Is my Toddler a Picky Eater?
Is your toddler a picky eater? What’s normal? What should we actually expect our toddlers to eat? Are all toddlers picky eaters? Should we be ok with our toddlers living on plain pasta? Will my toddler grow out of this picky eating phase?
Is picky eating a normal part of the toddler years?
Well… It depends how you define picky eating. Most families do experience
- That their toddler is suddenly more fussy around foods they may have eaten as a baby
- Toddlers seeming to eat like birds sometimes and dinosaurs at other times
- Kids having pretty limited patience for staying seated at the dinner table
Around age 2 toddlers generally start eating much less because their growth slows down and many people experience their 3 year olds overnight becoming more fussy with food. It’s normal to expect fluctuations in appetite according to growth spurts, illness and common colds and teething.
However, it’s also normal to have the expectation (and hope! Hope is a big one) that our toddlers eat a variety of food from every food group.
On average a “typical” non-picky eater should eat around 30-40 different types of food regularly. Kids’ taste buds are more sensitive than ours so it’s also normal that raw spinach or other bitter vegetables won’t be their favorite food. But that doesn’t mean that all vegetables should be off the menu.
Is my toddler a picky eater?
From my experience the main red flag for picky eating is when mealtimes become stressful for the parent or child. I mean hungry toddlers definitely know how to stress anyone out but what I’m referring to is a worry that
- Your child hasn’t eaten enough or
- Toddler isn’t getting the correct amount of nutrients that their body need
- That you can’t provide the food they will agree to eat
- Or on the other side that the toddler is distressed by the food.
There are definitely levels to this and solutions for picky eating are not one size fits all: it’s critical to know why your toddler is picky about food.
Just to give some perspective when we talk about picky eaters, the spectrum is very wide.For example:
- there are kids that find eating so intolerable that they have to be fed through a feeding tube or vomit after most meals
- on the other hand a child that eats 3 meals a day with a very limited selection of food would also be considered a picky eater.
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Do kids outgrow picky eating?
Before we dive into actually figuring out if your toddler is a picky eater I think it’s important to clear up the misconception that all kids outgrow picky eating
As most of us have experienced, at some point
- children’s taste buds become less sensitive to the bitterness of vegetables,
- kids’ ability to tolerate different textures of food improves and
- they develop an understanding of the importance of good overall well being.
Does that mean we should just give into a very limited menu while our kids are toddlers?
NO! Toddlerhood is our training time for a healthy diet as teens and adults.
- If your toddler is a picky eater because of underlying medical reasons, sensory sensitivities or oral motor difficulties they are very unlikely to outgrow this without the proper support.
- Also if bending normal eating practices and habits becomes the “normal” way a family runs as a result of a picky eating phase during toddlerhood, this often snowballs into that toddler being a picky eater for life.
As an example:
Little Johnny used to eat a big variety as a baby. In fact his mum did the 100 foods before age 1 challenge and was so impressed at how many of those foods Johny seemed to just gobble up. When he was 2 years old his mum noticed that he started to push food away, seemed less interested in eating, and started to favor white or brown foods or sugary snacks like plain pasta, chicken nuggets, crisps, milkshakes and jam sandwiches.
Being concerned about how little Johnny was eating enough his mum started cooking what he liked and stopped offering the vegetables, fruit and proteins that he had been eating before. Naturally Johnny’s parents started eating at a different time because they didn’t like his “kid food” and let Jonny eat in front of the TV while they prepared their food or cleaned the house.
Should we be surprised that Johnny doesn’t grow out of this picky eating phase?
In fact, research has shown that picky eating toddlers remain picky eaters later on! They tested these kids 2 years later and there was virtually no change.
Wait, before you give up hope… This was a study on kids whose parents didn’t take action (like you are doing right now by reading this). These parents didn’t have the tools that you are going to get.
Before we go any further there is something I need you to know!…
Your toddlers picky eating is not your fault
Now before you get that sinking feeling in your stomach that you are doing something wrong or that little Johnny sounds just like your kid…I want to say that this is a no shame space.
We as moms wear many different hats.
The chef hat is just one of them. Before you start looking at the causes for picky eating in toddlers please take off some of your guilt.
We are all just trying to do the best for our kids while balancing the many needs of our toddlers.
And we all (seriously e.v.e.r.y.o.n.e) have seasons when things get a bit looser.
We do the best we can with what we know. I hope after reading this, or taking my free email course that you will know a little more.
Each small step has an impact.
There is hope!
Toddler picky eating is draining! But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
By getting to the bottom of why your toddler is a picky eater and supporting them in the right ways, you can turn this around!
You can make mealtimes with your toddler less stressful and improve their nutrition.
Yes, mama I’m talking health, happy toddler mealtimes.
Figure out if your toddler is a picky eater:
Some questions you might answer about your toddler are:
- Eats less than 20 things?
- Not eating certain food groups: like protein, veg or fruit?
- Eating only specific colors, textures of food?
- Picky about temperatures of food and specific brands ?
