The foods on his plate can’t touch. He loathes grilled chicken and can’t stand the smell of eggs. Vegetables? What vegetables? All he wants to eat are pizza, grilled cheese, and mac and cheese. Basically, a carbs + cheese only diet.
As a parent, having a picky toddler who zips his lips in the presence of nutritious foods is not only frustrating, but also worrisome. More than anything you want your kid to be healthy and strong, which you know starts with eating the right foods.
“It’s a common and actually very typical, predictable phase that kids go through—and really it’s because it’s one of the only ways that kids have to exert any control over their environment,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City.
So what’s a perplexed parent to do? Here are expert tips to get your picky child to finally eat the foods she needs—and build healthy eating habits for life.
1. Don’t give up.
“It can actually take between 15 and 18 times of introducing a new food for a kid to even try it let alone like it, so persistence is key,” says Largeman-Roth. “A lot of parents feel like feeding their kids is a really thankless job, but it’s so important because you’re really helping them to develop their palate, and introducing those healthy foods early is really vital for getting them on track to be a healthy eater,” she says.
2. Serve realistic portions.
Do you dole out adult-sized portions to your pint-sized kiddo? Remember, toddler serving sizes are only about about a quarter of adult serving sizes, so you may need to significantly downsize your kid’s meals and snacks. “You don’t want to overwhelm your child by putting these big grown-up servings on their plate and somehow expecting them to actually eat it,” says Largeman-Roth. Here are some examples of what a toddler’s portions should look like:
¼ slice of bread
1 ounce of meat (or the size of the palm of your child’s hand)
2 tablespoons of fruit
2 tablespoons of vegetables
3. Watch the snacks and drinks.
“One of the mistakes parents make is that they’re so concerned that their toddler is not eating enough, that they’re giving them snacks throughout the day, which in turn then makes them not hungry and eat the meals that they’re supposed to be eating,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital and HealthiNation’s chief medical editor.
4. Don’t overdo “hiding” healthy foods.
“I am not a fan of hiding healthy foods in other dishes. I really think it’s important that kids know what fruits and vegetables look like, and that they learn to have an appreciation for them on their own,” says Largeman-Roth. “There’s certainly nothing wrong if you want to make brownies with avocados to make them heart-healthier, but don’t think that that is the way to get your kids to eat vegetables.”
5. Be a good example.
“If you want your kids to eat healthy, you have to eat healthy yourself. You cannot expect them to love their broccoli and peas if you don’t eat them as well,” says Largeman-Roth. Start eating healthier by following this crucial diet advice.
6. Eat with your child.
“One of the best things you can do for your toddler is to sit there and eat with them. They can see you eating the foods that you want them to try, and really making it a time where you can engage and talk together,” says Parikh.
7. Look at the big picture.
“Not every meal has to be perfect,” says Largeman-Roth. “We’ve definitely all has those nights where it’s the frozen pizza and we were in a rush and that’s all we had. But you want to be able to look back at a week and reflect on it on the whole and say, ‘yeah, we got veggies in there, we got fruit in there, we got some low fat dairy and protein and whole grains.’ So, don’t stress over every meal and every snack, but do try to be offering a wide variety of foods to your kids,” she says.
Along with getting your kids to eat more nutritious foods, it’s also important to make sure they’re eating less of the bad stuff. Here’s how to encourage kids to eat less junk.
Taylor CM, Wernimont SM, Northstone K, Emmett PM. Picky/fussy eating in children: Review of definitions, assessment, prevalence and dietary intakes. Appetite. 2015 Dec;95:349-59.
The ‘picky eater’: The toddler or preschooler who does not eat. Ontario, Canada: Canadian Paediatric Society, 2012. (Accessed on March 21, 2021 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3474391)