If you have or know a toddler, the chances are good that he has gone through phases of picky eating. This kind of eating is normal for toddlers as their food needs change and as they develop more independence and stronger preferences.
Picky eating questions seem ubiquitous amongst moms - the ones I know and the many I encounter online in social media groups. Posts range from one extreme to the other. I remember that one mom asked what to do with her toddler who would only eat five foods, including eggs, mac and cheese and bread and butter. Nothing else. How frustrating and difficult that must be! While picky eating is normal to some extent, it can become extreme and unmanageable if it isn’t handled properly. How can we avoid getting to that place with our little ones?
My biggest piece of advice is: do NOT cater to your baby or toddler’s preferences. While it is easy to do (at least in the short-term), avoid it! Keep offering balanced meals of 3-4 items at most, including a protein, starch, vegetable and fruit. For more information about balanced meals and food quantity, check out this Ask Gastromommy post. Do not offer other types of food, especially the ones you know your toddler loves, if he is not eating much (or any) of what you initially offered. In particular, do not offer these items in the middle of the meal when you see that he is not eating what you offered. It is his choice to eat - or not eat - what is served; he gets what he gets. Remember that he will not starve. As I recently learned in my psychology class, humans are motivated to satisfy basic needs like hunger and thirst. If anything, being a little hungry will eventually motivate your toddler to eat what is offered. He will eat it if he is hungry. If he is hungry later, you can offer the same food again; if he is hungry, he will eat it. It is up to him. Mealtimes should not be a battle!
Remember Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. Parents decide what, where and when children eat, and children decide whether and how much. Parents have control over what children eat, which is a very important responsibility! Particularly when children become more picky, it is essential to keep offering a balanced diet, always being mindful to include foods that your child may "not like" that much at that time.
Remember that toddlers have very different eating habits than babies. What you may perceive as "pickiness" could be normal fluctuations in hunger and interest in eating. Check out my post, Toddler Eating Habits, for more detailed information all about this subject.
Theo has been much pickier about food since turning one. Just because he did BLW and his mom is a food blogger, he is no angel – far from it. ;) He has been much more choosy about animal protein and green vegetables in particular. For many months, he wouldn’t touch spinach or chicken and avoided broccoli most of the time. While it has been frustrating and disappointing for me at times, I haven’t changed my feeding plan. I have kept offering a balanced diet of foods that he both likes and doesn’t like. These preferences always seem to be in flux anyway.
Picky eating can be temporary if you do not cater to your child's preferences. More recently, Theo himself is evidence of this. As I mentioned above, he refused foods like spinach, chicken and broccoli for many months. I simply continued offering them regularly – despite him not even touching them for a long period of time – and he recently (in the last few weeks) started eating them again! I count that as a win. :)
These are some strategies we have used - and continue to use - to keep Theo’s diet as balanced as possible.
- Limit fruit or don't offer it until the end of the meal: Theo eats a lot of fruit (probably too much). He loves it! Lately we either do not offer fruit at every meal, especially if he has already had a lot that day, or do not offer it until the end of the meal. That gives him more of a chance – and perhaps greater motivation – to eat the other foods offered on his plate.
- Offer vegetables in their whole form, not just "hidden": For example - although Theo didn’t eat roasted broccoli for months, I continued offering it on his tray. He continued rejecting it for what felt like a very long time… until recently, when he recently started eating it again! While he isn't downing it with gusto, he has eaten some bites here and there.
- Occasionally “hide” vegetables – albeit in great moderation: While I don’t like "hiding" vegetables very much at all, I do sometimes make smoothies with a few handfuls of spinach or kale thrown in. Theo loves smoothies and doesn’t seem to notice (or mind) having some greens included.
- Cook vegetables into dishes: Incorporating vegetables into dishes is a great way to present them in a new and interesting way. Here are some Gastromommy recipes with vegetables: Spaghetti Squash with Ground Beef, Kale and Mushroom Bolognese, Cheesy Spinach Quinoa, Burrito Bowl Vegetables (which I usually serve with ground beef or turkey, beans and rice), Curry Chickpeas with Spinach and Shells and Cheese with Butternut Squash and Spinach.
- Try different preparations and combinations of vegetables: For broccoli, you could roast it with olive oil and Italian seasoning. You could sauté it with mushrooms, sesame seeds and toasted sesame oil. You could sauté it in some butter and sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese on top. Get adventurous with herbs, spices, oils and seasonings and different preparations. You can also just Google it; the possibilities are endless, especially with so many food blogs and food-related websites out there!
- Incorporate flavors that you know your toddler likes with foods he might not love at the moment: If you know he loves butter, for example, try cooking his less-favored foods in butter.
- Offer less-desired foods at your toddler's biggest meal of the day: Many toddlers eat only one “good” meal a day. If your toddler usually eats the most at breakfast, for example, include undesired foods like green vegetables in that meal. If he is really hungry, he is more likely to eat those foods and start to develop a taste for them.
- Offer less-desired foods for snacks: Offer less-desired foods, like roasted broccoli with hummus, for a snack. If he is hungry, he will eventually eat them, and over time, it will become more of a habit.
- Reuse and recycle food between meals and snacks: If your toddler refuses certain foods at lunch, offer them again at his next snack. Continued exposure should result in more willingness and motivation (and hunger) to eat those foods.
Remember that these picky eating phases are (or can be) temporary. If you do not cater to your toddler’s preferences and continue offering balanced meals, he will come around. View it as a short-term annoyance or effort for a long-term investment in your child’s health and well-being, as well as your own sanity! No one wants their child to eat only five foods for the rest of his life, right? That isn’t healthy, pleasant or easy for anyone. Think about the future. What about eating out at restaurants? Taking trips? Eating at others’ houses for parties and celebrations? Having an adventurous, healthy eater can make life so much more enjoyable and stress-free.