Clinical Editor: Margaret Chapman, MD
As a parent, it’s your job to ensure your child’s well-being. But if you have a picky eater, getting your child to consume all the nutrients necessary for health and development can be a real challenge. The first thing to know: Mealtime struggles can be totally normal, especially for toddlers and preschoolers learning how to become their own people and make choices for themselves.
“Many parents find that their infant who ate everything becomes pickier around one to two years of age, which is common and normal,” says One Medical pediatrician Margaret Chapman, MD. “In addition, a toddler’s rate of growth is slower than during the first year, so they may be eating less.”
As a result of these big changes, toddlers may have days where they eat very little, and other days where they eat a lot. They may also go through periods where they’ll only eat certain foods and refuse “healthier” choices you offer (even if they used to eat them without a fight).
Figuring out how to navigate picky eating and promote a well-balanced diet during these toddler years can be tough. With this in mind, we asked Chapman and registered dietician and Little Spoon contributor, Alexandra Bandier, MS, RD, CDN to share their top tips for fostering healthy eating.
1. Eat together as much as possible
Family routines, in general, offer an important sense of predictability for toddlers and preschoolers, whose worlds are rapidly changing as they learn and grow. Routines around snacks and meals can be especially useful, particularly as opportunities to see older siblings or parents enjoy nutritious foods. “Eating together creates positive associations with food and allows parents to model healthy food choices,” says Chapman. Children also look to their parents as an example, so if you’re modeling healthy eating habits, your child will likely follow suit. “Modeling allows our children to see us eating healthy foods, without pressuring them to do the same,” says Alexandra Bandier. “For example, if you’d like your child to eat cauliflower, I would include more cauliflower in your family meals and just let your child see you eating cauliflower again and again, but without saying anything like, ‘I’m eating cauliflower, why don’t you eat some cauliflower?’ The repetition of modeling is very influential.”
2. Offer some options
If your little one pushes away new food or shouts “no” when you offer something, try not to force them to eat it. “My biggest piece of advice is that pressure backfires,” says Bandier. “Foods that are forced will not become those that your child independently desires or those that your child will eat more than a bite of. It is instead peaceful mealtime environments, where children can explore without pressure, that lead to and create happier and more diverse eaters.” Consider providing a choice — for example, carrots or cucumber, or grapes or strawberries. “Young children love to feel in control of their choices,” says Chapman. “Choosing from two or three healthy options for snacks boosts self-esteem and helps children learn that they can feel good about nutritious choices.” Be careful not to offer too many choices though, as this might overwhelm your little one.
3. Don’t prepare special meals
When your three-year-old’s screaming about the dinner you’re serving, you may be tempted to microwave some chicken nuggets so everyone can enjoy a peaceful meal. While the occasional processed food isn’t likely to stunt your child’s development, going out of your way to prepare special meals for the picky eater sends a message that won’t help your child in the long run. According to Chapman, this attention and special treatment can reinforce selective eating — so instead, offer them what the family is having and let them choose what they want to eat off the plate.
4. Continue offering foods your child doesn’t like
Even if your child seemingly “hates” certain healthy foods, don’t stop offering them. Your child’s taste buds are constantly changing, and repeated exposure can eventually lead to trying — and liking — a new food. “Many well-intentioned parents that I work with will offer their child a vegetable once, and if their child doesn’t eat it, the parents assume it is simply disliked and will not offer it again,” says Bandier. “But it takes many experiences with a specific food, even up to 20 exposures, before a child will or can truly form preferences about it. Despite it not always being realistic in our busy lives, persistence is key.”
One tip to make this whole process easier: It’s common for parents to overestimate how much food their child should eat, which can lead to over-serving. Start out with a tablespoon or two of a food your child doesn’t want to try, which might feel less overwhelming. “As parents, we determine the ‘what’ and ‘when’ of feeding, while our children determine how much to actually eat,” says Bandier. “It’s up to us to offer balanced meals, but then it is up to our children to decide how much or little to take of them.”
5. Try some positive reinforcement
A bit of positive reinforcement can go a long way in encouraging your child’s behavior, including nutritious eating. How you reinforce your child is up to you — you could clap for your child, give them a sticker, or simply say “thank you” — the important thing is to recognize them. “When your child tries a new food they previously rejected, notice it,” suggests Chapman. “Compliment them and ask them how they liked it!”
6. Try not to worry too much
It can feel frustrating when your family prioritizes healthy habits, but your child won’t participate in them. You’re not alone in your struggle, and chances are, they’ll grow out of their pickiness — especially if you stay the course. “Most picky eaters are still getting enough to grow and thrive and they are likely to outgrow their pickiness in time,” says Chapman. If you’re concerned about missing nutrients, try a daily multivitamin to fill any gaps — and don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s pediatrician for questions or support.
Have more questions about your child’s diet? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around your child’s unique health needs. With One Medical, you have a place to turn for your kids’ physical and mental health. Join One Medical today and get $50 off your first year of membership using code CHANGE50. Click here to get started.
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