- Maybe you feel that you are always chasing after them with a spoon or are physically feeding them when they are physically able to do it themselves (over 2 years old)?
- Will your toddler only eat with the distraction of a tablet, TV?
- Does your toddler gag, cry, or vomit when they’re asked to eat a new or different food? (i.e.: when the food is placed on their plate)
- Does your toddler require food that’s different from what the rest of the family is eating at meals?
If you answered yes to any of these questions your toddler could be a picky eater or going through a picky eating phase.
Why don’t you take a look into my 4 week free email course to unpack WHY your toddler is picky about food and learn some tried and tested Occupational Therapy and feeding therapy techniques to support them.
And remember the hope part of this puzzle is super important.
While you are here, let’s clarify some of the other misconceptions around toddler picky eating.
We figured out that toddlers don’t necessarily grow out of picky eating and that even with normal picky eating phases we should still expect our toddlers to eat a variety of food from different food groups. But what else? Here are some things I hear from mamas:
My toddler eats a variety but nothing healthy
What does healthy mean to you? Let’s remember that a lot of what we think about as healthy is because of our own dieting history or personal hang ups about food.
Does your toddler eat vegetables but only if they come with a side of cheese sauce? Or ketchup? If (with cheese sauce) your toddler is eating 30+ foods from every group of food then I would allow the cheese sauce.
You can slowly start decreasing the amount of sauce or switch it out for a home-made or healthier option (like butter or olive oil instead of cheese sauce) but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be classed as a picky eater.
My toddler eats a variety but in very small portions
There is quite a lot of speculation about the exact amount toddlers need to eat. The reason being that they go through pretty intense growth spurts. One day their shirt fits, a week late it’s a crop top. One day they eat like a bird, the next like a dinosaur.
This is a good general guide for portion amounts. But it is normal to expect this to fluctuate.
When you are feeling that your toddler is eating very little I think it’s good to relook at what they are eating the entire day and how much and on what they are snacking. You may find that they are having some fulling snacks so by the time they get to the dinner table, they aren’t actually hungry.
Research has shown that parents can have unrealistic expectations on how much their toddlers should eat which can turn into a downward spiral of punishment and bribery to eat which results in picky eaters.
If you are genuinely concerned that your toddler isn’t eating enough (although they do eat a variety) try keeping a food log for a week and then taking it to your pediatrician to discuss.
My problem is not what my toddler eats but keeping him seated so he can eat
- Set your expectations realistically : Check how long they sit for now and aim to add a minute extra each day until you get to the point that they are eating a full meal. If your toddler is high energy- keep your expectation to a max of about 15 minutes.
- Engage them during mealtimes: I’m NOT recommending screens at the table, but maybe try tell them a story or sing them a nursery rhyme.
- Have food prepared and served before you ask them to sit in order to maximise on that sitting time. You could also try getting them to help you set and serve beforehand.
- Get the right chair. I can’t emphasise this one enough! It’s critical in getting your kid to stay sitting. You want a chair that gives
- their feet a surface to touch (no dangling in the air) and
- is adjustable so that they (despite all those epic growth spurts) are always having their mid chest meet the table surface (not too high, not too low).
I like the Tripp Trapp by Stokke adjustable chair. It’s gorgeous and also very functional and adaptable.
It starts out as a high chair and then it converts to a kid chair with a footrest and adjustable height until age 12. It is a bit pricey but I think of it as an investment piece because it will save you having to buy toddler table and chairs as well as another size right chair and table when your toddler is school aged.
My toddler eats a superfood (like quinoa) but not much else
It’s great that your toddler eats something that is super packed with all the good stuff. Nurture that and feel comforted that you have something that you feel good serving and they feel happy eating.
However, if they are still a picky eater about everything else, it’s important to start strategizing about improving their eating. Check out the free ACTION GUIDE TO PICKY EATING.
Eating is not only about nutrition.
When kids learn to use cutlery, chew, swallow and adjust to different textures in their mouth, they are developing critical skills and making new brain pathways for movement. These actions help our kids develop oral motor skills used for speech and also fine motor skills to name a few.
My toddler eats over 30 different foods BUT hates some foods (like raw tomatoes)
Let’s take a moment to talk about the raw tomato in the room. Yip kids hating certain foods (like raw tomatoes) is a thing. Not for every kid. Tomatoes are a favorite in some homes.
Why are toddlers so strongly against certain foods? It could be texture, flavour or smell. For one of my toddlers eggs (in any shape or form) were a strong “No” for a year or two.
It’s likely to be a food with a specific quality that’s hard for kids.
- Eggs: Smell
- Raw tomatoes: Mixed textures
- Olives: Strong flavour
This often changes over time. Keep exposing your kid to this food- even if just by you eating it yourself and try not to build too many negative words around that food.
My toddler does eat 30-40 different foods but I’m still stuck on what to cook
Cooking for toddlers is a challenge for everyone. There are naturally things that are too big or complicated for them to eat (like burgers).
And let’s not forget how they love to hold onto your pants while you hurriedly try to get a meal together. It’s a big adjustment in terms of finding the foods that everyone will eat and will be somewhat healthy.
