Getting kids to eat their food

There’s a reason there are shelves upon shelves of books about ways to encourage toddlers to grow into healthy, enthusiastic, adventurous eaters. From the time babies and toddlers start eating solids on, their eating habits have a tendency to become one of their parents’ biggest concerns. Part of this may be because toddlers and picky eating have a legendary relationship, and picky eating can lead to power struggles pretty quickly. However, there are a few steps parents can take to address reluctant-eater problems, and when it comes to getting your little one to eat a full, balanced meal, sometimes taking the fight out of mealtime is half the battle.

The power of involvement

Whether it’s giving yourself a little toddler assistant to stir things under your careful supervision, or taking a helper along with you to the grocery store to help you to pick out which head of broccoli should go into dinner, or even starting a little garden in the back yard or on a window sill, try giving Baby ways to get a little involved in putting together dinner before it makes it onto the plate. If Baby is proud of their work helping with the meal, they might be more willing to reach out for seconds, or at least to sample something they might not have otherwise.

Another way to try to tap into this feeling is to lean towards customizable meals, or meals where your toddler can combine the ingredients on their own, like tacos, sandwiches, and pizza.

Reverse psychology

One of the tricky things about toddlers is that a whole lot of them really only seem to want to eat what’s on your plate. As long as you’re eating the same kinds of healthy things you’re hoping Baby gets a taste for, that isn’t necessarily a problem, though, and if you’ve got a picky eater on your hands, sometimes you can turn this tendency to your advantage. This “grass is always greener” philosophy is definitely an argument for the whole family eating dinner together at the same time as often as possible. Showing your toddler that you’re eating the same things as them, and presenting eating a full meal at the table together as normal is a great way to encourage them to do the same.

If family dinners are already a regular part of your family’s routine, and your toddler still isn’t digging into their dinner, though, it may be time to try taking this strategy to the next level. If your toddler isn’t too excited about eating off of their own plate, offering them particularly tasty bites of yours might tempt them to try something new. It’s definitely a strategy that can backfire if Baby then decides this is the only way they want to eat, but as an “every once in a while” strategy, it can be surprisingly effective – just make sure Baby isn’t the only one who gets to enjoy your dinner!

Use circadian rhythms to your advantage

That’s right, it’s not just sleep that’s affected by circadian rhythms. Any bodily process that follows a schedule based around a 24-hour day is regulated, at least in part, by circadian rhythms, and hunger is no different. This means that, by having your little one eat meals and snacks following a schedule, you make it more and more likely the longer you follow the schedule that they will start to get hungry right around scheduled mealtimes.

Start the change with yourself

Your toddler isn’t the only one who plays a part in your dynamic at mealtime – you do, too. Little changes, like starting out serving smaller portions to avoid the overwhelming feeling of big plates, can make a big difference in how both you and Baby perceive the meal, for example.

Things that are less little, and harder to do, like trying not to stress about how much your toddler is eating can help, too. There’s a good chance that they will pick up on your stress, which can help to turn meals into stressful events. It’s common for children to go through periods of time when they’re pickier, and to be wary of new foods, especially once they reach the toddler years. It’s not a sign that anything is wrong, and most of the time, their diets tend to balance themselves out over time. It’s not easy to let go of worries, but as long as your child is growing at a healthy, steady rate, keeping yourself from holding onto your worries is generally the way to go.

Remember that it’s probably a temporary issue

For one thing, toddlers tend to have appetites that go up and down based on growth patterns, so a hearty eater one day might just pick at their food a few days later. In fact, for many children, the toddler years come with a significant drop in appetite as growth slows a little after the first year. More than that, as children’s taste buds mature, they’re more likely to start to like more bitter flavors, like the ones they might avoid in vegetables now. In the meantime, without having to go to great lengths to disguise them, soups and sauces are great ways to add a little extra vegetable matter to a meal. A few vegetables can round out a smoothie nicely, and eggs, beans and legumes, and peanut butter are all quieter ways to add a little protein into your toddler’s diet if they aren't ready to bite into a burger.

A lot of things about your toddler’s eating patterns now are probably temporary, but there are also habits that can start now and go on to cause trouble as they grow. Habits like bargaining with them to take more bites, making them a special meal separate from the rest of the family, and offering sweets as rewards can all setup eating habits that are hard to break.

  • Mary L. Gavin. “Kids and Food: 10 Tips for Parents.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, September 2015. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Children’s nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, September 6 2014. Web.
  • “Win Over Picky Eaters.” PBS. PBS. Web.
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