What parent out there has struggled with a picky eater? After taking a survey through social media more than 85% of moms said they have struggled and/or struggling with this topic. It is such a common obstacle that most parents endure some point in their parenting journey, even my parents could say the same when it came to me many years ago. It’s frustrating, exhausting, and can be so discouraging as parents. Trust me I know, because I’ve been there. We have done everything from putting coins in the piggy bank from dancing, clapping, and obnoxiously cheering when a bite of food was eaten. Phew does that get old and tiresome very quickly! I am thrilled to discuss and provide some practical tools to turn things around for you and your picky eater.
It can begin with the very first foods we introduce and put into our little one’s mouths. I started both of my babies the same way, by introducing avocado first. The first child I started at 6 months of age with pureed avocado and the second baby I started at roughly 7 1/2-8 months with large sliced chunks of avocado. I know we get so excited as parents for all those “firsts” and eating real food is one of those(I was in no hurry and way more relaxed and patient second time around)! It is highly recommended that a baby should not consume any type of solids(or anything other than milk in my opinion) before the age of 6 months and even then should be introduced at a very slow pace because their gut and little stomachs aren’t fully developed. By the age of 8 months a baby’s stomach can still only tolerate a small amount of real food, about 1-4 tsp for each meal. If breastfeeding, real food isn’t even an essential part of their diet and growth for the entire first year of life. Now I am aware everyone sees a different pediatrician and most parents go with what theirs says, just like us. I am not trying to play doctor here but simply sharing what has worked best for our family. The extremely noticeable difference in my two babies willing to eat a wider variety was the decision to do baby led weaning versus spoon feeding coupled with waiting until a later time to introduce food. Also starting out with vegetables and healthy fats while avoiding salty and sugary foods(even limiting fruit), additives and junk food, high fiber foods and hydrogenated fats can allow your baby to experience a variety of foods while being able to soak up the full amount of nutrients(sugary and processed foods, even baby cereals and oatmeals soak up quite a bit of iron leaving hardly any real nutrients for the body). I’m not going to go into the details of baby led weaning because that is an entirely different blog post but below are a couple of credible and helpful resources I recommend if interested.
Moving onto what seems the most common time for kids to turn into picky eaters and that is toddler time! Even though I did all of the above with our first born through her first two years of age, it was like a switch went off in her brain the day she turned two and all of a sudden anything green was “yuck”! It was a new ball game and my husband and I had to learn how to coach all over again. There were a lot of strikeouts and then there were some really out of the park home-runs. Like I mentioned above we have tried the whole reward system, and haven’t taken that away completely but just have tweaked it a tad. Also, we don’t over celebrate when she eats because honestly it is expected, not to mention makes each meal time much more exhausting for us. Thankfully, it has been an experience we have learned a lot from and can share our struggles and journey with other parents facing the same issue.
1.) Keep your tone and overall attitude positive and calm. I know, easier said than done right? Think of it this way, would you be excited or encouraged to eat your meal or even try a new food with someone scolding and threatening you from behind? YIKES NO! Well, it’s the same for little ones. The dinner table should be a place of comfort and care. We have found that when we keep our tone and attitudes positive, we are more likely to get a more positive outcome for our toddler. One thing we have started doing to create a more peaceful setting for our family during dinner is playing soft music in the background. It’s not too loud to distract them but gives a nice and calming mood to meal time. And sometimes we even make up a fun little game to play, like who can eat the most bites of broccoli wins! Keep it positive, fun, and comfortable.
2.) Ok, I was positive and calm but my kid still didn’t eat. Don’t fret. Toddler’s bodies create their own personal appetite and it is tailored to them specifically. I have always been a small petite person and my kids are most likely going to have the same frame. So,therefore, a larger person, or child, is going to require a different amount of food than myself or my children. It can be worrisome as a parent constantly questioning and wondering if our children are getting enough to eat, but I promise they aren’t going to starve themselves. Just the other night we all sat down to eat dinner and my toddler says she is not hungry, and might I add we were having pasta and she loves pasta. I remained calm and said OK in a cheerful tone but she still had to sit at the table while the rest of us finished our dinner. I knew she would be hungry later so I left her bowl on the table. A little bit later she came to tell me she was hungry and I told her that her dinner was still on the table. She said thank you and went to the table and finished her meal. That is not a typical occurrence in our house and I strongly encourage eating meals together if possible but you get the point. They will eat when they are hungry, don’t stress it too much.
3.) Repetition and consistency are key. Toddlers are smart little creatures and can learn to manipulate at a very young age. When my toddler got picky on me she would often say “I’m not eating that” or “I don’t want my dinner”, my response was “Ok, you don’t get anything else to eat, this is it, take it or leave it, sister”. I will never forget the very first time my husband heard that statement come out of my mouth. He looked at me confusingly and whispered: “no really, what are you going to give her instead?” I said “Nothing!” He responded OK in a rather shocked tone. I know it’s hard to sit there and watch your child not eat the nutritious meal in front of them while everyone else is, and there have been nights where my toddler has cried saying how hungry she is(after not eating her dinner) but not giving into the trap and staying consistent has been the most successful for us. They catch on very quickly, and if they know mom and dad are going to give me something later anyways then they are not going to eat, bottom line. Don’t fall into their trap, outsmart them mama. It may sound harsh but IT WORKS!
