"But my little one used to be such an adventurous eater! It's as if they hit toddlerhood and preschool and turned into a picky little monster who only wants unhealthy foods!" We often hear this as kids start to develop their own likes and dislikes when it comes to their "preschool palate."
So, what makes toddlers and preschoolers picky eaters?
- Toddlers' growth rates slows down from when they were infants, and often so does their appetite.
- Becoming weary of new foods is believed to be an evolutionary benefit for young children in protecting them from eating potentially poisonous plants. In modern days, this can be a barrier to trying new and safe foods.
- Young children need and love snacks and drinks. However, too much of these can crowd out meals, especially if poorly timed.
- Kids and people all interpret sensory stimuli differently. Kids with strong sensory responses may experience taste and smell more strongly, making them more sensitive to foods and thus “picky eaters.”
How can we help our picky eaters? Here are 8 tips...
1. Offer structured meals and snacks
Young children have small tummies. They can’t meet their nutrition requirements in only three meals. Offering 3 balanced meals and 2-3 snacks that have a start and an end in a scheduled way can help make sure young children arrive at the table hungry for the next meal (but not starving). Hungry kids are more likely to try new foods.
2. Sit down for family meals
Like everything else, young children learn to eat by watching their parents. Sitting at a table without distractions, having a pleasant conversation and eating healthy foods together can make meal time enjoyable, and help kids learn to eat a variety of healthy foods. Be sure there is something at the table you know your kids can eat. If age appropriate, try serving meals family style to give kids control of serving themselves the foods from the table.
3. Cook one meal for the entire family
Kids don’t need special kid foods like chicken fingers or mac-n-cheese. Making separate meals for kids can tell them they aren’t expected to eat the same foods you do. Take your adult meal, and modify it, if necessary, to make it safe for your child to eat, such as cutting up in small pieces, or omitting any choking hazards.
4. Remember kids serving sizes are not the same as for grow ups
Toddler and preschool serving sizes are often measured in tablespoons, and ¼ cups. Some parents think their kids don’t eat enough when in reality they are eating the right amount for their size!
5. Don’t give up
Young children are famous for loving a food one day and hating it the next, or simply refusing to try a food. Continue to offer the non-preferred foods in a neutral way. It can take up to 20 times and beyond for a young child to accept a new food. Try to be patient!
6. Discipline without food
Using food for bribes or rewards is not the answer. Skip things like, “If you eat your broccoli, you get ice cream,” or “If you are good at the store, you’ll get a treat.” Research shows that restriction and pressure in child-feeding behaviors can have negative impacts on kids’ nutrient intake and even weight status.
7. Get your kids in the kitchen
Kids love to help pick things out at the store, plan a meal, and help in the kitchen. These tasks can build confidence and expose kids to new foods. Involving even young children in safe, age appropriate tasks with food can help them feel more comfortable with those foods. Young children can tear lettuce leaves, toss a salad, serve other people at the table, mix things together, all while being exposed to foods and smells.
8. Create a no pressure environment
Making kids eat foods doesn’t work! Even if you get them to eat that bite of kale, they probably aren’t going to like it again if they are forced to eat it. As frustrating as it is, kids need to decide to eat something on their own. Parents should support them by offering lots of healthy foods in a delicious way and modeling healthy eating habits.
Try these strategies instead of pressure:
Deconstructed meals – For example, a soft taco bar – let your child make their own taco, choosing which fillings to put on their soft tortilla. For younger kids use small serving spoons.
Pair it with a favorite – does your kid love ketchup? Ranch dressing? Parmesan cheese? Offer those things to go with a food they aren’t sure about. Pairing unfamiliar with favorites can help them try new foods.
Food bridge – If a picky eater loves a food, try a food with similar appearance, texture, color and/or flavor to see if you can expand his or her food repertoire. For example, if your child loves cooked broccoli, try cooked cauliflower.
Know when to get help: These are general tips. If you are concerned about your individual child’s diet, make sure to discuss it with your pediatrician.
Clark, HR. Goyder, E. Bissell, P. Blank L., Peters, J. “How do Parents’ Child Feeding Behaviours Influence Child Weight? Implications for Obesity Policy.” Journal of Public Health. Volume 29, Issue 2, 1 June 2007, Pages 132–141
Satter, Ellyn. “Avoid Pressure.” Ellyn Satter Institute
https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/childhood-feeding-problems/#avoid-pressure date accessed 20 August 2018
Cooke LJ, Haworth CM, Wardle J. “Genetic and environmental influences on children’s food neophobia.” Am J Clin Nutr. 86. (2007):428-433.
Satter, Ellyn. “Childhood Feeding Problems.” Ellyn Satter Institute https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/childhood-feeding-problems/Date accessed 20 August 2018
Satter, Ellyn. Secrets of Feeding A Healthy Family. Madison, WI. Kelcy Press 2008.
“10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters.” American Academy of Pediatrics
https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/nutrition/Pages/Picky-Eaters.aspx >Date accessed 20 August 2018
You can chat with Happy Mama Mentors at www.happyfamilyorganics.com/support . Our Happy Mama Montor’s are available to chat live Mon-Fri 8a-8p EST and Sat-Sun 8a-4p EST. We are a team of registered dietitians, certified in maternal and infant nutrition from Cornell, lactation specialists and all moms!