Picky Toddler Eaters

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My 26 month old son has become very picky in what he eats. He used to be pretty good about eating whatever we ate for dinner, but now all he really wants is cereal. He loved fruit, but now he won’t eat some of his favorites.

I know toddlers’ tastes can change, however I am at a loss for what to do. He does get fruit/veggie smoothies (packed with protein) every day, and his juice is made from 18 diff types of veggies and fruits, so I believe he is getting the necessary nutrients.

Friends have advised me that if he doesn’t eat what is presented, then don’t offer anything else – kids won’t starve themselves and will eat eventually. But I don’t want him to go hungry, and withholding food just doesn’t seem right. Others have told me that he “knows what he is doing and is being manipulative,” but I don’t think at 26 months old that he is being manipulative. We still put dinner on his plate, but he will just drink his drink then walk away from the table. He won’t stay put. I know he is hungry as I can hear his stomach growl. He will wait or protest – go to the pantry and look for the cereal box. So we end up with a green smoothie so he can get his fruits/veggies in, and of course the cereal. We are at a loss to explain the change in taste. We know we can’t force him, and we don’t want to make eating a bad experience.

What should I do? Do I let him just eat cereal for meals? Do I keep trying to give him what is given for meals? We are concerned that his eating habits might affect his twin sister – monkey see, monkey do. So far she does eat what is presented, but she on some nights she will refuse and then both are eating cereal.

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Seonaid: Oh, the dreaded food jag. Cereal . . . what is it about cereal? We’ve had almost this exact problem at our house! For months, there was a sign above our table that dinner couldn’t be a bowl of cereal, so we could point at it and say, “Sorry. Choose something else.”

Experts assure me that there is nothing to be worried about, that kids will eventually start eating a wide range of foods . . . but I know adults and teens that still limit themselves to such a small variety that they are difficult to feed and unwelcome house guests. Other experts tell me that my children will eat eventually, that they will not starve themselves, and that if I don’t provide the jagged food, they will bring themselves to try something else. But I have more than one stubborn eater, and they have been known to nibble just the bare minimum to keep themselves from feeling actively hungry. Actually, again, I know adults who did that through their teen years. Still more experts say not to make alternative meals, but to make sure that at least one thing on the table is available that each member of the family likes. And that if my children eat nothing but bread and butter for several days in a row, they will get bored and try something else. But having tried that, I am convinced that my oldest will quite happily eat bread and butter for months at a time.

Sigh.

I know. Not much help, am I?

The problem is, it’s never just about food. We don’t just need our kids to eat enough. We are expected to get them to eat enough of the right things, with the right nutritional breakdown, at the right times of day, and to teach them to say, “Thank you” for squash and Brussels sprouts when they know there’s a pie in the next room. Just in case anyone hits you with, “In my day . . .” stories, let me tell you that my mother has stories about being scolded for saying, “yuck,” in 1946. My mother-in-law tells me that my husband (who now eats things that smell so bad I banish him from the room) once ate nothing but bacon for six weeks. This is not a new problem, and it is not because of something that we did.

I’ve tried just about everything the experts recommend except letting them go hungry. I just can’t do that one . . . too much like CIO. Here’s the only thing that’s worked to break a food jag: I “forget” to buy that food for a couple of weeks, but make sure that the pantry is liberally stocked with earlier favourites. We leave some easy-to-eat snack foods down at child level in the fridge and pantry (raw peppers, little yogurts, cut up cheese, whole wheat saltines, for example) so that the child has the freedom to explore new food options. I can’t promise that there won’t be meltdowns, but even at 26 months, he’s starting to be old enough to recognize that something really isn’t there. And he can’t grab the car keys and head out to get it. It worked for us, BUT (and this is a big but) I had to give on the mealtime issue to increase the range of foods. For some reason, my kids will eat a much wider range of healthy snack foods than mealtime foods. It is not unusual for “dinner” to be a bowl of rice, or one kind of raw veggie, or a piece of cheese. We try to get everybody to the table, but we don’t really have the clear guidelines around dinner that I would prefer. But really, that’s not about food. That’s about social behaviour, and I’ll worry about that another time.

Good luck!

Chris: First of all, congrats on being conscious about nutrition. So many parents just feed whatever’s easiest!

What if your partner, parent, or visiting friend did not prefer what you had prepared for dinner, that they’d simply prefer a bowl of cereal? Would you respect their choice? Why are we taught that it is not ok to respect a child’s choice? Just because they’re younger? Because the parent is “in charge”? You’re working to ensure his nutritional needs are met. Perhaps, on top of that, you could work on providing other things that he will eat, based on your recent experiences.

Can you dialog with your twins about the importance of eating food other than cereal? This isn’t intended as medical advice, but the nutritional value of cereal, despite its claims, is actually quite low. Tell your children that you are concerned about their good health and you’d really like them to eat more food than just cereal. Work with the children to see what they might like, keeping in mind that everyone in the house is equal.

Lastly, a word about manipulation. I do not think, generally, that any child sets out to manipulate their parents or caregivers. What reason might he have to do that? Do you feel that he is doing that? Trust your instincts. I think that’s what you’re trying to do – just do it! You’re doing a great job.

