Do you have a picky eater in your house? It can be so incredibly frustrating to make a delicious meal from scratch and have your fussy toddler eater exclaim, "I don't like it!" Even worse when it's a meal they haven't ever tried. It's possible to help your picky eater child overcome their food aversions, promote healthy nutrition, and also give yourself a break from the stress and worry of wondering if they're getting enough.
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We love food in my house. We love to eat it, and we love to talk about it, we love to think about what foods we're going to try and what restaurant we want to explore next. So, naturally, when we became parents, it became a priority in our parenting "style" that we somehow figured out how to raise children who are not picky eaters.
I have a two and a four-year-old, and while they certainly have food preferences, they will try more than I thought they would, and often surprise us by the things they enjoy. They love all the usual toddler foods (mac n cheese, noodles and butter, pizza, chicken nuggets, PB & J and grilled cheese) but they also love asparagus, broccoli, pickles and olives, bbq ribs, chicken drum sticks, corn on the cob, and have experimented with things like sushi, Indian curries, salads, and gourmet sausage and cheese.
I know. A lot of you are reading this thinking, uh huh, you’re funny, Beth. But, you haven’t met MY toddler. He seriously won’t even TRY something that isn’t a carb or covered in cheese.
I get it. Kids are the WORST sometimes. But the truth is there are a bazillion reasons that they won't try things...and once you can understand what's going on, you may be able to open a taste experience for your picky eater that you never even thought was possible.
But here’s the thing, friend. I am not a child psychologist. And there may be real issues at the root of some of your picky eater’s preferences.
If you feel that my tips below just aren't working, or if you think your issues are more significant than just a toddler who picks at her food but sometimes will try things, then it's extremely important that you consult with a pediatrician, nutritionist, or qualified child psychologist to rule out any other underlying food allergies or behavioral issues.
Picky Eating Can Be a Complex Issue
Children go through phases in mental, emotional, and physical development. They also go through phases in the development of their taste buds.
In fact, we all do.
Did you know that every two weeks your taste buds completely replace themselves?
Keep this in mind as you experience the toddler who suddenly hates broccoli when two weeks ago they were eating it by the fist full.
We are born with about 10,000 taste buds, and as we grow, and do things like burn our mouth on hot tea, or eat really spicy food, our tastes can change and adapt. As we age, we start to lose some of these taste bud cells all together making some foods that we never thought we'd like, (think stinky cheeses or really dark chocolate) suddenly enjoyable.
When we have a fully functioning brand new set of taste buds (like when we’re babies/toddlers) intense flavors like garlic, blue cheese, olives and even some rich sweets (mmm dark chocolate) can be too overwhelming.
What's more is that how we experience taste can be very different depending on our genetics. According to this study in Elsevier, genetics can influence our sweet tooth, as well as help us determine if something is bitter or sour or pungent.
My oldest doesn't love sweets unless it's ice cream (just like his dad). My youngest has yet to meet a sweet treat he DOESN'T like. Although they have mostly the same genetics, they have very different taste preferences.
What I'm trying to say here is that some of the picky eating in your household may be entirely out of your control and maybe a genetic disposition toward a specific type of food, OR a valid preference.
Which is a big reason why it’s so important to continuously introduce both new and familiar flavors and foods time and again… giving your toddler a chance to try new things as their taste buds adapt and change. (More on that in a bit.)
Picky Eating Is Normal and Age Appropriate
Most toddlers will go through many phases in their exploration and understanding of food preferences. All foods are new and different to them, and in some cases, even the ones that they tried and liked a few weeks ago.
If you've always had a pretty good eater, don't write off your toddler's new desire to only eat white starches (pasta, bread, chips, etc) too quickly. Their taste buds, their emotional development, the loss or gain of teeth, and 15,000 other things can turn the best eater into the "worst."
Try to be patient at first before you throw in the towel and decide that your child will never ever ever eat Brussel sprouts. There's a good chance that they will come out of it pretty quickly, especially if you continue to offer a well-rounded variety of other foods.
Calm The Eff Down About What Your Toddler Isn’t Eating
It’s tough love time, momma.
I know you’re worried that your child isn’t getting enough nutrition.
I know you’re concerned that they’re not even eating enough.
There's a lot to worry about as a parent, but unless your child has a severe nutritional deficiency or weight gain issue that is diagnosed by a professional pediatrician, the odds are pretty solid that your picky toddler is getting precisely what she needs.
