15 things you are doing to make your toddler a picky eater
Is your toddler a picky eater? Or just not agreeing to eat vegetables? Did they eat a variety as a baby and just overnight began refusing whole food groups? Could it be a normal toddler picky eating phase?
Here are 15 ways we (unintentionally) create bad habits for our toddlers around mealtimes or without realising let a normal toddler picky eating phase snowball into picky eating for life.
Please note: Many of these tips would actually not be helpful to kids who are severe picky eaters or eat a very small selection of food. When kids are extreme picky eaters it’s most likely from an underlying developmental difficulty. In other words: Not something that parents are or aren’t doing.
1. Not recognising medical, motor or sensory difficulties for toddler picky eating
Underlying issues that cause picky eating in toddlers will not fade away over time. If your toddler has medical, sensory or oral motor reasons that make eating food difficult for them, seek the support of an Occupational Therapist.
You might also want to sign up for my FREE 4 week email course : AN ACTION GUIDE TO PICKY EATING which includes tons of tips and tricks for sensory issues and oral motor difficulties and easy ways to figure out if your toddler really is a picky eater.
2. Getting too hung up on cleanliness while learning to eat
I know, Oh trust me I know, the frustration of a messy eater.
Having to clean the floor, bath your toddler, change clothes, and scrub down the high chair is exhausting.
However, “playing with your food” is actually an important developmental phase for young toddlers which promotes eating foods of different textures.
The good news is it won’t last forever. Around the age of 2 or even earlier toddlers seem to become less interested in full body painting with their food.
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3. Divided plates for toddlers that aren’t picky eaters
I know, those bear shaped plates with the 3 sections are so cute, right?
While I do recommend them for severe picky eaters or toddlers with sensory issues, non-picky eaters really don’t need them.
What happens is that we get used to using them for every meal and then when we go to a new place like a restaurant that serves food on a normal plate our toddler has a meltdown at the fact that the food has now touched. Disaster.
Also with a divided plate everything is divided: pasta with sauce on the side, single cut vegetables instead of salad.
We want to set a foundation for our kids to be able to eat a variety of food, served in a variety of ways in all situations (not only when they have their special plate), so ditch those plates!
The Big BUT:
While compartmentalised plates aren’t good for every meal, I do actually think bento boxes for packed meals are great for all kids. This is because they are so easy to travel with and encourage us as parents to pack a more varied lunch than if we were using a non divided lunch box.
We use and love the BENTO RYTE. After searching for ages I found these. What I like is that they are leak proof, and have 5 decently sized compartments. I know everyone raves about the Bentgo range but I was worried they would be too small. The BENTO RYTE boxes have cutlery and can hold a full sandwich and more (5 compartments).
4. Not sitting at the table
It’s so much easier to just sit on the couch for dinner, especially when you are tired after a long day at work or chasing your toddler around.
However, there is a reason for sitting at the table. The better seated position, stable surface for the plate, attention placed on the food and cup and social aspect all play a big part in encouraging varied eating as well as teaching your toddler to use cutlery.
By sitting down at a table we also eliminate the temptation to watch TV, or use screens during mealtimes.
Many parents find the shift from a high chair to a normal chair seems to ignite a phase of picky eating in their toddlers.
Why is this? Because if you are not seated in a fully supported seat- you tend to leave the table sooner.
Have you ever been seated at a bar stool with no back? Did you sit for an hour slowly enjoying your food? Unlikely. It probably felt like a rushed meal because you weren’t seated comfortably.
- Kids need their feet to be touching a surface and not floating in the air
- They need a firm back with their bum touching the back (not halfway down the seat) in order to sit up straight
- Toddlers should have their mid chest level to the table. If the table is too high, it forces them to lift their shoulders to reach the food, and if it’s too low they will slouch over the table.
For this reason I really like the this chair .
It starts out as a high chair (you can even attach a bouncer to it for babies which a toddler sibling cannot reach) and then it converts to a kid chair with a footrest and adjustable height until age 12. Finally you can take off the footrest and use it as a normal chair (it holds up to 110 kgs).
It’s a great way to invest in healthy eating habits for your toddler and as a bonus will help them focus on homework when they start school.
6. Not enough variety in what we serve can cause picky eating in toddlers
Mothering a toddler or young children is hard! Involving lots of caring for and much cold coffee.
In the thick of taking care of the 5000 minute-to-minute needs of our kids to get into the habit of just cooking those quick, “toddler approved” meals.
If we want our kids to eat a variety, we need to expose them to a variety, even if they don’t necessarily eat it to start out with. It takes around 12-15 exposures (as in tasted) to a new food before kids will start eating it.
7. Serving everything at the same time
What so often happens, at least in my house, in the rush to feed the hangry little people I serve up the heavy stuff first while I quickly chop a salad. By the time I serve out those vegetables the kids are already full.
