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Inside: What to feed a picky toddler can be a stressful decision. This guide will help you feed your picky toddler better and take a load off your mind.
“My picky daughter won’t eat anything,” she explained tearfully, “I feel like I’ve failed her. I don’t know what to feed my picky toddler!” When we have a picky eater, we worry hard. Are they getting what they need to thrive? Should I let them eat all day? How can I get them to eat nourishing foods?
Let’s first talk about whether your child is actually “picky.” Then we’ll talk about what to specifically feed your child to make sure they are getting what they need.
How to Tell if you Have a Picky Toddler
Most toddlers start to display eating preferences between the ages of 1 and 2. This age varies, of course. Your child may have started to display “picky eating” at 6 months. Someone else’s child may have started to become picky at 5 years old.
Here are some of the things you might notice:
- A sharp decrease in the amount of food they eat
- Only want to eat one food all day long – or for weeks on end
- Start refusing foods that they used to like
- They may eat “nothing” today and “as much as you” tomorrow
Turns out, all of these things are typical of toddlers! Nothing is necessarily wrong, if your child is doing any of these things.
But that doesn’t mean you can stop reading. What parents do in response to these typical toddler behaviors can push your toddler to become more or less picky.
Where Parents Go Wrong with What to Feed Their Picky Toddlers
Most toddlers are pretty good at listening to when they are hungry or full. When babies are growing in their first year of life, they triple in size! This means they need to take in a lot of energy from food. After they turn one, they stop growing so much and they don’t need as much energy.
At this point, parents freak out. They think “I will give you ANYTHING that you will actually eat!” They start relying heavily on chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and other “kid food.” They wonder, “What can I feed my picky toddler?”
The thing is, their child never had a problem, they just weren’t hungry.
You may not have a picky eater. You may actually have a child who is just not hungry right now.
This is important because if you don’t have a picky eater, the most important thing that you can do is to keep serving normal family food to your child.
If you aren’t sure whether your child is a picky eater or not, you may benefit from my latest free child feeding guide From Stress to Success: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Eat Better Without Losing Your Mind, which walks you through how to tell if your child is very picky or not.
The Most Important Thing NOT to Feed Your Picky Toddler
Toddlers are a special sort of person. Toddlers have big opinions, especially starting around 18 months to 2 years old, right? They want their orange served in a certain way. Want a specific brand of yogurt, and they want THAT spoon, not the other one.
They will absolutely certainly without-a-doubt start to make food demands. And you, a nurturing parent who wants them to thrive, will likely want to help them eat happily. This is especially true if you are concerned about their growth or nutrition.
So, this may come as a surprise when I say, “Don’t feed your picky toddler what they ask for.”
Picky toddlers or typically eating toddlers absolutely don’t know what they need to thrive. They may also not know what they really want. Have you ever made your toddler a special meal, just to have them completely refuse it? See, giving in to toddler demands absolutely does not lead to them eating more or eating better.
You, fearless parent, are the person who gets to decide what foods are served for meals and snacks. I highly recommend a feeding schedule or routine as well.
Can I ever give them a choice?
Sure. Just because you are in charge of what food is served, doesn’t mean that they can never express a preference. You can give them a controlled choice. Meaning, you can give them 2 options to choose from, “Would you like strawberries or blueberries?” “Would you like peas or carrots?”
Let’s talk more about what you can actually feed your picky toddler.
Related: But What About Food Waste?
What to Feed a Picky Toddler
Now that you know what not to feed your picky toddler, let’s talk about what you need to feed your picky toddler.
Family meals are one of the most important things that you can do with your child. These types of meals give so many gifts:
- Parent(s) modeling eating different foods
- Child seeing many different foods
- Parent and child connecting
- Social skills
- Language skills
- Exposures to many different types of foods
- A place to focus on eating
Make sure to serve your picky toddler balanced meals that have 3-4 components. Snacks can have 2-3 components. Each meal should have a fruit and/or vegetable, good source of fat, protein, and a carbohydrate source. Here’s more about each of these types of foods:
Vegetables & Fruit
Fruits and veggies have lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber in them. They help kids get enough Vitamin C and a host of other beneficial nutrients.
I have an extensive list of veggies and fruits in my Veggie Exposure Shopping List if you’re looking for some new produce to try with your picky eater.
Toddlers need plenty of fat for their brain development. Here are some foods that are a rich source of fat to feed picky toddlers:
Full fat organic dairy (grass-fed if possible)
Nuts and seeds (ground up if child is under 4)
Nut and seed butter
Protein also helps the kids stay full for the next 2-3 hours. It is also really important for growth and development. Here are some good protein sources:
Nuts and seeds (ground up if child is under 4)
Nut and seed butter
Full fat organic cheese and yogurt (grass-fed if possible)
Meat, poultry, fish
Kids need a lot of carbohydrates to power their activity, so providing plenty of nutrient-dense energy is important for them.
Whole grains and starchy vegetables are a great source of nutrient-dense carbohydrates to feed picky toddlers. Many things with fat and protein also have carbohydrates though. Yogurt, milk, and fruit have carbohydrates. Plus refined grains do too.
Example of a Simple Balanced Meal
One balanced meal is to serve pasta with olive oil, sauce with ground meat in it, and steamed broccoli. This is a simple and balanced meal.
I recommend serving meals to toddlers, especially picky toddlers, “deconstructed.” This means you would serve pasta, sauce, broccoli, and maybe even meat separately.
Your toddler can choose what foods to eat from the ones that are available. If they only choose to eat pasta, that’s okay.
Now, if you know your child does not like any of the parts of the meal, then add something on to this meal that you know they are comfortable with. Maybe that’s whole grain bread or oranges or bananas. It doesn’t matter if it “matches” the meal, it just needs to be available to the whole family for that meal. This is covered in more depth in the child feeding guide From Stress to Success: 4 Ways to Feed Your Child Better Without Losing Your Mind.
A Few More Things To Do When Feeding Your Picky Toddler
There are a few other things to consider when you are serving your toddler food. You can’t just expect them to magically start eating a lot of foods they usually refuse. These things take time.
Serve a Variety of Foods Often
Your toddler may need to try a food 10 or 30 or 1000 times, before they decide to add it into their diet. It could take years. This means that you need to serve foods and meals regularly, so that they learn to like a variety of foods.
Serve Easy-to-Chew Foods
Toddlers often can’t easily chew foods, which makes them unlikely to eat them. I recommend steaming or lightly boiling veggies until they are easy to chew. You can also steam roast in the oven, by covering the veggies while roasting in the oven with a lid or with foil.
For one-year-olds who are still transitioning to table foods, you can use a baby food grinder to easily grind up foods at the table.
Meat is also very tough to chew. Ground meat and meatballs or patties can be easier to chew. Finally slow cooking meat in the slow cooker or oven (covered) can make meat much easier for toddlers to chew.
Feeding Picky Toddlers is a Long Game
Wherever you are with feeding your child, know that teaching kids to eat well is a long-term process. You can slowly teach them to eat a wider variety of foods over time through family meals, exposures, and not forcing them to eat foods that they don’t want to eat.
Allowing them to choose whether or not they eat all of the foods on their plate is a great way to honor their independence. While they may not be allowed to choose all of the foods served at every meal and snack, they are allowed to choose whether to eat it and how much.
I don’t recommend forcing a certain number of bites or forcing them to finish everything else before they get more of something. They can learn to eat and overcome their pickiness without any pressure!