Children have a remarkable ability to control the amount of food they eat for the amount of energy they exert, as well as for adjusting to mental, emotional, and physical growth spurts.
Children also have a remarkable ability to sense when their parents want them to do something (and excel at rebelling against that feeling through any means possible).
Which is why as parents, we need to calm the fuck down about what our children are and are not eating.
According to Ellyn Satter, a nutritionist and childhood eating specialist, “Avoid pressure, be considerate without catering with meal-planning, and don’t hold your breath!
The goal for your child is to be relaxed and comfortable at mealtime and around food in general. If you achieve that, sooner or later (it could be months or even years later) she will eat almost everything that you eat.”
You Don’t Have to Eat It
We have one firm rule about food at our table that we repeat so often that Jack (4) now sometimes even repeats it to his brother Sam (2.5) when Sammy has decided that something looks yucky.
“You don’t have to eat it, Sam!”
Ellyn Satter’s book, “Child of Mine: Feeding with Care and Good Sense," Is also a game-changing book for the parent of the picky toddler.
In the book, Satter, discusses the concept of the "division of responsibility" when it comes to meal times:
Parents are in charge of deciding some of the most important details such as when to eat, what is being served, and where the meal takes place.
The child gets to decide how much and whether or not they want to eat.
The following tips work in tandem with this division of labor:
There is always something on the plate that you know your child will like/eat (pasta, fruit, etc.). So pairing new foods with familiar ones go hand in hand.
There is no “pressure” to “just taste” anything or insist on a specific number of bites.
There is no reward of a dessert for how much a child is willing to eat.
That last one always throws me for a loop because all my instincts as a lifetime dieter tell me that you only get dessert when you eat all your vegetables. So allowing my picky two-year-old who loves sweets to only have chocolate pudding for dinner was definitely uncomfortable.
But, within a week or so, he adapted to the freedom of eating what he wanted and now, during most meals, he at least ATTEMPTS to try something on his plate without any nudging, cajoling, or begging. Often eating the items he likes and knows. Thankfully when a dessert is offered, it has stopped becoming the ONLY thing he eats. And he no longer “begs” for the dessert during the entire meal.
Satter also encourages family meals where everyone sees what everyone else is eating and how that’s all going down. Like, literally.
As parents, my husband and I have some different methods for encouraging our kids to try new things for the first time (or tenth time) which you can read about here. However, there is a lot to be said for not forcing the issue at all, and we've certainly done a combination of both mostly based on the personalities of our boys.
“You don’t have to eat it.”
The food, no matter how “yucky” does have to stay on their plates.
I love this because as a frequent student of marketing tactics I’ve learned that the more a product is presented to a consumer, and how beautiful that presentation is, the more likely they are to try it. Same goes for those French green beans. They may not try it the first ten times you serve, it but keep presenting it and they will….eventually….eat the fuck out of some beans!
This was the case with oatmeal in our house. Sam has been presented oatmeal at least 20 times since he was a baby and only last week, for the first time ever (at 2.5), did he take more than a tentative taste. He ate about five scoop fulls. And repeated, joyfully, "I like it, mommy!"
Yes. It's annoying AF to keep making things that your kid is maybe or maybe not going to eat. If you keep making things that you like, though, then you can eat it if they don't try it. Or save it for lunch tomorrow because you're a frugal momma
Don’t worry if they don’t eat it. Don’t worry if they just push it around. Don’t worry if it takes 20 times to put it on their plate before they get the courage to push it around with a fork.
When we continue to reintroduce foods over time, we encourage our children to be more open to it. And when we release the pressure of forcing them to try it...they are more inclined actually to try it.
Hungry Children Will Eat When They Are Hungry
I write a lot about the concept of the intuitive eater when it comes to food and my toddlers, (and myself). And in several posts on this blog, I've mentioned the book, “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works.” In the book, the authors discuss that as adults many of us have moved away from our own natural hunger cues due to a lifetime of yo yo diets and replaced our natural internal hunger cues with self-talk and diet theory.
Over time and as a result, we become more overweight and out of touch with our body’s natural hunger cues than if we never started a diet at all in the first place.
It’s hard for me to let go of the ideas I have around food for myself when it comes to my kids.
