Gently Persuading the Picky Toddler to Eat

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

It can be shocking to parents when their voracious eater suddenly begins refusing food when he enters the toddler years. Sometimes, he even skips a meal. All kinds of thoughts may go through your head: Is he sick? Does he have an ear infection? Does he have an upset stomach or food allergies?

If your child acts healthy when not sitting down to eat, more than likely, your child feels just fine. Toddlers – the development stage from one to three years old – are naturally picky when eating. Their weight gain begins slowing around their first birthday, and many parents will notice their children’s weight stalling. The child begins to grow taller, rather than putting on weight, gradually transforming from the compact body of a baby to the proportions of a young child.

Still, it can be difficult for parents not to worry when their child only eats cheese and peas for a week, or if she regularly refuses to eat lunch. Here are some tips to make sure your child is getting the nutrition she needs to thrive in his first years:

  • Allow your child to graze – Due to his nearly constant activity and curiosity, sitting down to eat can get in the way of your toddler’s wanting to explore his world. A great solution is to allow him to snack in between meals. Cheese, crackers, cereal, and fruit slices are easy-to-prepare and easy-to-clean-up options.
  • Don’t worry – Your child won’t starve; she’ll let you know when she’s hungry. Toddlers, like babies, are comfort-seeking creatures, and when they need to eat, their bodies will signal them to seek out food. Just remember to think “hunger” as a possibility when your child becomes cranky a few hours after lunch.
  • Consider a vitamin supplement – Many children seem to get stuck on one or two foods, refusing to eat anything else even if they tried and liked it in the past. Eventually your child will move on to different foods, but if you’re concerned, talk with your child’s health practitioner about giving your toddler a vitamin supplement to be sure he’s getting all her nutritional needs met.
  • Turn off the TV – Just as television can encourage older children to eat too much food during the day, television can be a distraction from eating for young children. Encourage your child to play without the television on. She’ll be more cued in to her own hunger signals, and with more activity, she’ll be more likely to be hungry at meal times. The same holds true about turning off the TV during meal times, so your toddler focuses on eating.
  • Don’t snack right up until meal time – Allow some time between mid-morning and afternoon snacks and meal times. Otherwise, your child won’t be hungry enough for a big meal. To defer snacking, engage your child in playtime or another busy activity.
  • Offer a variety of foods – If your child doesn’t seem to want to eat, she may be wanting to try something new. Don’t assume she’s not hungry; move on to another food group. If she consistently refuses new offerings, then she’s probably not hungry right now.
  • Limit liquids during meal time – Try offering your child’s cup or your breast after he’s eaten. Liquid takes up room in the stomach, so if your toddler is drinking a lot of milk or water or juice during the day, he won’t be as hungry. However, if your child insists on drinking or breastfeeding, let him.
  • Let your child eat on the go – For many children, it’s the act of having to sit still to eat that’s the problem. During snack times, and even some meal times, consider letting your toddler munch on something while she’s playing.
  • Instigate meal time – Get your child interested in eating by eating in front of him and then offering to share. For many toddlers, the food on Mommy and Daddy’s plates looks better than what is on their own plates, even if it’s the same.
  • Let your toddler “help” make dinner – Young children love to do what Mommy and Daddy are doing. Mixing up a bowl of cookie dough can be fun for older toddlers. For a younger child, give her a clean bowl and spoon, and let her mix up some of her small toys and then pretend to serve the food to all the family members. She’ll enjoy doing something grown up, plus she may be more interested in getting to eat for real at meal time.

The key is to let your child guide you. Respect her hunger cues and don’t try forcing her to eat when she’s not hungry, even if you know that she’ll be hungry in only an hour or two. Offer nutritious foods, so she isn’t tempted to fill her tummy with unhealthy choices when she is hungry. And, most of all, don’t worry! Toddlers’ appetites come and go; if he’s not eating much this meal, this day, or even the past couple of days, be patient. Another meal, or another day, he’ll make up for it. Everything balances out over time.

For More Ideas
AskDrSears.com
– “Feeding Toddlers: 17 Tips for Pleasing the Picky Eater”
FoodsAndNutrition.co.uk – “Dealing with Picky Eaters”
JustMommies.com – “Tips for Dealing with a Picky Eater”
ParentingMyToddler.com – “Feeding Strategies for Toddlers – What Not to Do”
SheKnows.com – “Getting Toddlers to Eat Their Veggies”

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