One of the very best things about getting older is gaining more of an ability to be picky about things. It just feels good to make decisions about things that we want or don’t want. As babies grow into toddlers, they learn that they, too, have this power, and they exercise it at every possible opportunity – which, in turn, can create some very frustrated parents.
Pickiness about food can be especially exasperating, and can leave parents wondering why their children suddenly hate every food under the sun. If your toddler has been like this lately, the first thing you should know is that at this age, a picky palate is completely normal.
Why are toddlers picky eaters?
Imagine for a second what it’s like to be a toddler. You’re learning how to talk, walk, climb stairs, and generally understand the world around you. With all this change happening, you’d probably want some things to stay the same. One of the things you can try to control is what you eat. Many toddlers shy away from new foods, using their newly-discovered autonomy to reject anything unfamiliar on their plate. Toddlers may also reject foods that they’ll eventually enjoy, so it’s a good idea to offer once-rejected foods again every time you cook them, to see if they seem more appealing this time around.
As a parent, you might feel exasperated when your toddler refuses to eat. But this is all normal, and in time, your toddler will learn to be more flexible with their food.
Understanding your role as a parent
There’s only a certain amount of influence that you can have on your toddler’s eating habits. You may not be able to convince them that broccoli isn’t too strange a texture to eat. You probably can’t rationally explain to them that the cut-up fruit they are rejecting today is the same fruit they loved last week. In the end, often, all that you can do is serve them a variety of healthy foods, and encourage them to use their newfound freedom to try the things on their plate.
Meal prep for a picky toddler
There are a few things in particular that parents can find helpful when they’re deciding what food to prepare for toddlers, and how.
- Involve your toddler in the meal prep process: A common (but totally understandable) mealtime mistake is keeping your toddler away from food until it’s served on a plate. But studies show that toddlers are less likely to reject a food if they’ve been exposed to it before it’s time to eat a meal. You might have your toddler help stir food with a spoon, or use their hands to add condiments to a salad before you’re sitting down to eat.
- Dress up plain-tasting foods: There’s nothing wrong with adding healthy amounts of flavor to your toddler’s meal if it allows them to enjoy the food more. Steamed vegetables, for example, might taste better roasted or with a little cheese or butter. On the other hand, giving less healthy foods a healthy dose of vegetables, like by adding veggies to mac and cheese or a mini-pizza, can be a great way to sneak a few extra nutrients into your toddler’s diet.
- Get creative: You never know what a toddler is going to enjoy, and sometimes, putting a new spin on a once-rejected dish can be just what it needs to turn it into a new favorite. For example, you can help add a little sparkle to savory dishes by adding fruits like dried cranberries, or pieces of apple, pineapple, and pear. Blogs and cooking websites also have great ideas to try.
Tips for the table
When it’s finally time to serve the meal, there are a couple things you can try.
- Eat as a family: There are a huge number of benefits that come along with eating as a family, from building children’s vocabularies to lower rates of depression and obesity. What’s relevant to a picky-eating toddler, though, is that eating together as a family, and seeing food just like theirs on your plate can make your toddler’s dinner look more appealing, and also turn mealtime into more of a fun, comfortable group activity.
- Serve small portions: Only put small portions on your toddler’s plate so they don't have to eat as much of a single food. If they are hungry for more, you can always serve them seconds, but starting off with smaller portions can be less intimidating to toddlers.
- Encourage them, but let them do their own thing: Encourage them to try each food, but don’t react if they do or doesn’t try it, and don’t force them to eat anything or bribe them with dessert or another reward. Bribes and rewards might work in the short-term, but in the long-term, they can set up habits that make life harder in the future.
- Let them investigate the food: Your toddler is naturally wary of new foods, so it might take some exploration and a few encounters before they start eating it.
- Eat the same foods as your toddler: Make sure that you’re eating the foods you’re serving your toddler, too, because whatever you’re doing, they'll probably follow suit.
- Slow it down: Sometimes, grabbing a quick bite is the best a family can do, and that’s how it goes. But when you have a little extra time, making a bigger meal, maybe even one including a few courses (soup, salad, protein and starch dishes, healthy dessert), can be both a great way to work out the perfect nutritional balance in a meal and a great way to set aside some quiet time to connect with your family while savoring something tasty.
- Avoid snacking close to mealtimes: You can help to make sure they are hungry when they sit down at the dinner table by spacing snacks so they have had time to digest the last one before dinner rolls around. Having an appetite at mealtime will help them find the foods on the table tastier and more appealing.
Always take things day-to-day
At this age, your toddler might hate a food one week, and then ask for it daily the next week. Don’t be discouraged when your toddler’s preferences change. Picky eating might be frustrating, but it’s a sign of healthy development for them.
“Toddlers at the Table: Avoiding Power Struggles.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, 2016. Web.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Children’s nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Sep 6 2014. Web.
“Toddler development.” MedlinePlus. US National Library of Medicine, Feb 26 2014. Web.
“How to Handle Picky Eaters.” ZerotoThree. Zero to Three, Apr 18 2010. Web.