But I consistently choose to because I don't want them to end up like me, yo-yo dieting for most of my life and struggling with a healthy relationship around food. And I get the gift of seeing this real life example of my boys listening and respecting their own natural hunger cues.
I am getting better at it...although I have about 25 plus years of unpacking to do with the negative talk (yes I’ve been on a “diet” since I was like 15 - fucked up right??)
The truth is a hungry child will eat when they’re hungry. Period. The end.
If they’re not hungry, they’re not going to want to eat.
If you let them snack all day. They’re not going to want to eat, because they’re not hungry.
Stop making more work for yourself.
Serve something that your children love with something that is new and an “experiment.” In our house that usually means starches: Bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, etc.
Don't make an entirely separate meal just because you're worried your kid won't eat anything.
If you're anxious that your child didn't eat enough, and that they may wake up hungry, wrap up the plate, put it in the fridge and wait until morning.
If they complain at any point during the night about being hungry, offer the delicious, nutritious, beautiful dinner you made as the only available snack to eat. If they're starving, they will eat it.
If they're pulling a power play, they will likely refuse, and wait till breakfast to eat something else.
Model Your Preferred Version of Eating
While much of your child's preferences for food are somewhat genetic, there is a lot that can be learned, including some preconceived views on food.
If you hate tomatoes, and pick them off your plate, or always ask your server to remove them, the odds are pretty solid you're going to raise a child who also "hates" tomatoes.
I’m not saying that you should deny your food preferences or hide your hatred for tomatoes. I’m saying be aware of how you are modeling eating.
Parents who regularly serve and eat a variety of different foods tend to raise children who eat and try a variety of different foods.
Also, it can take more than two dozen times of introducing a food to any person (toddler or adult) to really decide if you like a food.
I actually put this to the test for myself. I hate beets. I always have. But when it was time to introduce beets to Jack as a baby, I decided that I couldn’t be the kind of mom who is introducing beets to her child, without trying them out for myself.
So every time Jack had pureed beets, I’d have some (not the purred kind, regular beets ya’ll). I tried them grilled, boiled, steamed, diced, served with sour cream (my Danish husband’s recommendation).
I wish that I could say that I eventually developed a taste for beets, but even though I tried them at least a dozen times (and still will try them on a salad here and there), and I've had no such luck.
I think that maybe in a few years, beets may start to be appealing. But I'm not holding my breath.
In the meantime, I experienced and modeled to my baby that I too am willing to try new foods and even foods that I thought I didn't like. (Now that I write this, I feel like maybe I should try it again with beets.)
Eat Family Style
I get it. We're busy AF, and sometimes just sitting down as a family can be impossible. With conflicting work schedules, or nap schedules, or school schedules, sitting down as a family could feel like the most challenging thing you can do as a parent.
But there’s a reason this is on my list. And having a regularly scheduled dinner time every single night is essential for the development of your child.
The studies about family style eating are many, and support the idea that the family that eats together have so many benefits beyond just being healthier in general including a general sense of happiness, of making good food choices, less of an incident of obesity in children, and even better grades!
If dinner isn't an option, try to have one meal a day together if you can. If mom works the night shift, try to make breakfast a family tradition (even if it means waking up the kids ten minutes earlier...just make sure they go to bed ten minutes earlier too if possible).
Turn Off All Distractions
Turn off the TV. Make a no-electronics-at-the-table rule (that goes for the fancy new PJ Mask watch they got for their birthday too!).
When you eat together, it's essential that you are present for your kids, and also for your meal. For some kids, this may be the only time that they see their parents all day long, and can have a face to face conversation.
When we introduce things like TV and iPads, it removes that gift of connection.
Variety is the Spice of Life
If it were up to my husband, we would have the same ten things to eat in heavy rotation every few weeks.
He's a fantastic cook and seriously makes the most incredible BBQ pork ribs I've ever tasted in my life. But he's also a creature of comfort. And when we get busy, the idea of looking up recipes or trying new things can be overwhelming.
Which is partly why I came up with my meal planner template which has streamlined the way we plan our meals, grocery shop, and everything else in between.
It takes me about five - ten minutes to sort, organize, decide, and plan the meals we're going to eat for the week. Sometimes I spend an extra ten to plan out the entire month. It's a game-changing system, and it's introduced so many more awesome recipes, foods, spices, and taste sensations into our lives.
If you want to read more about my meal planner template you can do so here:
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