I had a question from a close friend whose daughter is 2 1/2 years old. She asked me, “How do you get a toddler to stop being picky?” Great question!
I have a few thoughts for you before I give you my recommendations.
- Remember that good food choices start with good planning. Having good food choices on hand means planning for them. Make them part of your menu planning and grocery shopping.
- The toddler isn’t the one buying the Cheetos or M&Ms or the Goldfish crackers or the McDonald’s chicken nuggets or the Kraft macaroni and cheese or the pureed food pouches.
- When offering choices to a toddler, make sure the options offered are appropriate. We have the responsibility to provide appropriate options and NOT provide inappropriate ones.
- When it comes to mealtime, we don’t have to always offer a choice. Sometimes we have just one option, and that’s ok.
My favorite resources for reviewing relationships in feeding is Ellyn Satter at ellynsatterinstitute.org. Another favorite resource in working with picky eaters or problem feeders is Dr. Kay Toomey at sosapproach-conferences.com. Both offer numerous terrific resources for parents and professionals. My recommendations are largely based on their principles.
So, keeping those things in mind, here are my recommendations for helping toddlers and young children to be adventurous eaters.
I recommend the following division of responsibilities in feeding young children. Parents or caregivers:
- Provide a time to eat: 3 meals and 3 snacks, on a schedule that is fairly consistent from day to day.
- Provide an appropriate place to eat. Meals and snacks are always taken in a chair at the table (no grazing). The pets are out of the room, the tv and music are turned off, phones are put away, conversation is pleasant.
- Provide good foods to choose from. Because we planned ahead, we have a variety of foods on hand in different colors and textures: grains, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, legumes, nuts, dairy, etc. When the meal plan allows, appropriate choices may be offered ("would you like apple slices or pears slices with your sandwich?” not "would you like carrots or Cheetos with your sandwich?").
- Between meals and snacks, offer only water.
- Offer appropriate portion sizes.
- And, perhaps most importantly, set a good example.
Your child’s job is to
- decide what to eat and
- how much of what is offered to eat.
If she declines, not a big deal. Snack time is coming up soon, so you'll both have another chance. Don't feel like you have to make a big deal about the meal. Keep mealtimes pleasant and power-struggle free. :) Children want to be like their parents. Being patient with your child’s choices in the context described here may mean that years pass before your child finally accepts green peppers on her pizza. And that’s ok. In the meantime she has come to realize that green peppers are part of a healthy diet.
Sometimes picky eating can turn into disordered eating. We’ll talk about that (and how to tell the difference) in an upcoming post.
Maria AhMu is a registered dietitian with an advanced degree. She’s worked for over 10 years at a children’s hospital in the Kansas City area. Married and mom of 4, she loves spending time with her family. On the side, she has a few passion projects at www.bringdinnerback.com and www.theyellowmailbox.com.