Getting your picky eater a balanced diet

There are plenty of things to worry about during the toddler years, from the right time to teach the ABCs to the fine art of X-Treme bookshelf-climbing – and how to keep it from getting out of hand. One of the worries that starts the earliest, lasts the longest, and comes up the most often, though, is making sure toddlers are getting a balanced diet of the nutrients they need to grow strongly and healthily.

The difficulty of a balanced diet

The main challenge around this goal is that, once toddlers toddle into the toddler years, even if they’ve previously been brightly enthusiastic about trying and tasting any new food that crossed their path, they tend to get a little bit more particular. Part of this has to do with the fact that, as growth slows down, toddlers appetites are naturally a little smaller than they were when they were younger, and part of it has to do with the delight young children take in figuring out their opinions – and then sharing them loudly. For some toddlers, in some situations, this means deciding they “don’t like” certain foods without even trying them, but for many others, it just means that they want a little extra time to get to know a new food before diving into eating it.

Toddlers are also constantly on the go, which seems like it should mean that they’re especially hungry to refuel, but most of the time, it ends up meaning the opposite – that toddlers don’t even want to slow down long enough to aim more than a couple of bites of food at their mouths.

With all of these challenges to juggle, it’s no wonder that parents end up feeling nervous and stressed about their children’s nutrition. But the truth is, as long as the food toddlers are offered is healthy and balanced, no matter which parts of it they end up eating, eventually, over time, most children’s diets balance themselves out on their own.

The “division of responsibility” model and the toddler years

One popular way to think about a toddler’s eating habits – and one that many families find useful – is the model of division of responsibility. In this model, your responsibility as Baby’s parent or caregiver is to prepare and offer them tasty, balanced, healthy meals, and it’s their responsibility to decide what or how much they eat. This can be frustrating and difficult for parents to deal with sometimes, but as a way of thinking about mealtime, it can be helpful for keeping mealtime from turning into a power struggle – you don’t want non-dinner-related battles playing out across the table as Baby tests limits, after all. Power struggles can have an effect long after the meal they’re begun over has faded from everyone’s memories.

Master the sneak attack

One way to add a little variety to your toddler’s diet is to change your tactics now and then. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiding vegetables in places Baby will never suspect, or sneaking ground meat or beans into unusual places to squeeze a little protein in – for some families, it comes to that, but if you can avoid actually hiding foods or misleading Baby about what they're eating, it’ll help you transition away from this stage of their feeding development more easily.

Instead, being sneaky can just mean figuring out what it is about the foods Baby doesn’t like that bother them so much. Sometimes if the problem is texture, cooking something differently can be all you need to turn no way into yay. Sometimes the problem is even simpler than that – presentation can make a big difference to toddlers. Being presented with big trees of broccoli – even if you then cut them up for them – can be intimidating, but small pieces that are already mixed into their pasta can just be a friendly pop of green added to the meal. If Baby doesn’t like something, figuring out why they doesn’t like it can help you work towards more participation at the dinner table and show Baby that you respect their tastes and opinions at the same time.

Presentation is everything

This doesn’t just go for the food you put on Baby’s plate, either. Toddlers are easily distractible, so making mealtimes into distinct events with their own routines can help keep young children focused on them for long enough to eat a little. This might mean turning off the TV, turning off any music that’s playing, and sitting down around the table to eat together. It might mean making sure Baby’s booster seat, chair, or high chair still fits and suits their size well, and that they're sitting comfortably. They will probably also do better with a toddler-sized set of dishes and silverware than with an adult set, and making sure they have the right tools for the job can help keep mealtime from turning into too much of a challenge.

In the end, this stage of Baby’s eating patterns will end – though it may happen slowly enough that you don’t notice it happening until it’s done. In the meantime, as long as Baby is growing steadily and their pediatrician isn’t worried, try to relax and enjoy your meals alongside them – the lack of stress will do you both good. 

  • Dayle Hayes. “Coping With Picky Eating Phases.” eating right. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, January 21 2014. Retrieved September 12 2017.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Children’s nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, July 28 2017. September 12 2017.
  • “Feeding & Nutrition Tips: Your 2-Year-Old.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, March 16 2017. Retrieved September 12 2017.
  • “How to Handle Picky Eaters.” Zero to Three. Zero to Three, April 18 2010. Retrieved September 12 2017. 
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