4.) Offering a variety and keeping it basic. By offering a variety of food they don’t get used to just one or two specifics(which ultimately becomes their favorites) and they expect at every meal. Having only a handful of options makes it very difficult for them to branch out and be accepting of new/other foods. When you are meal planning each week keep that in mind – I try to add one new fruit and one new vegetable each week or every other week so my kids are getting a variety while experiencing some new foods. I came across a statistic a few months back stating “It can take up to 15 attempts for a toddler to be accepting of a new food.” So the best thing we can do is keep offering and encouraging. Let them accept it on their own time. We frequent the farmer’s markets during the summer time and one thing I always grab is cucumbers. Lily ate them when she was a baby here and there but then they all of a sudden weren’t appealing to her after the age of 2. Each week that I had fresh cucumbers on hand, I would put some of her plate and mine(*remember we are their biggest influencers if you aren’t eating it neither will they). For weeks, which turned into 2 full months of offering her cucumbers, she still wouldn’t eat them. So I switched things up and offered them in smaller sizes, came up with a fun/different name for them(“crunchies” is what I called them) and she ate them up, and even asked for more! So it may take several, if not many attempts, and also different ways of presenting but by offering a plush variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, ect. we have really created a larger range of foods she now enjoys. Also keeping it basic really worked well too. I noticed the more basic and the more I put things on a toddler level, which was spaced out so she could clearly see each food and also different foods of bright colors, we had much better success. I even bought little animal divided plates where she could pick which section she wanted to eat first(linked below). It was fun to her and made her food more visible and aesthetically appealing.
5.) No snacking 2-3 hours before mealtime. This was a huge success for us and we still follow this rule every single day no matter how “hungry” my kids are. I make 2-3 homemade snacks each week to have on hand which typically include muffins, energy balls, along with fresh fruits and chopped vegetables. If kids are snacking right before dinner time they are filling up on those foods first, leaving very little room for actual meals. Usually, snacks like muffins and energy balls contain wheat flour, oats, chia seeds, flax seeds, ect. which are all very filling. Same with fruit, even though it’s a very healthy choice of snack, fruit contains sugar and sugar suppresses appetites even if it’s a natural form. Same goes for milk. We drink raw milk, which is comparable to whole milk. Raw and whole milk is full of fat, good fats, but fats that fill you up fast. We do not give either child milk with their meals because they will drink the entire glass of milk first, getting full quickly, and not having enough room for their meal. The times we allow milk are in the morning(mainly in smoothies) and right after lunch and dinner if they have eaten a well amount of their meal. We hardly ever buy or drink fruit juices, mainly because they are full of sugar and as mentioned above, sugar suppresses appetites. Same with highly processed and junk foods, if it’s not available in the house for them to eat then they simply don’t have the option. *If the 2-3 hours isn’t working eliminate all snacking in between meals. We have to resort back to this on occasion, and guess what IT WORKS! Also minimizing screen time during these 2-3 hours and letting them burn off that energy will make them even hungrier and more apt to eat a good size meal!
6.) You don’t have to like it, but you do have to try it. Having expectations for kids to like every single thing you serve them is sort of, how you say……out of touch with reality. Do you honestly like everything you have ever been served or eaten in your lifetime? Absolutely not, same goes for children! I try to make a conscious effort when meal planning(see meal planning post for more tips)to make sure it’s something they will most likely be interested in but it doesn’t always pan out that they just love every meal I prepare. And same for my husband and I. We all have our favorites, and then there are the really likes, then the okay, and lastly those that just didn’t turn out how we expected and we probably won’t be revisiting. If it is a meal that she most likely would really enjoy then we will push a little harder for her to eat. This is a good time to implement the 5 bite rule. My sister-in-law introduced this to us and it turned out to be a winner. I know five bites don’t sound like much but it does give them a goal, and also teaches them the importance of trying new foods. *Picture us singing the Daniel Tiger song “you gotta try new foods cause they might taste good“! Not sure what I’m talking about? YouTube it and have your child watch the full episode, totally worth it! Occasionally when we have to resort to the 5 bite rule we find that she actually continues to eat and ends up taking much more than five bites.
7.) Let them take part in the preparation and cooking of the meal. This has been a very positive experience for my toddler. She received a learning tower as a gift for her second birthday(not necessary to have-use a stool, chair whatever you have) and helps out in the kitchen often. Since then I have discovered how much more willing she is to eat and try new foods when she is part of the process. It’s crazy the difference it truly makes. It also helps with other things like math, fine motor skills, and memorization. She can tell you what and how much goes into making waffles now! She just received a pair of toddler cutting knives for Christmas so I am excited to introduce and try those out soon(they are linked on kid essentials tab). *If you have older kids try assigning a night each week that they help you in the kitchen.
8.) Reward occasionally. Last but not least, trying to balance a reward system. Rewards can be a fun way to encourage your children to eat more and even eat better but they shouldn’t be used for bribery and shouldn’t be used every time. There are nights when my toddler only eats a few bites of dinner and then will ask for a special treat because she feels she has eaten enough to deserve it. Unfortunately, the rule in our house is the plate must be completely clean in order to get any type of special treat. Also it’s not promised or guaranteed that if you clean your plate you will get one because ultimately that is already expected but when we do feel like rewarding we will. We don’t typically keep candy or junk foods in the house so when I say special treat I am referring to maybe a snack that I have made for the week, a banana, or extra serving of fruit. It’s great to be acknowledged and rewarded for accomplishments, and sometimes your child eating all their dinner is a huge accomplishment but to keep it special means not doing it too frequently.
So there are some of my most successful tips on what has worked and not worked for our family. Keep in mind each child is different and may take some tweaking but hang in there. Toddlers are extremely adaptable and just need a little time and encouragement. Also while you’re here check out the newly added Kid’s Section on the blog and resources for baby led weaning below. XOXO and good luck mamas!