10 Tips for Getting Your Picky Toddler to Eat

Since the time Chase started eating solid food, it became clear to me that we were very much alone in trying to navigate our way through that new realm. Neither of his pediatricians were helpful in that department and we were left to sort of wander alone and hope we figured it out along the way. Now that he’s older and learning about his own preferences, tastes and the ability to exercise his right to abstain from eating, I feel like throwing my hands up in the air some days and letting him eat his weight in things covered in marinara sauce, since that’s all he seems to like on a regular basis. So, when the lovely Anne London, MS, RD, CD-N, of Petite Nutrition, offered up her advice on picky eating for toddlers, I was psyched, as I’m sure many of you will be too. She’s got some great, practical and easy-to-implement tips for mamas who are struggling to get their toddlers to eat. I hope you enjoy her wisdom as much as I did!

Toddler eating can drive you crazy! Toddlers specialize in it! You aren’t alone!

Moe, my son, was especially skilled at this when he was a toddler. I was not yet a pediatric dietitian, and I was sure Moe’s job in eating was to drive me completely insane. So guess what? He did. My favorite story to tell is that for six days (I kid you not), Moe literally ate only peas and blueberries. He refused ALL. OTHER. FOOD. I took the cue and tried all small circular foods I could think of…Kix cereal, mini meatballs, Israeli cous cous, mini melon balls. No, no, and definitely not. He was a late talker, so all he had to do was shake his head and flick his hand as if he were saying “take it away!” I catered; he refused. I wanted to pull my hair out. We’ve come A. Long. Way. I learned how to feed him appropriately, and he has developed a wonderful food repertoire. Our meals are pleasant and enjoyable, but trust me it wasn’t always this way.

As parents, one of our most basic responsibilities is feeding our kids. When it doesn’t go well, we feel deflated and frustrated. I experienced this first hand, and I’ve worked with many families where kids eating problems are so stressful, it negatively affects family dynamics. Here are some tips to help you with your picky eating dilemmas.

1. A structured meal schedule might be the most important part of feeding. As unglamorous as this is, for the most part, a hungry child will eat. An un-hungry child will abstain. For toddlers, here’s how it should go: Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. Each of these meals needs to be sitting at the table. The kitchen is closed in between. No snack traps, no cups of milk/juice, no crackers, no fruit. Teach your child to eat when it’s eating time, and to play/sleep/read/whatever else when it isn’t.

2. Snacks are meals too. Toddlers cannot meet their nutrition in three meals. Their snacks are just as important. Think mini-meals. Don’t offer goldfish for every snack. Use the snacks to offer balanced nutrition (think more than one food group together).

3. You cannot make your child eat. It isn’t your job and you don’t feel their hunger cues. Trust your child to do the eating. Young children are amazing self- regulators of hunger. They eat when they are hungry, they stop when they are satisfied. All you can do is select the food you want them to eat (and include foods they are capable of eating), offer it to them at the table, and keep to the meal schedule. Let them be in charge of the eating.

4. Don’t focus on what they eat in a day. Toddlers are famous for eating nothing one day, and gorging themselves the next. Devouring protein for two days, refusing it all for the next three days. When looking at nutrition over the course of a week or two, (not a day) toddlers usually get the nutrition they need.

5. Toddlers’ serving sizes are tiny. If I had a dollar for every parent who told me their toddler didn’t eat, I’d be rich! I used to feel that way too. Toddler portion sizes are in tablespoons. Two bites here, three bites there. They get what they need. They need to eat more often because their stomachs are small, and they cannot eat the same portions as you or I at a sitting.

Photo courtesy of: Super Healthy Kids

Photo courtesy of: Super Healthy Kids

6. Toddlers are in search of control. Give them appropriate control. Toddlers are a lot like teenagers. They have a little bit of newfound freedom, but are still very much reliant on you. My favorite child psychologist always says, “toddlers can control two things: what goes in and what comes out.” If you try to control what they eat (from what you are serving), they dig in their heels. You pick the foods, they decide what they will eat.

