How to Prevent Picky Eating in Toddlers – 10 Expert Tips
Life with a toddler is full of excitement as well as the unexpected. Having a plan to handle those challenging toddler phases can be helpful and preparing how to navigate picky eating is no different. We’ll discuss why picky eating can be common in the toddler years, typical versus atypical picky eating, frequently asked questions, and our top 10 tips to help move through a picky eating phase and survive! Recommended for 12 months to 5 years.
Medically reviewed and co-written by Lauren Braaten, Pediatric Occupational Therapist (OT).
What is Picky Eating
Oh, those glorious days of your baby soaking up anything and everything you put on their plate. One minute you’re convinced you’re one of the lucky parents, with a toddler that skipped the picky eating phase. And the next minute…bam! It’s the exact opposite. Your toddler is refusing to eat, unless it’s orange, crunchy, and fish-shaped. And only if it’s served in the blue bowl, thank you very much.
You’re left wondering, how did my toddler get here? Is picky eating just an inevitable phase? Can you help prevent it from happening? And how can you get unstuck if you’re in this situation? Let’s first discuss what “picky eating” is.
Picky eating (aka selective eating) doesn’t have a standard definition, even though it’s a common behavior in young kids. We generally describe it as eating a limited amount and variety of foods, having strong food preferences, and being unwilling to try new foods. It is usually a problem when it starts to cause stress for parents and negatively impacts family dynamics.
Why does Picky Eating Happen
There are a few common reasons why picky eating can happen. First, most kids go through a phase known as neophobia in regard to food. Neophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or dislike of anything new or unfamiliar.
Neophobia usually happens sometime in the second year of life, although the age range may vary. Many developmental experts believe that neophobia evolved as a survival mechanism to prevent toddlers from eating something poisonous (especially at a time when they are becoming more mobile).
Second, around 18 months to 2 years, there is often a natural decrease in appetite as your child’s growth patterns slow down. Your little one may start to eat less, even of their favorite foods, which is completely normal.
And third, kids around this age are becoming increasingly independent. They quickly learn that the word “no” often gets a big response and helps them assert control over their environment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Many children (although not all) will exhibit some degree of picky eating, typically between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. Research studies have shown that the peak prevalence of picky eating occurs at about age 3 years. However, the timing, duration and severity of “how picky” each child may be is as unique as each individual.
Sometimes picky eating can be related to underlying medical issues, such as gastrointestinal issues, reflux, or food allergies. Or there may be delayed oral motor skills that impact chewing and swallowing or extreme reactions to the sensory input of foods that also need to be addressed. If your child is having difficulty gaining weight, growing properly, and meeting developmental milestones in addition to picky eating, discuss concerns with your pediatrician.
Short answer: usually, yes. However, for some kids, it will be harder to change picky eating. If there are underlying factors such as those mentioned above, it can be challenging and sometimes unpleasant to eat. Unintentionally setting up poor habits and routines can also make it difficult to move past picky eating. This might include increased parental pressure to eat, lack of structure for meals, decreased exposure to new foods, or limited modeling of healthy eating habits.
The main consequence of picky eating appears to be decreased dietary intake, although research is often inconclusive in this area. Some studies have found lower intakes of iron, zinc, and fiber. This may be related to decreased protein, vegetable, and fruit intake in picky eaters. The good news is that overall, research has shown that picky eating is unlikely to cause any permanent harm to a child’s long-term development.
Picky Eaters in Toddlers – What’s Normal and What’s Not
When dealing with toddlers, it can be hard to know what’s considered “typical” picky eating and what’s “atypical”. Again, since there is no formal definition on picky eating, use the information below simply as a guideline. Trust your gut if you feel that your family could benefit from some professional assistance.
It’s also helpful to consider the length and severity of these behaviors – has your child struggled with eating ever since starting solid foods or has this difficulty started within the past few weeks? Can your child calm down within a few minutes of a non-preferred food being on their plate? Or does this cause a 30-minute meltdown and ruin the rest of the meal?
“Typical” picky eating may look like any or several of the following:
- Eats a lot of food at one sitting and then hardly any food at the next 1-2 meals or snacks
- Prefers snacks over regular meals
- Prefers foods that are plain
- Eats less than they used to
- Often refuses to taste new foods
- Often refuses vegetables, mixed dishes (like casseroles), or foods with sauces
- Has preferences about food, such as the color, shape, brand, the way it’s prepared, or the plate it’s served on
- Eats a lot of one food served at a meal, but refuses other foods offered
“Atypical” picky eating may look more like this:
- Extreme unwillingness to taste new foods (even if they have seen parents eat the food frequently)
- Excessive distress and meltdowns over non-preferred foods
- Missing entire food groups in their diet (such as not having any fruits they will eat)
- Difficulty touching a new food to take it off their plate if unwanted (even after several exposures to the new food)
- Limited number of accepted foods
- Significant parental stress about meal planning, cooking, or going out to eat due to your child’s limited diet
10 Tips To Help Move Past Picky Eating
If you do find yourself in a picky eating phase, there are many strategies you can use to help get your toddler back on track. Be gentle with yourself as a parent and start small by choosing one or two strategies to focus on for a couple of weeks until it becomes a habit.
