17 Tips to Feed Your Picky Eater
When our first few children were toddlers, we dreaded dinnertime. We would prepare all kinds of sensible meals composed of what we thought were healthy, appealing foods. Most of these offerings would end up splattering the high-chair tray and carpeting the floor. To make matters worse, we took our kids’ rejection of our cuisine personally, sure that this was a sign of parental lapse on our part. A picky eater can certainly be frustrating.
A Toddler is Naturally a Picky Eater
Being a picky eater is part of what it means to be a toddler. We have since learned that there are developmental reasons why kids between one and three years of age peck and poke at their food. After a year of rapid growth (the average one-year-old has tripled her birth weight), toddlers gain weight more slowly. So, of course, they need less food. The fact that these little ones are always on the go also affects their eating patterns. They don’t sit still for anything, even food. Snacking their way through the day is more compatible with these busy explorers’ lifestyle than sitting down to a full-fledged feast.
Learning this helped us relax
We now realize that our job is simply to buy the right food, prepare it nutritiously (steamed rather than boiled, baked rather than fried), and serve it creatively. We leave the rest up to the kids. How much they eat, when they eat, and if they eat is mostly their responsibility; we’ve learned to take neither the credit nor the blame if our children go through a picky eater stage.
Toddlers like to binge on one food at a time
They may eat only fruits one day and vegetables the next. Since erratic eating habits are as normal as toddler mood swings, expect your picky eater to eat well one day and eat practically nothing the next. Toddlers from one to three years need between 1,000 and 1,300 calories a day, yet they may not eat this amount every day. Aim for a nutritionally-balanced week, not a balanced day.
All this is not to say that parents shouldn’t encourage their toddlers to eat well and develop healthy food habits. Based on our hands-on experience with eight children, we’ve developed 17 tactics to tempt little taste buds and minimize mealtime hassles with your picky eater.
1. Offer a nibble tray
Toddlers like to graze their way through a variety of foods, so why not offer them a customized smorgasbord? The first tip from the Sears’ kitchen is to offer toddlers a nibble tray. Use an ice-cube tray, a muffin tin, or a compartmentalized dish, and put bite-size portions of colorful and nutritious foods in each section. Call these finger foods playful names that a two-year-old can appreciate, such as:
- apple moons (thinly sliced)
- avocado boats (a quarter of an avocado)
- banana wheels
- broccoli trees (steamed broccoli florets)
- carrot swords (cooked and thinly sliced)
- cheese building blocks
- egg canoes (hard-boiled egg wedges)
- little O’s (o-shaped cereal)
Place the food on an easy-to-reach table. As your toddler makes his rounds through the house, he can stop, sit down, nibble a bit, and, when he’s done, continue on his way. These foods have a table-life of an hour or two.
NUTRITIP: Good Grazing = Good Behavior
A child’s demeanor often parallels her eating patterns. Parents often notice that a toddler’s behavior deteriorates toward the end of the morning or mid-afternoon. Notice the connection? Behavior is at its worst, the longer they go without food. Grazing minimizes blood-sugar swings and lessens the resulting undesirable behavior.
2. Dip it
Young children think that immersing foods in a tasty dip is pure fun (and delightfully messy). Some possibilities to dip into:
- cottage cheese or tofu dip
- cream cheese
- fruit juice-sweetened preserves
- peanut butter, thinly spread
- pureed fruits or vegetables
- Greek yogurt, plain or sweetened with juice concentrate
Those dips serve equally well as spreads on apple or pear slices, bell pepper strips, rice cakes, bagels, toast, or other nutritious platforms.
3. Spread it
Toddlers like spreading, or more accurately, smearing. Show them how to use a table knife to spread cheese, peanut butter, and fruit concentrate onto crackers, toast, or rice cakes. (Of course, while closely supervising to make sure they are safe.)
4. Top it
Toddlers are into toppings. Putting nutritious, familiar favorites on top of new and less-desirable foods is a way to broaden the picky eater’s menu. Favorite toppings are Greek yogurt, cream cheese, melted cheese, guacamole, tomato sauce, applesauce, and peanut butter.
5. Drink it
If your picky eater would rather drink than eat, don’t despair. Make a smoothie together. Milk and fruit – along with supplements such as juice, egg powder, wheat germ, Greek yogurt, honey, and peanut butter – can be the basis of very healthy meals. So what if they are consumed through a straw? One note of caution: Avoid any drinks with raw eggs, or you’ll risk salmonella poisoning.
6. Cut it
How much a child will eat often depends on how you cut it. Cut sandwiches, pancakes, waffles, and pizza into various shapes using cookie cutters.
7. Package it
Appearance is important when dealing with a picky eater. For something new and different, why not use your child’s own toy plates for dishing out a snack? Our kids enjoy the unexpected and fanciful when it comes to serving dishes – anything from plastic measuring cups to ice-cream cones.
You can also try the scaled-down approach. Either serve pint-size portions or, when they’re available, buy munchkin-size foodstuffs, such as mini bagels, mini quiches, chicken drummettes (the meat part of the wing), and tiny muffins.
8. Become a veggie vendor
I must have heard, “Doctor, he won’t eat his vegetables” a thousand times. Yet, the child keeps right on growing. Vegetables require some creative marketing for a picky eater, as they seem to be the most contested food in households with young children. How much vegetables do toddlers need? Although kids should be offered three to five servings of veggies a day, for children under five, each serving need be only a tablespoon for each year of age. In other words, a two-year-old should ideally consume two tablespoons of vegetables three to five times a day. So if you aren’t the proud parent of a veggie-lover, try the following tricks:
Plant a garden with your child
- Let them help care for the plants, harvest the ripe vegetables, and wash and prepare them. They will probably be much more interested in eating what they helped to grow.
