It’s Toddler vs. Parent in the Battle Over Picky Eating

Doctor Q&A

If your toddler is like most others, he/she has opinions about almost everything. From what to wear, to what to play, to following rules, these tiny tots, as cute as they are, have mastered how to “just say no.”

Nowhere is that more evident than with the food they eat. 

Toddlers are picky. In fact, I'd say most of them I see go through a phase of picky eating at some point. They are trying to figure out how to exert their independence and saying “no” to eating is one way to do it.

“Help! My kid is starving!”

No, your toddlers won’t starve themselves. Kids will usually eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. After the first year of life, their rate of growth slows, so how much and how often they eat may seem less, giving the perception that they are not eating enough.

At each doctor visit, we monitor your child's rate of growth. Keeping up with your regular checkups in the pediatrician's office should allay most of your fears.

What to consider in the meantime:

  • It is the parents’ job to prepare food and offer healthy food choices, and it’s the toddlers’ job to eat it and decide when they are hungry and full. Don’t overreact when your child won't eat or try a new food. Forcing kids to eat only reinforces picky eating.
  • Be patient. Research shows that kids may need to be offered a new food 10 to 15 times – yes, that’s 10 to 15 times – before they start to incorporate it into their regular diet.
  • Offer new foods earlier in the day, when kids are well rested and more likely to be receptive.
  • Model good eating for your children. Toddlers learn from what they observe you doing.
  • Offer more than just their favorite foods. Serve one thing they like, along with other foods you want them to try. Another strategy is to offer new foods first. They may be more willing to try something at the beginning of a meal when they are hungrier.
  • Be appropriate with portions. A toddler’s stomach is about as big as his/her fist, so keep that in mind. A good estimate of portion size is a tablespoon per year of age, e.g., 2 tablespoons for a 2-year-old, etc.
  • Make mealtime fun. Use a fun plate or make fun shapes with food. Let them try and feed themselves.
  • Keep mealtimes structured and brief. Most toddlers can only handle 10 to 15 minutes at a time of sitting. Minimize distractions and try to eat as a family.
  • Let them help. Toddlers will likely have a more vested interest in eating if they have played a part.
  • Offer desserts sparingly – maybe twice a week. On the other days, choose fruit or another healthy option as dessert. Don't use dessert as a reward. It sends the message that dessert is the “best” food.
  • Dipping foods is fun and serves as encouragement for trying something new. Healthy dips are hummus, peanut butter, guacamole or a healthy ranch dressing. 
  • There is a concept known as the “polite one bite.” Having kids take one bite of a new food and then saying “no thank you” if they don't like it increases the chances they will try it again in the future.  

A word about supplements:

Offering a wide variety of healthy foods should give kids enough of all the vitamins and minerals they need. A daily children’s vitamin is likely okay, but excess vitamins, nutritional drinks and other supplements are usually not necessary unless a true nutritional deficit is found.

As with most issues, speak with your pediatrician about your dietary concerns. The struggle is real, but hang in there - in most cases it is short-lived.  

Suggested reading:

Food Fights by Jennifer Shu, MD

Suggested browsing:

Healthy Children

American Academy of Pediatrics