Jennifer: As the mother of a 22 month old daughter who has always had an extremely small appetite along with a host of physical eating challenges (i.e. strong gag reflex, texture issues, delayed ability to properly chew and swallow), I have struggled with strategies to get her to eat a variety of foods that keep her nourished, healthy and full of the energy she needs to simply be a toddler. I have done a lot of research, talked to my friends, read books, and quite frankly have not come up with a “fix-it” solution (although I have seen improvement in eating habits here and there). Having said that, I will share with you what I have learned and perhaps you can benefit from one or more of my suggestions.

First – let me share what I have found in my research about what is “normal” for your child’s age range when it comes to eating. (Adapted from the books Your One Year Old AND Your Two Year Old both by Louise Bates Ames).

  • 18 – 24 months: appetite may begin to decrease during this time (due to slowing in growth) and the child typically will not eat three meals a day. 18 month olds typically do not have strong preferences yet but these begin to increase as the child nears 21 months and reach a high at 24 months. The child will be more interested in learning how to feed him/herself during this stage. More food will end up on the floor and table than in the mouth. This is the height of messy eating and playing with food. This is the time when children develop a taste for sweets so it is best to avoid them. Small snacks offered throughout the day will provide the necessary calories your child needs.
  • 24 months – 30 months: preferences are high, may be related to taste, form, consistency, color. Think small helpings, teaspoon sized! Ritual demand of eating the same things reaches its height at 2 ½. Food jags and refusals are prevalent. It is important not to force type or quantity of food. Toddlers this age will typically eat one “good” meal and day and pick at or ignore the other meals. Offer snacks at regular times of the day and only give your toddler 15 minutes to eat the snack. Please keep in mind that if you are practicing extended breastfeeding, your toddler’s appetite will fluctuate based on how often he/she is partaking in mama’s milk!

One thing I really try to keep in mind is that it is more important to have a balanced week of eating as opposed to a balanced day. Here are a few suggestions as to what you can do to jump start picky eating:

  1. Create a “nibble tray.” I use an ice cube tray (you can also use a muffin tin or any compartmentalized container) and fill each compartment with something different. For example, I add an apple slice, avocado slice, little chunks of cheese, shredded carrots, kale chips or seaweed chips, slices of hardboiled egg, etc.
  2. Create kid friendly works of art with the food! I will arrange dinner so it looks like a smiley face. Or I can practically add anything into a tortilla, roll it up and slice it to look like little pieces of sushi.
  3. Be sure that you are offering three or four small portions of different items at each meal. I have found personally (and from researching and talking to others) that a tablespoon portion is all you should offer. If your child eats it, add more. Large portions are overwhelming!
  4. Make healthy, nutritionally balanced smoothies as much as possible. Sometimes toddlers will drink their fruits and veggies as opposed to eating them.

Read more about each of these suggestions, five more ideas, plus lots of tips to help make mealtime fun in “Tackling Toddler Eating Habits.” You can also check out a post on Code Name: Mama called “Gentle Parenting Ideas: Toddlers and Meals” for other ideas.

YOU are the mama and YOU know in your gut if your child’s eating is a true health issue or just a developmental stage. If it is teething related then it should work itself out in time. I would suggest that mothers keep a food log if they are truly concerned with their child’s eating habits or there is an issue with poor weight gain/failure to thrive. This way, you can discuss your child’s eating habits with the doctor if the need arises. A food log might also show you that your child is eating more than you think.

Please remember that these suggestions are from my research and personal experience. I am not a qualified health care provider and you should address your concerns with your child’s doctor if you feel the need. Good luck!

Photo Credit: Egilshay

5 Responses to Picky Toddler Eaters

  1. Emily B  

    So this is great, but what do you do when they’re younger (14 months) and won’t even TRY foods/drinks they’re not familiar with? If not for the bready foods my child would subsist entirely on milk and water. Not even juice. Not even diluted juice. He’s so weird. ;-)

  2. Alicia C.  

    We started having eating problems with our little guy who is going on 29 months old. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t the food I was giving him that he didn’t like, it was not having a choice. Now, I’ll give him two choices. He gets the one he picks. He feels empowered and I can make sure he’s getting something healthy.

    ***I tried giving him an array of choices, but it backfired on me – he couldn’t make up his mind!

  3. Juliette Aiyana, Herbalist, Nutrition Author

    Our toddler son does this every so often, preferring only one or two foods and shunning all other formerly beloved foods. This is complicated by the fact that he has a mild sensory disorder and when he hit about the 24-26 month mark, he started shunning even more foods. We hired a speech therapist who specializes in a feeding therapy called SOS, which does not force feed kids, the theory is that with kids with sensory disorders it is not that they don’t want to eat, it is that they can’t. The therapist told us that our son had reached an age where he became very aware of textures that took too much work to chew and or swallow (etc). and that the goal would be to help train his mouth how to eat, and open him to a wider variety of foods (textures, tastes etc). He has been doing sooo well!

  4. Heather k

    Thank you for writing this! My 28 month old has suddenly become extremely finicky and I’ve been trying not to panic. Thanks for some great best practices and reassurance. Bring on the whole wheat tortillas, grapes, and avocados!!! :)

  5. rachel

    You are all so misguided! Children who don’t eat what you’d like won’t starve and will grow to be just fine if you just butt out and let them eat what they want when they want it! Shame on all of you forcing food on children and letting them go hungry just so you can have your way with them!

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