You work hard to make sure your toddler eats well, but your picky eater refuses to munch on anything but cheese, crackers, and bananas–which makes you go bananas each and every meal time.
Mom, you’re not alone. Most kids go through this phase, but there are things you can do to shorten it and help your toddler try–and love–new foods.
We spoke with Sarah Gallo, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist based in Southern California. She’s completed 60 hours of education focusing on pediatric feeding challenges and has a passion for helping parents of extremely choosy children.
“I also speak from experience, as I was one of the pickiest eaters on the planet,” Sarah joked. “It is part of the reason why I do what I do; I truly believe it’s my karma to give my families some of the tools that might have saved my parents’ sanity around mealtime throughout my childhood!”
Keep reading to learn about some common feeding challenges for toddlers and what you can do to help your picky eater.
The Picky Problem
Sarah said the most common complaint she hears from parents is that their child will only eat a select type of food(s).
“Parents fear their kids won’t eat anything, so they only serve those select foods despite what the rest of the family is eating,” she said. “This is a toddler’s way of exhibiting control.”
She notes that the world can be intimidating for toddlers, so they often want to eat foods that are familiar–not surprising– to them.
“Why are they always eating the same bread, crackers, and pasta when given the choice? Because these foods are familiar, and there are no surprises with taste and texture, not to mention they’re delicious,” Sarah said.
But have no fear, Sarah said.
“There are little things you can do to help your child manage their expectations and with maturity, they will begin trying new things again.”
Tip #1: Stick to a Routine
Sarah said that small changes can go a long way towards helping your child try new foods.
First, she suggests sticking to a routine and limiting milk and snacks.
“Serve meals within relatively the same time frame and decrease their milk and snack consumption outside your meal schedule,” she said.
This will help ensure your toddler is hungry at mealtime and more likely to try what’s on their plate.
Tip #2: Decrease Distractions
It’s hard for toddlers to listen to their bodies when they’re distracted by TVs and tablets.
“Decrease distractions during mealtimes to allow your child to tune into their bodies and decide when they are hungry and when they’ve had their fill,” Sarah said. “This also allows families a chance to talk to one another.”
Tip #3: Offer Preferred Foods
“Always serve one preferred food you know your child will eat and small portions of everything on the menu for that particular meal,” Sarah said. “After that, say nothing. Eating encourages more eating. Just let them explore.”
Sarah also noted that some children might require many exposures to a new food before they decide they like it, so be patient!
Avoid This Pitfall
Sarah said she’s noticed parents often try to fight for control during meals and demand their children eat a certain number of bites before they leave the table.
“Rather than focus on what is happening in one meal, recognize how much they have eaten over the last few days,” Sarah said. “Did they have a big breakfast and are just picking at lunch? Are they tired? Getting sick or getting over being sick? There are so many reasons they may not choose to eat during one particular meal, but if they are typically eating at other meals throughout a week’s time, it’s ok.”
Sarah said a pressure free approach to meals–both positive and negative–to be more effective than attempting to control what and how much kids eat.
“Try not to get baited into an argument,” she said. “If they do try something new, refrain from celebrating. Instead, play it cool and continue to eat as though it’s a regular occurrence.”
Sarah recommends the following resources for parents of picky eaters:
“Please note: these resources cannot replace feeding therapy if there is some sort of medical diagnosis or oral motor issue involved,” Sarah said. “However, they are helpful to parents of picky eaters.”
To Sum It Up
Most children go through a picky eating phase, but there are ways to help your child try and love new foods.
Sarah suggests …
- Sticking to a routine
- Removing distractions from meal times, and
- Offering one preferred food at each meal