1. Repeat, repeat, repeat….repeated exposures. The actual number will vary, but don’t be too quick to rule out a certain food as something your toddler doesn’t like until offering it 10-15 times. And after that, maybe 10-15 more times. And then maybe a few more times until they’re 18. The point is, your child needs time and repeated exposures to get familiar with a new food.
2. Make small, just-noticeable changes to foods. Toddlers love foods that provide consistency (think goldfish, right?). It’s most likely a way to find a sense of control in a world where they have very little of it. However, making small changes to foods can help them cope with branching out and trying something new. Got a toddler that loves cheese? Serve shredded cheddar for one meal, and then shredded mozzarella the next time. Try baked apples with cinnamon one week, and the next time try baked pears with cinnamon or a different spice.
3. Use meal planning to your advantage. You see this bit of advice often. But it’s a lot easier to fall into the trap of serving an old, preferred stand-by, like chicken nuggets for the third time that week if you’re scrambling to get dinner on the table and you don’t have a meal plan laid out to follow. We’re not saying you can’t have some spontaneity in your meals, but just be mindful if you’re reflexively reaching for something your child will always eat versus making an effort to serve new foods from time to time.
4. Stop the pressure. This one can be tricky, because pressure comes in many forms, whether it’s bribing, coaxing, force-feeding, or even emotional pressure, such as “I worked so hard to make this meal for you. It makes Mommy and Daddy sad when you don’t eat our food.” Although it might work temporarily, pressure with eating can lead to negative associations with food, which doesn’t help in the long run.
5. Watch your language. Consider this scenario – you’ve been offering green beans to your toddler for months and they haven’t tried them. You go to a friend’s house. Your friend asks if your toddler wants green beans with their meal. You say, “Oh, he doesn’t like green beans.” Your toddler overhears you and thinks “That’s right. Mommy says I don’t like green beans, so I won’t eat them.” What might be more helpful? “Sure, we’re still learning about green beans.” or “Yes, he’s just not sure about them yet.”
6. Remember your responsibilities as a parent. Parents and kids have different responsibilities in eating, according to Ellyn Satter, a dietician and family therapist. She advocates that parents are responsible for what, when and where foods are served, while toddlers are responsible for how much and whether food is eaten. Remembering this division of responsibilities helps us trust our kids in the eating process and avoid stress over meals.
7. Get your toddler involved. We know, that cooking with a toddler is not for the faint of heart. However, there are plenty of small tasks that toddlers can be involved with that support becoming familiar with new foods. Toddlers can help peel an orange, mash soft bananas, wash veggies or put away groceries. Shopping, preparing or cooking a new food without any immediate pressure to try it provides another opportunity to get familiar with that food (and you just checked off #1 and #4 on our list!).
8. Eat the same foods you serve your toddler, at the same time. As parents, we often get in the habit of rushing around at mealtime or waiting to eat until the kids go to bed, when we really just need to sit down with our kids and eat with them. Research has shown that both family-style meals and parents modeling healthy eating result in less picky eating in kids.
9. Give choices when possible. Just make sure that you, as the parent, are okay with whatever option ends up being chosen (remember #6?). For example, you might ask your toddler, “Should we have strawberries or watermelon with dinner?” Either way, fruit is going on the table, but this gives your toddler a sense of autonomy in the matter. Keep choices simple and small (i.e. don’t rattle off a list of more than 2 options and ideally no more than a couple of choices for each meal).
10. Trial a little novelty. As much as toddlers love “sameness” and consistency, never underestimate the power of a little novelty. This could look like letting your toddler serve themselves a piece of broccoli with those “dinosaur teeth” (kitchen tongs) or serving “unicorn dip” (strawberry yogurt with a few sprinkles) with a new fruit. A bit of something new or unexpected can take some of the stress off of having a new food present, which makes the whole mealtime experience more positive.
When to Seek Professional Help
Although many little ones will move through a picky eating phase by using some of the strategies above, others may have more difficulty. Some toddlers with picky eating habits may have other medical or developmental issues that need to be addressed as well.
If your toddler is having difficulty gaining weight, growing properly, and meeting developmental milestones in addition to picky eating, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician. They can refer to you to a provider with knowledge in pediatric feeding, such as an occupational therapist, a speech language pathologist or a dietician/nutritionist.