Picky eating behaviors are understandably distressing to caregivers, however, there are phases of development in which changing eating patterns may arise quite normally. It is important to understand what is considered normal and how to encourage a positive attitude around food and meal time regardless of the stage your child is in.
When is this most likely to occur?
- Picky eating typically develops between 12 and 36 months of life.
- Toddlerhood is a unique time in which your child will start to crave and learn about independence, control and autonomy.
Strategies to Prevent/Manage Picky Eaters
Manage Your Expectations
- Toddlers frequently go a day or two without eating much at all.
- This is very normal, and they’ll make up for it on the third or fourth day.
- When this happens, the best thing you can do is go with the flow (see next section).
Don't Let Them See You Sweat It
- Your child will not develop dangerous weight loss or nutritional deficiencies from skipping meals one at a time, or even days in a row.
- If your child doesn’t eat, don’t let them see you sweat it!
- Use your poker face to avoid turning mealtime into a power struggle.
- The best reaction is no reaction.
- Avoid bribing, bargaining or negotiating with your child to eat.
- Listen to your child and respect their hunger cues.
- If they don't want to eat, first assume they aren't hungry.
- If your child doesn’t want what you made, simply cover the food, put it in the refrigerator, and heat it up when she’s hungry later.
- Everything tastes better when you’re hungry.
- This helps expand your child's palate, and teaches them that new foods are yummy.
- Avoid the “short-order cook syndrome,” where you go back to the kitchen and keep making additional food options until you find something your child likes that day.
- This encourages picky eating.
Avoid Distractions at Mealtime
- Common distractions to avoid: TV, screens (phone/iPad), pets, music.
- The most common distraction is often caregivers themselves.
- Imagine how distracting it would be to have Mom on one side and Dad on the other, both trying to convince you to eat more!
- Instead, we recommend caregivers eat their own meals and converse with each other, ignoring baby altogether.
- Eating when you're hungry, and only when you're hungry is an extremely important life skill.
- Allow your child to pay attention to their own hunger level, and eat accordingly.
Avoid Grazing Throughout the Day
- We recommend 3 meals and 1-2 snacks per day.
- Restrict food to designated meals and snacks.
- Allowing a child to graze will negatively affect the appetite and worry you "they don't eat enough" at mealtimes
- Distract and redirect when your child asks for food outside of designated meals and snacks.
Trying New Foods
- Offer smaller portions of a new food to (a few tablespoons is sufficient) so they don't feel overwhelmed.
- Eat the same new food they are trying.
- Mix a new food with something your child likes, even breastmilk. Pairing taste categories, like bitter and sweet (i.e. broccoli and parmesan cheese) may also help.
- Remember, it can take 15+ separate introductions of a new food before a baby will accept it into their diet.
- When your child is preschool-aged, allow him or her to be involved in picking out a new food from the grocery store or contribute to cooking (i.e. mixing, pouring, counting ingredients).
- Talk about where your food comes from - introduce them to gardens or point out fruit trees in your neighborhood.
- Point out the colors of the food you're cooking and make it fun.