7. Family Style. Family Style. Family Style. If you only take one thing from this post, take this. I started doing this when Moe was a toddler. It literally changed our lives. Serve everything family style, and let everyone serve themselves. Keep the serving spoons small enough for toddlers. Toddlers adore the control of serving themselves. Tell them to serve themselves a small amount at a time, and they can have as many servings as they want if they like it. (This prevents waste). But you have to really let them choose what they will eat from the table. You cannot ask them to eat three bites of chicken or two more bites of broccoli. They really get to serve themselves without our commentary or requests.

8. Try to have family meals. This can be hard for families because toddlers like to eat at 5pm, and you or dad or both don’t get home until 7pm. Did you know family meals increase vocabulary in young children more than reading to them? They also improve nutrition, self-confidence and school performance among other things. So have family breakfast, or have weekend meals together. Eat a snack or dinner with your toddler, and have salad with your husband when he gets home. Think creatively because toddlers learn to eat by watching other family members eat. It is important enough to find a way that works for your family.

9. Expect appropriate behavior. We have dinnertime rules at our house that I will share in an upcoming post. But the table is a place where I have clear expectations for my children that increase as they age. Children like clear expectations, and like to feel successful at meeting them.

10. Keep mealtimes pleasant. Sharing food together is one of life’s simplest pleasures. Teaching children how to enjoy eating together is paramount. Mealtimes with fighting, food battles, and stress undermine eating and nutrition and override a child’s ability to self-regulate their food intake. Enjoy your children. Try playing simple games at dinnertime to engage your child such as: “raise your hand if you did art today” (hands shoot up), “raise your hand if you were silly today” (hands shoot up), “raise your hand if you are tired” (no hands), raise your hand if you helped clean up the playroom (no hands – kidding)!


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Melissa Mowry

Melissa Mowry is a stay at home mom to 3 year old Chase and the slightly younger guy, Sam. She is the main voice behind One Mother to Another, which she started in July 2014 as a way to connect with other moms who felt just as lonely as she did some days. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Adam, and they live in their home state of Rhode Island. Melissa's work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Mamalode, Coffee + Crumbs and Mamapedia, among others. Her book, One Mother to Another: This Is Just Between Us is for sale on Amazon.
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21 Responses to 10 Tips for Getting Your Picky Toddler to Eat

  1. learntolovefood March 10, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    These are such great tips! I’m a speech and feeding therapist and I love seeing these kinds of well-informed, helpful articles rather than the ‘they’ll grow out of it’ approach to picky eating! You might like some of the activities on my blog learntolovefood.com, too. I’d love to hear what you think, if you get a chance to check it out!

    • One Mother to Another March 10, 2015 at 9:58 am #

      I totally agree! That kind of advice is really not helpful to parents who are struggling with it every day and wondering if their child is getting enough nutrients. I’ve been poking around your blog and I LOVE it. I just started doing a similar thing called “Snacktivity” where I incorporate a children’s book with a snack that toddlers/older children can prepare themselves (I come from a Montessori-inspired teaching background, so I love encouraging kids to help themselves to food instead of portioning it out for them.) We should partner up on one of those posts!!

      • learntolovefood March 10, 2015 at 10:14 am #

        Thank you! I’ve been planning to do a Thursday Tips post involving children’s books with food play as well as one on portion sizes!! It sounds like we’re on the same page 😉 I’d love to partner up on a post soon!

  2. jsackmom March 10, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    I really enjoyed this post as it didn’t have the mentality of Ive served the food and you must eat it now. My son has some special needs and This.Does.Not. Work. I’ve had so much advice from family “well my kid wouldn’t do that, or my daughter eats what I cook,” friends that say I allow him to dictate to me. My reply is “we got this, he won’t starve, and if you don’t understand SPD and ASD then don’t comment.” Because that’s a fine kettle of worms you don’t want to open up unless it’s accompanied with a large dose of understanding, food modelling, and therapy. I loved this so much, and I don’t feel so alone in my own struggles at the dinner table.

