The mealtime question you shouldn’t ask a toddler

When it comes to feeding toddlers, most parents hit the trials and tribulations of toddlerhood around three years of age, when their toddler starts to get picky, afraid of food, or sticks to the same old fare. This normal stage of development—called the picky eating phase—often prompts frustration, self-reflection, and the almost desperate question directed to the toddler: “Sweetie, what would you like to eat?”

Here’s where parents get it all wrong.

Do they really think they’ll get a thoughtful, balanced response about food from their toddler?

A reply like, “Well, Mommy, I would like some shrimp, green beans, rice pilaf and milk?”

As if a toddler would list off a litany of healthy food items or a meal reflecting the ideal balance of food groups!

Most toddlers will only offer food suggestions they know and like. So forget about hearing a request for anything they haven’t yet tried. Yes, you can forget about artichokes, tomatoes, and whole wheat pasta. And, most likely, toddlers will request their favorite foods, not only because that’s what they know, but also because that’s what they love. Hot dogs, macaroni, and peanut butter, anyone?

Don’t be surprised if your toddler asks for the exact meal he or she just had, or the reprise of an old favorite.

The downside of asking what your toddler wants to eat is the response you get and the ensuing “No, we aren’t eating that now…”

If you want to get your toddler to eat a range of different foods, do the following:

Don’t ask your toddler what he or she wants to eat.


Rather, give him or her two options to choose from—options you have decided are best to eat. Ask your toddler if he or she would like cherries or grapes, bread or crackers, or yogurt or cheese. This way, you can assure a variety of foods are offered each day, helping your toddler along the path of learning about new foods while allowing him or her to have a say in the matter.

About Jill Castle, Bundoo Pediatric Nutritionist

Jill Castle is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and childhood nutrition expert. She is co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.


  1. I asked my 2.5 year old what she wanted for lunch yesterday and she said “noodles.” I asked her what she wanted for dinner and she said, “noodles.” This has become her favorite kind of food lately. I have found it the easiest to just not ask what they want but instead give them something I know that they like. They can either eat it or not and most of the time they choose to eat it.

    1. Remember, too, young children have a limited vocabulary and short memory so they tend to ask for foods they recently ate! Take advantage of the learning curve and name foods repeatedly so they learn about food also.

  2. Great advice! This is something I need to work on with my 3 year old.


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