If you haven’t already, try meal planning. It can really eliminate some of the decision fatigue after a long day. One trick that I like is having themed meal day: Meat free monday, asian tuesday, warming (comfort food) wednesday… you get the point.
In the free ACTION GUIDE TO PICKY EATING we dive into some more powerful tricks for toddler meal planning.
My toddler wants to snack ALL DAY
Yes! Especially if they are home all day. Snacking is another one of those challenges that all toddler moms are facing.
The problem with snacking is that
- Snacks are normally something unplanned and quick and easy like crackers, chips, chocolate etc.
- These foods aren’t packed with great nutrients and are often very simple flavors and textures so they aren’t helping our kids develop healthy food likes.
- They are eaten on the go so it’s not helping our toddlers learn to sit at a table or develop their skills of using cutlery
- By the time you actually get to the meal, your toddler is not that hungry.
It’s important to schedule snacks and as far as possible plan for healthier, more texturally complex snacks. Like: dried fruit, easy to serve fruits (like a banana), pre-cut vegetable sticks with hummus.
My toddler can eat variety but they also eat way too much SUGAR
Babies are born with taste buds that favour sweetness. That’s one of the reasons they love their milkies. They are also more sensitive to bitterness. This normally develops to normal/ adult-like tolerance of bitterness by around age 2.
While it’s normal that they will prefer sweetness we have to really intentional about the levels of sugars we allow our kids. Studies have shown that the vast majority of american toddlers eat more than 7 teaspoons of added sugar a day (ie: not naturally occurring in fruits and other foods). Given that the recommendation for adult woman is 6 teaspoons a day, that’s quite scary.
It is a hard one manage because all the kid advertised foods are laced with sugar and most of us (due to really effective marketing) link childhood joy with sugary foods: Ice-cream dripping faces, easter egg hunts, full halloween candy buckets.
Apart from the MANY health reasons to limit sugar intake, it’s also critical to develop our toddlers taste sensitivity so that they will eat a variety of foods and enjoy them. Some ways to do that are:
- Clearing out your homes of sugary foods (from soda to sugary cereals)
- Finding whole food alternatives (like fruit, yams and other sweeter tasting vegetables)
It’s important not to become too fanatic though and watch that we don’t label every sugary food as “bad”, “unhealthy” or even “special treats”. This can lead to all sweets being forbidden fruit.
My toddler does eat vegetables but only if they are blended up in smoothies
First off, well done for being creative and thinking of ways to introduce healthy foods that your toddler wasn’t into eating. You can be comforted knowing that they are getting those nutrients in.
However, smoothies lack the important part of developing our toddlers tolerance for textures and learning how to chew and swallow different foods. This can impact many things like speech development and oral motor strength.
Also because smoothies (even the green ones) have fruits and milk, the bitter flavor of the vegetables is disguised. Meaning our toddlers are also not developing their taste buds.
It’s really important to start brainstorming around how to also include different textures and whole foods served in their natural form.
We have a whole module of textures of food in the free ACTION GUIDE TO PICKY EATING.
I don’t know how much my toddler really eats because they are always having tantrums at meals
Oh Bother! Did you cut the sandwich? Served the food on the wrong color plate? Put the plate down instead of up? Breathed while serving your toddlers dinner?
Yip, we have all been there. Mealtimes can often be very stressful because of emotional meltdowns and tantrums over the most seemingly insignificant things. This is for both picky eaters and kids that eat a wide range of foods.
Obviously we want to avoid this because it’s pretty unpleasant for us but more so because they rarely eat after a tantrum.
Know that it is normal and you are allowed to offer your toddler compassion over their these tantrums (it doesn’t mean you are spoiling them or allowing them to always get out of meal times). Here are some tips to help avoid (when possible) mealtime meltdowns:
- Bring mealtimes forward abit so that they are not over hungry or overtired when they sit down to eat.
- Try and maintain and be mindful of your own sense of calm during the chaos that is witching hour (this is a big one for me).
- Get your toddler involved in helping you cook, set and serve as an easy (and helpful) transition activity into mealtimes.
- Give choices but not too many. While we don’t want to offer a choice on every little thing (“do you want to potatoes on this side of the plate or that side?”) it is helpful to offer some choices. By letting your toddler choose the color plate or cutlery it can help them feel more independent.
My toddler does fit the description of a picky eater, but they are not underweight
Believe it or not, this is actually really common. The reason being that foods that picky eaters often do like (bread, pasta, chips, sugary snacks) are calorie high and they often do eat enough to satisfy their energy requirements.
Does that mean you don’t have to get them eating more? Not exactly.
As I’ve now said several times, eating is not only about energy requirements and nutrition. There are many important skills developed in the act of eating a wide variety of whole foods.
If the toddler years are the training years for healthy eating habits (and they are), we need to offer opportunities for our toddlers to expand their range of foods eaten.
You will find tons of actionable, gentle, ways to do this inside the free four week email course AN ACTION GUIDE TO PICKY EATING.