seasoned parents and child care pros know that making toddler-friendly meals and snacks is all about fun. Experimenting with color, texture, and shape in novel ways can convince even a stubborn 2-year-old that they really do want to eat.
Though you may not have time to bake homemade kale chips or turn apple slices into shark jaws every day, there are some smaller tweaks you can try at meal and snack time:
- Use cookie cutters to cut fruits and veggies into shapes.
- Buy a pack of edible googly eyes to add to foods.
- Arrange food on your child’s plate to look like a face or other recognizable image.
- Give foods a silly or imaginative name, like “orange wheels” (sliced oranges) or “little trees” (broccoli or cauliflower).
- Let your child play with their food — at least for a short while — to foster a positive attitude toward it.
Take note, though, that there’s one popular strategy some experts don’t recommend: hiding healthy foods in a kid-friendly package, á la hidden-spinach smoothies or stealth-veggie lasagna.
“The problem with this method is twofold,” says Lvova. “First, the child is unaware that they are eating, and enjoying, a food. Second, there is an issue of trust. By hiding undesired foods inside loved foods, an element of distrust is introduced.”
Even adults can be wary of trying new things. So if your toddler gives tofu or tuna the side-eye, try to remember that change is hard. Still, introducing new foods is an important part of helping your child eat a healthy diet and develop a broad palate.
To boost the chances of your toddler trying (and liking) something new, don’t do too much at once. Stick to one new food per day, and don’t pile it on your child’s plate.
The American Academy of Family Physicians advises offering your child 1 tablespoon of food for each year of age. This portion (for example, 2 tbsp of a given food for a 2-year-old) is often smaller than a parent thinks it should be.
When introducing foods, it often helps to put them in the context of something familiar. This might look like offering a dipping sauce like ketchup with cauliflower, serving red peppers alongside a familiar favorite like corn, or topping pizza with arugula. Again, mixing — not hiding — is the better bet to get your child to see that new foods are nothing to be afraid of.
Does your kiddo enjoy restaurant dining? This may also be an ideal time to let them try something less familiar. For less risk of wasted food (and money), order the more exotic dish for yourself and invite your toddler to try it.
Whatever your method, be sure to give your child plenty of praise along the way. A
If your toddler seems to have taken a pass on mealtime, it’s entirely possible that this is a normal (though exasperating) phase of their development. With time, their tastes and habits will likely expand as you continue to offer a variety of foods.
However, when a refusal to eat goes on for days or your kiddo shows any of the warning signs listed above, don’t be afraid to tap the expertise of a healthcare professional.
A 2015 study found that many preschool-age picky eaters who require medical attention don’t get the help they need. So don’t stress about “bothering” your pediatrician. Making a call or an appointment can give you much-needed peace of mind. Toddler parenting is a tough gig, and sometimes you need an expert to help you sort things out.