This post was written by Cristina Cavanaugh, a registered dietitian on Amwell. Updated September 2020.
I’ve been counseling parents for years on how to combat picky eaters. Well, now I know… it is much easier said than done! Here are a few things I have to remind myself of daily as I encourage my son to eat healthy foods.
Try not to force it
Take the pressure and stress out of mealtime and drop the battles. Your kids aren’t going to starve themselves, I promise! We all like to feel in control, especially our toddlers! They are at the age of discovering their independence and exploring their options. Mealtime tends to turn into a power struggle because food is one of the few things your child can control during the day. Therefore, ease up (I mean this in the nicest way possible!). Your job is to provide healthy meals, it’s your child’s job to determine how much they eat. Instead of stressing about how much your child eats at each meal, look at how much they ate over a week’s span. Some days may be great eating days, other days your child may only eat a few bites. In my house, my son will have one day where he eats everything I offer him and other days where he won’t eat anything! I try not to worry about it and let him follow his intuition.
Stick to a routine
Try not to let your child graze during the day with snacks, as they need to build up an appetite. It’s ok to feel hungry between meals! Having set times for meals and snacks will get your child in the habit of when to expect food. Grazing may spoil their appetite, and it may lead to mindless snacking. Toddlers have tiny tummies that fill up quickly, so set a schedule to have a meal or snack every two to three hours.
Young children are introduced to new foods all the time and may need to see a food upwards of 20 times before they are comfortable eating it. Let your toddler play with a new food. Let them squeeze, smash, poke, smell, and pinch it before they decide to eat it. Try not to get frustrated and don’t give up! Maybe the fifteenth try they will take a bite of it… and maybe the twentieth time they will actually eat it!
Make eating fun
I don't always have the time to make a caterpillar out of cucumbers or turn food into fun shapes. However, I find it's helpful to make food fun for my child and there are simple ways to do so. Serve cut-up fruit on a wooden skewer, offer a side of marinara sauce to dip broccoli in, or have a few cookie cutters handy to turn a sandwich into a star! Mix it up and add variety. Pancakes for dinner always made me laugh as a kid!
Go shopping and cook together
It can be helpful for children to know where their food is coming from and how it is prepared. Bring them to the grocery store or better yet, bring them to a farmers’ markets or a local farm! Let your little ones help pick out the apples… they may become more interested in trying one! Talk to them about the meals you plan on making for the week and ask for their advice. Should we have peppers or spinach in our burritos tonight? Again..it’s all about being in control, right? When preparing meals, you can also get the kids involved. Let them help wash veggies, measure out rice, or stir ingredients together. Show them what you’re doing. Not only will they feel involved, but it could help develop their cooking skills down the road.
Set a good example
Demonstrate healthy eating yourself so your child can learn from you.
Ditch the milk between mealtimes
Milk may be ruining mealtime success! Milk is full of protein, fat, and calories. If your little one is sipping on milk throughout the day, they may never feel hungry and will not want to eat at meals. ”Drink your milk” has been ingrained in our minds but toddlers don’t need as much milk as you think. Two to three cups per day may suffice. There are also many non-dairy alternatives for calcium, fat, and protein. If your child does drink milk, only offer it after or during meals… not between.
How easy is it to put on a show, give them a snack, and get the laundry done or dinner cooked? I’m so guilty of this one! While it's okay every one in awhile, it could lead to mindless eating further down the road if food is associate with TV. Try to have a set schedule (tip # 2) and eat at the table together when you can. Mealtimes are a great way to connect as a family and show our kids the importance of engaging in conversations. Put the toys away, turn off the TV, and tune in to what’s on your plate!
Try not to use sweets to bribe or reward
Labeling food as “good” or “bad” can be misleading. If we tell our kids “you have to finish your beans before you can have a cookie”, they may believe that beans are “bad” and cookies are “good.” Trust me, I love sweets and don’t consider them off-limits. In fact, I think it’s better to occasionally offer dessert to your child so that you don't put sweets up on a pedestal. Ice cream isn’t a reward and a brownie won’t make you feel better. It's all about balance.
Try not to be a short-order cook
We all want our kids to eat and to eat well. It's a way of showing love! However, customizing mealtime can be a difficult road to go down. Your child may expect to have their favorite foods cooked for them instead of having what the family is eating. Offer two different foods for a snack and three different types of food for a meal. I always include something I know my son will eat along with two other choices. For example, he loves quinoa, so if I am cooking something new such as a veggie stir-fry, I will serve it with quinoa so I know he will at least eat something. If he tries the stir-fry, great! If he doesn’t, there’s always next time.
Most importantly, know that you've got this and that you're doing a great job. Picky eaters can be tough but building healthy eating habits now will help set your child up for success later.