    • One Mother to Another March 10, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

      I completely agree. That advice is far from helpful for anyone, especially in your case where that absolutely won’t fly. I don’t consider myself to be a pushover mom at all, but I’m also not into the tough love thing–I believe in compassion and treating your kids with respect. That tact isn’t respectful to me. I like Anne’s way of approaching it: making mealtime pleasant, letting them have choices, etc. Much more conducive to a healthy relationship than constantly being on their cases about how much and what they choose to eat.

      • jsackmom March 11, 2015 at 1:58 am #

        Yes I agree when it becomes more of a team effort it’s less of a battle ground. My son may not eat all the food groups at all, or very often but he eats a little a lot. Thank you for your kindness and compassion I don’t share my struggles with food therapy very often. I love Anne’s approach thank you for introducing me to her method of collaborative eating.

  3. whitneyfleming March 10, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    This is great advice! Especially number 7 and 10. I have three kids very close together (twins and another one just 16 months behind), and sometimes meal time became a battle field instead of a time to bring everyone together. Even now that they are older, I have one child that can’t eat enough and another who I’m begging to eat! I always serve a fruit and vegetable with everything, and just hope that most of it gets to them. Very informative post!

    • One Mother to Another March 10, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

      I totally agree. I find this so much more useful than someone saying “eh, they’ll grow out of it” or “you eat what’s on your plate or you’re not eating at all.” Those aren’t realistic, in my opinion, so it’s nice to see some real options and have her explain why exactly they do the things they do that drive us crazy! Thanks for stopping by Whitney! I love your blog 🙂

  4. ormondbeachquilts March 10, 2015 at 10:28 am #

    I love your realistic approach to getting kids to eat! Thank you so much for reiterating that this is normal toddler behavior!

    • One Mother to Another March 10, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

      I agree–it’s so nice to have someone who is an expert at this stuff say that my toddler’s behavior is a normal reaction to figuring out this whole eating thing. Easy to forget that when your kid is throwing his dinner and the floor and saying “no!” over and over again!!

  5. Nikki @ MBAsahm March 10, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    These are awesome tips! I struggle soooo much with feeding my little guy and I’m sad to say that I really am bad at keeping a schedule 🙁 That is probably the biggest thing I need to start focusing on. One thing that I just discovered that is really helping me is that he looooves smoothies…which means I can sneak in veggies! Thanks so much for the tips. These are really helpful!

    • One Mother to Another March 10, 2015 at 5:30 pm #

      I LOVE giving my son smoothies, too: it makes me feel like I’m really rocking the nutrition thing even if he only ends up eating pieces of bread and crackers the rest of the day 😉 I’m really glad this post was helpful to you too! I learned a lot from it myself.

  6. whitneymaeve March 10, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

    Great post! Good to know that we are on the right track, that other mamas are doing the same thing I’m doing, and that someone else on the planet is about family meals! Woo!

    • One Mother to Another March 10, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

      Family meals are SO important. I’m really glad Anne brought that up. I don’t think enough families these days make time for them, but in my own humble opinion, they’re a hell of a lot more important than running around to a million activities.

      • whitneymaeve March 10, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

        I totally agree. We are blessed in that breakfast can often be our meal Ed if dinner can’t. Good word!

  7. Courtney March 10, 2015 at 6:40 pm #

    This is so great. I am nanny and it is very frustrating when my boys refuse to eat. I always feel bad telling their parents what they did and did not eat. Thanks so much!

    • One Mother to Another March 10, 2015 at 7:08 pm #

      I’m really glad it was helpful to you Courtney! Anne is a great source of wisdom on feeding children 🙂

  8. ghoffer March 11, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

    Great tips! I follow many of these, and while I would hardly call my son a foodie, he is usually game to try almost everything. I found that he is most interested in what my husband is eating, which has helped my husband eat better, as he wants to be a good example.


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