A helpful trick I learnt from daycare workers is to serve the vegetables first. They are a bit more motivated by hunger and less distracted by the other food.
8. Leaving meal times until too late
Have you ever experienced your toddler being hungry and irritable when dinner is a bit late, but once you serve it up, they seem uninterested?
Sometimes tiredness overcomes hunger so it’s important to as far as possible stick to a scheduled meal time.
9. Filling up on milk and juice
Try saving milk and juice for after meals. That way your kids won’t be filled up by them and it will create an opportunity for them to drink water during the meal and in between.
Drinking enough water is a notorious struggle with toddlers and it plays a big part in good digestion as well as picky eating. Thirsty kids with dry mouths are going to have a harder time eating a variety of foods.
10. Making meals pressurized
According to this study, by trying to force our toddlers to eat we actually put them more off eating. The dynamic between toddler and parent is actually one of the most important predictors of a picky eater.
Toddlers crave independence and autonomy and what they eat is in their control. All the begging, bribing, persuading, punishing we do can’t actually MAKE them eat. It might work a few times but in the long run is detrimental.
I know it’s so hard to be relaxed at mealtimes with a toddler picky eater. And not to fall back to getting frustrated with your toddler or feeling like you must be doing something wrong.
Check out: The number one most overlooked influence on toddler meal times, for some encouragement and practical tips.
11. Too many smoothies
“My toddler won’t agree to eat any vegetables but I’m not worried because I sneak some into his smoothies”.
While this sounds good (I mean the toddler is getting the nutrients right?) It’s not the best plan of attack.
- The taste of the vegetable is disguised behind the sugary fruit and milk so your toddlers taste buds aren’t becoming desensitized to the bitterness of vegetables (check out sensory developments role in picky eating here).
- It’s all blended up so their oral motor and sensory receptors aren’t being exposed to different textures.
- Toddlers need to be exposed to new foods first by sight, smell and touch before they eat them.
If they never see or are offered vegetables, it can become something completely unfamiliar or scary.
The chance that they just wake up one day as an adult and can eat vegetables that they have never tried is pretty low.
Toddlerhood is our training time for healthy eating later on and a time to focus on exposure to new things while they are happy to explore.
Listen, there’s no shame here. 1 in 2 kids in the UK don’t eat vegetables. It’s a struggle we are all facing but it doesn’t have to be.
If you want to know more about introducing new foods in a safe way, check out my free 4 week email course: an action guide to picky eating.
12. Not eating together
By sitting down to eat together as a family, you show your toddler that mealtime is an important family ritual as well as that eating different foods is not scary. This study found that family members and friends eating in front of a toddler or preschooler encourages them to eat too.
It showed that this modeling not only encouraged kids to eat but also to try new foods.
13. Relying solely on day care to fill your toddler with the healthy stuff
I know how hard it is after a full day of work to come home and start to think about nutritious healthy meals for your toddler. It’s so easy to fall back on “Well at least they ate a full meal at daycare”.
Having worked in preschools I have a few issues with this:
- We don’t really know how much of what they ate at daycare. Daycare workers are trying to feed a group of children at the same time. It’s not realistic for them to remember exactly what your kid ate.
- They eat more meals at home than eat at daycare so we need to get them used to home being a place of eating a variety.
- Kids need 12-15 exposures to new foods which means they need variety and new exposures at most meals.
- It’s good “training” for us to get used to making quick, easy but varied meals.
Remember, there is no shame here. Seriously! We all struggle with this!
In week 4 of the free ACTION GUIDE TO PICKY EATING I go over some meal planning and prep ideas that have been game changers for me and my family.
14. Snacking or grazing
Snacks have an amazing ability to keep toddlers self-entertained for a few minutes while we do the cooking. However they backfire because then once the healthy meal (that you just put all that effort and love into making) is served, they are no longer hungry. Frustrating!
I find the best way around this is to keep snacks out of reach and have a set snack time an hour or two before meal time. You can also forgo snacks if you think your toddler has outgrown them.
15. The way we speak about food
The way we speak about food has a huge impact on whether our toddlers will become picky eaters or not.
Your kids are likely to hear things like “eww broccoli is grosse” from friends but try to not let that be the way you speak about food in your own home.
We also don’t want to try to push “good” and “bad” labels on food. This happens often around sugary treats which often actually encourages our kids to eat them because they have become a “forbidden fruit”.
I find it’s helpful to talk about the benefit of a food instead:
- Carrots help you to see in the dark
- Red bell peppers make your heart super strong
- Spinach makes your muscles big
- Blueberries help your body fight off flu bugs
I hope these tips have been helpful to you and I want to encourage you that toddler mealtimes don’t have to be a constant struggle and creating good, peaceful habits around eating we can empower our toddlers not to be picky but rather eat well for life.
P:S: Incase you missed it: I am offering a free 4 week email course AN ACTION GUIDE FOR PICKY EATERS.