Slip grated or diced vegetables into favorite foods
- Try adding them to rice, cottage cheese, cream cheese, guacamole, or even macaroni and cheese. Zucchini pancakes are a big hit at our house, as are carrot muffins.
- Cover veggies with a favorite sauce.
Use vegetables as finger foods
- Dip them in a favorite sauce or dip.
Using a small cookie cutter, cut the vegetables into interesting shapes
Steam your greens
- They are much more flavorful and usually sweeter than when raw.
Make veggie art
- Create colorful faces with olive- slice eyes, tomato ears, mushroom noses, bell-pepper mustaches, and any other playful features you can think of. Our eighth child, Lauren, loved to put olives on the tip of each finger. “Olive fingers” would then nibble this nutritious and nutrient-dense food off her fingertips. Zucchini pancakes make a terrific face to which you can add pea eyes, a carrot nose, and cheese hair.
Concoct creative camouflages
- There are all kinds of possible variations on the old standby “cheese in the trees” (cheese melted on steamed broccoli florets). Or, you can all enjoy the pleasure of veggies topped with peanut butter sauce, a specialty of Asian cuisines.
9. Share it
If your child is going through a picky eater stage, invite over a friend who is the same age or slightly older whom you know “likes to eat.” Your child will catch on. Group feeding lets the other kids set the example.
10. Respect tiny tummies
Keep food servings small. Wondering how much to offer? Here’s a rule of thumb – or, rather, of hand. A young child’s stomach is approximately the size of his fist. So dole out small portions at first and refill the plate when your child asks for more. This less-is-more meal plan is not only more successful with the picky eater; it also has the added benefit of stabilizing blood-sugar levels, which in turn minimizes mood swings. As most parents know, a hungry kid is generally not a happy kid.
Use what we call “the bite rule” to encourage the picky eater: “Take one bite, two bites…” (however far you think you can push it without force-feeding). The bite rule at least gets your child to taste new food while giving her some control over the feeding. As much as you possibly can, let your child – and his appetite – set the pace for meals. But if you want your child to eat dinner at the same time you do, try to time his snack-meals so that they are at least two hours before dinner.
11. Make it accessible
Give your toddler shelf space. Reserve a low shelf in the refrigerator for a variety of your toddler’s favorite (nutritious) foods and drinks. Whenever she wants a snack, open the door for her and let her choose one. This tactic also enables children to eat when they are hungry, an important step in acquiring a healthy attitude about food.
12. Use sit-still strategies
One reason why toddlers don’t like to sit still at the family table is that their feet dangle. Try sitting on a stool while eating. You naturally begin to squirm and want to get up and move around. Children are likely to sit and eat longer at a child-size table and chair where their feet touch the ground.
13. Turn meals upside down
The distinctions between breakfast, lunch, and dinner have little meaning to a child, especially a picky eater. If your youngster insists on eating pizza in the morning or fruit and cereal in the evening, go with it – better than not eating at all. This is not to say you should become a short-order cook, filling lots of special requests, but why not let your toddler set the menu sometimes? Other family members will probably enjoy the novelty of waffles and hash browns for dinner.
14. Let them cook
Children are more likely to eat their own creations, so, when appropriate, let your picky eater help prepare the food. Use cookie cutters to create edible designs out of foods like cheese, bread, thin meat slices, or cooked lasagna noodles. Give your assistant jobs such as tearing and washing lettuce, scrubbing potatoes, or stirring the batter. Put pancake batter in a squeeze bottle and let your child supervise as you squeeze the batter onto the hot griddle in fun shapes, such as hearts, numbers, letters, or even spell the child’s name.
15. Make every calorie count
Offer your child foods that pack lots of nutrition into small doses. This is particularly important for toddlers who are often as active as rabbits but who seem to eat like mice.
Nutrient-dense foods that most children (even the picky eater) are willing to eat include:
- California Avocados
- Peanut butter
- Brown rice and other grains
- Sweet potatoes
- Kidney beans
- Greek Yogurt
16. Count on inconsistency
For young children, what and how much they are willing to eat may vary daily. This capriciousness is due in large part to their ambivalence about independence, and eating is an area where they can act out this confusion. So don’t be surprised if your child eats a heaping plateful of food one day and practically nothing the next, adores broccoli on Tuesday and refuses it on Thursday, wants to feed herself at one meal and be totally catered to at another. As a parent in our practice said, “The only thing consistent about toddler feeding is inconsistency.” Try to simply roll with these mood swings, and don’t take your picky eater’s habits too personally.
Sometime between their second and third birthday, you can expect your child to become set in their ideas on just about everything – including the way food is prepared. Expect food fixations . If the peanut butter must be on top of the jelly and you put the jelly on top of the peanut butter, be prepared for a protest. It’s not easy to reason with an opinionated two-year-old. Better to learn to make the sandwich the child’s way. Don’t interpret this as being stubborn. Toddlers have a mindset about the order of things in their world. Any alternative is unacceptable. The picky eater stage is usually one that passes or at least mellows over time.
For more information on this topic, see The Family Nutrition Book: Everything You Need to Know About Feeding Your Children – From Birth through Adolescence
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.