Why is my toddler such a picky eater?
Eating solid food is still a new experience for your toddler. He may need time to get used to the various textures, colors, and tastes of new food. While young children crave consistency and familiarity with many things, from playtime routines to sleep habits, they're notoriously unpredictable when it comes to food – even familiar food.
You are reading: How to handle a picky eater
It's common for toddlers to vary their eating habits from day to day, and it's also common not to try new foods until you've served them numerous times. This may be partly due to the change in your toddler's nutrition requirements. He's not growing as much now as he was in his first year, so he's less interested in food and not eating as much.
He's also becoming more independent and learning to make choices on his own – an important skill he'll need to develop over the years, especially when it comes to food.
As frustrating as a finicky eater may be, this is a great time to teach your child to try new things, before he gets too set in his ways and begins to reject new foods as a way of asserting his independence (a distinct possibility as he nears his second birthday!). Offer a variety of healthy foods often, so he has the opportunity to dig in when he's ready – if not at lunch, then maybe during an afternoon snack.
Tips for introducing new foods to a picky eater
Your child has an innate sense of how much food her body needs to grow and be healthy, and it's up to her to decide what she's going to eat. The best thing you can do is to provide plenty of healthy choices in a positive, relaxed environment so that mealtimes will be enjoyable for everyone. Here are some specific tips on how to handle a picky eater:
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- Structure your child's eating so that she has three regular meals a day and two healthy snacks in between meals. Doctors say that most often picky eaters are “grazers” – that is, kids who eat small amounts of food throughout the day. Making sure your child has set meal and snack times will help ensure she's eating when she's hungry and lessen the chance she'll snack too much.
- Serve a variety of good foods for your toddler to eat at each meal. When you offer a new food, simply place it on your child's highchair tray without making a big deal about it. Make sure the food you choose is age-appropriate.
- Introduce new foods one at a time and in small amounts. Instead of an entire meal of unfamiliar foods, for example, offer standard fare or favorites along with something new. Always include at least one thing you know your toddler likes at each meal.
- Try to schedule a new food when you know your child is hungry – a snack of mango slices when she has the afternoon munchies, for example.
- Use toddler-size portions. A serving size for a toddler is about 1/4 of a single portion for an adult. A serving of meat for a 1-year-old is about the size of the palm of her hand, and a serving of vegetables is only about 1 or 2 tablespoons.
- Understand that some children's palates are more sensitive than others. Some simply won't like the texture, color, or taste of certain foods. That's why a child might claim to dislike a food she has never even tried. Likewise, some children may reject a food because it reminds them of a time when they were sick or because they have some other negative association with it.
- Look for ways to boost the nutritional value of the dishes your toddler enjoys. Add some wheat germ or diced chicken to her macaroni casserole, pureed vegetables like carrots or spinach to pasta sauce, and little chunks of fruit to her favorite cereal, for example.
- Resist the urge to offer sugary foods in an effort to get your toddler to eat more. You want to develop her sense of culinary adventure, not her sweet tooth!
- Minimize distractions at the table. If a sibling is running around nearby or a cartoon beckons from across the room, your toddler may lose interest in the food being served. Try to make meals relaxed and quiet.
How can I get my toddler to eat a wider variety of foods?
It's not realistic to expect a toddler to embrace a wide range of foods. In the long run, the example you set by serving and enjoying all sorts of healthy foods – at home and on the go – is one of the best ways to help your child learn to eat well. But for now, your toddler's decision to eat only a few things is his choice, and it's important to let him learn to make his own decisions about food from the get-go.
“A child needs to be in control of what he eats,” says Nancy Hudson, a registered dietitian at the University of California, Berkeley. That's because forcing a toddler to eat a food he doesn't like or a quantity he can't handle may set him up for problems later on: Children who aren't allowed to make food decisions themselves (such as deciding when they're full) are at a greater risk for becoming obese later in life. Forcing your toddler to try new foods will only make him more stubborn and less open to trying new things in the future.
If your toddler seems to be eating nothing but cheese and crackers for days on end, don't worry. Start keeping a record of what he eats and you'll probably find that he's hitting all the major food groups and getting the necessary nutrients over the course of a week. Studies from the American Dietetic Association show that children – even those whose parents consider them picky eaters – generally consume a wide enough variety of foods to meet their nutritional requirements.
If you still don't think your toddler is eating well, ask your doctor whether it makes sense to give him a daily multivitamin.
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How can I tell whether my child is really getting enough to eat if she's not growing?
Don't panic if it seems like your toddler isn't growing fast enough. Children don't always grow at a steady pace and there will be times when your child doesn't seem to be growing at all. Your toddler won't grow at nearly the same rate she did in her first year of life.
Keep in touch with your doctor if you're worried that your child isn't gaining enough weight, but don't convey your concerns to your child. If you're constantly hovering at mealtime, or wheedling, cajoling, and counting calories, she's likely to become even more resistant to eating.