Nothing drives the parent of a young child crazier than picky eating.
Parents try to beat picky eating by strategizing and out-maneuvering their toddler. The irony is that toddlers are almost always in the driver’s seat: if they don’t want to eat, they won’t.
Why is picky eating such a hot topic? Because the solution and resolution is often out of reach for many parents—and this fact alone drives parents nuts.
The truth is, to succeed with picky eating, you have to weather the storm and not make it worse. Trying to get the picky toddler to eat may be the worst thing you can do.
In the world of childhood nutrition, we learn more and more every day about picky eating and the repercussions of “getting the child to eat.” Most research tells us that it’s not good to try to out-maneuver the toddler’s natural tendencies around food at this stage, which is to be shy, timid, and negative toward new, unfamiliar food. Instead, keep a positive attitude, expose your toddler to a variety of food, and avoid putting too much pressure on him or her to eat.
Here are a few things we’ve learned about picky toddlers and suggestions on how to increase their variety of foods:
1. Forcing the toddler to eat promotes a negative association with eating and the food you are forcing. It’s better to take food refusal in stride and look to the next meal, when your toddler will be that much hungrier.
2. Hiding or sneaking food (like vegetables) into other foods (like a smoothie) is generally a turn-off and increases the potential for food refusal in the future. It also teaches the child to distrust the parent. (“I’m not drinking that! Who knows what she put in there this time.”) While adding fruits and vegetables to other food products like muffins can boost nutrition, it’s best to be open and honest about it.
3. Pushing the toddler to eat more or take another bite may instill a dislike for that particular food, or it may promote overeating. A child who is a pleaser may be more likely to overeat just to keep the peace and please his or her parents. A child who is more temperamental or resistant may shun that particular food in the future. Instead of pushing the toddler to eat more, let your child take the lead. Make sure to put boundaries in place, like closing the kitchen between meals and snacks, which will discourage grazing and a full belly at mealtime.
4. Rewarding the toddler with dessert or another food is a common way to incentivize young children to eat food they don’t want to eat. However, you should never use food as a reward; studies show that using non-food rewards is effective at getting young children to try new food.
5. Disciplining a child for not eating, including taking toys or TV away, spanking, or removing privileges like dessert, sets up a negative association with food, family mealtime, and maybe even you. Not eating due to pickiness, fullness, being tired, or disliking what’s served shouldn’t be a reason for discipline. While these behaviors are certainly frustrating, they go with the territory of being a toddler.
All in all, picky eating isn’t easy to manage, but it’s certainly easier when you aren’t complicating the matter with counterproductive feeding tactics. Always try to keep food and feeding a positive experience for the toddler—while you may not see results right away, it will work in the long run.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, September 2020
- Picky eating in toddlerhood is common, as is trying to get the picky eater to eat.
- Feeding tactics to bribe, trick, or push toddlers to eat generally don’t work very well and may cause more trouble.
- Disciplining your child for not eating sets up a negative association with food.