Picky eating is a common problem for toddlers, but it can be dealt with. Parents should know that picky eating is not abnormal and that children will outgrow the phase.
Most of all, parents should remember to keep their cool when dealing with a picky eater and not make a big deal about it in front of the child or others. It’s important to provide healthy food choices while continuing to offer favorite foods from time to time. The more variety offered at meal times, the more likely your toddler will find something they enjoy eating!
If you’re struggling with a toddler who is a picky eater, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll talk about:
- What is picky eating?
- What are the causes of picky eating?
- What is not picky eating?
- When is it more than “picky eating”?
- How to feed your picky eaters
- Simple meals that picky eaters will love
- What are the warning signs of a possible disorder?
Disclaimer: This post, like all content on this site, is for informational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for consulting with a professional and getting any recommended interventions. Please read our full disclaimer policy here.
What is picky eating?
Picky eating can be defined as a limited range of certain foods which a person will eat. It is normal for toddlers to develop different tastes and become more selective about their food choices during the toddler years, but it becomes a problem when they persistently reject specific foods, especially those considered healthy.
Toddlers are often fussy with taste and texture, so it is not uncommon for them to avoid certain vegetables, exotic/smelly foods, or fruit. In fact, new foods should be introduced gradually and small amounts of new food should be offered every few days until the toddler becomes accustomed to it.
If your child eats a reasonable variety of food items but persistently rejects one or more food items, then your picky eater is just being selective.
However, if your child eats very little variety of foods or only a few specific foods and persistently rejects one or more food items over time, you might have a problem.
Is picky eating normal?
It depends on the age of the child. Many toddlers go through periods of pickiness, but most outgrow it by age three. By age four, most children can eat most foods they were given as a baby.
Toddlers aged 1-3 years old are often very fussy with their food choices and will become more selective than usual about what they eat. As long as your toddler is still gaining weight and growing normally, then there is nothing to worry about.
Toddlers who are not gaining enough weight or whose growth is stunted might be suffering more serious problems with their food intake regardless of picky eating. This requires medical attention regardless if they continue to eat very little variety of foods or only a few specific foods over time.
What are the causes of picky eating?
There are many possible causes of picky eating. Regardless of the cause, remember this – picky eating is not your fault! It does not mean you’re a bad parent, and it doesn’t mean your child is naughty for not wanting to eat the food that’s been so lovingly prepared for them.
- Toddlers are just getting used to the food. It’s normal for toddlers to be slow in accepting new foods.
- Toddlers also are still getting used to the tastes, smells, and textures. These are all new sensory experiences for them. They may be experiencing sensory overwhelm.
- A small percentage of picky eaters would have an underlying medical disorder associated with picky eating. This is not to alarm you, but it shows that you must go for well-child or well-baby check-ups and speak about your concerns with your pediatrician.
What is not picky eating?
This might be a simple reluctance to try something new derived from being overwhelmed by the food experience or feeling that they have lost control over what they eat or when they eat.
If your toddler refuses a few food items, it’s generally not considered picky eating.
Adults (grandparents and aunts often fall into this category! 🙂 ) seem to think that toddlers should eat more food than they actually need. So if your toddler doesn’t finish a cup of rice during a meal like what relatives expect, it’s not picky eating.
When is it more than picky eating?
Often, I hear parents say, “My child is a picky eater. He eats only burgers from a specific restaurant. Nothing else.” Or, “My child is a picky eater. She eats only three things: burgers, spaghetti, and cookies.”
In these situations, we’re not sure whether these kids are simply toddlers who are picky eaters, or whether there are other underlying issues involved.
When a child can eat only a severely limited number of food items, it may be an avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is a diagnosis given to children who avoid eating certain foods and limit the types/variety of foods they eat.
We also want to watch out for a condition called failure to thrive. Failure to thrive means children do not grow and gain weight at an expected rate, especially when they are younger than two years old.
It’s important to rule out any possibilities, so we know how best to help your child.
5 Strategies for Feeding Your Child Who Is a Picky Eater
- Have several healthy food choices available at home. Put away junk food and processed snacks. Avoid anything heavy in sugar or salt, including fruit juices. Concentrate on buying healthy foods that are not too high in fibre.
- Offer a new food just once or twice a week to avoid sensory overwhelm, and be sure to offer foods that match any sensory sensitivities your child might have.
- Don’t make mealtime a battle by forcing them to eat something they don’t want. Give toddlers their independence. Toddlers need control over what they eat and when they eat. Give them a few choices within the food groups if you can.
- Practice responsive feeding. Often, because we’re so stressed about having our toddlers eat, we may end up just shoveling food into their mouths. Instead, we should wait until they show signs of readiness.
- Practice chaining. Chaining is a process where you go from a food item that your child eats, to food items that you want to introduce. For example, if your child eats only burgers, try transitioning from a fast-food burger to a homemade burger. Once your child is able to eat a homemade burger, try transitioning to a homemade burger with hidden vegetables. Then you may transition to meatballs, then meatballs included in a vegetable dish, and so forth.
Simple Meals That Picky Eaters Will Love
Some of the most popular foods for picky eaters are:
- Pancakes – made from flour, eggs, and milk. You may add some mashed fruit, cinnamon, or vanilla to make them tastier.
- Cottage cheese with fruits
- Scrambled eggs with toast
- Grilled cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread
- Turkey with mashed potatoes
- Tofu salad with rice or minestrone soup. You may add vegetables to the soup, or tofu cubes that are breaded and fried in oil before being added to the soup
- Lasagna – you can use ground beef instead of sausage for a milder taste
- Meatballs – they are often enjoyed with Mexican-style sauces
- Chili – often served on top of rice or baked potato. You may also serve it over pasta, adding some grated cheese to the top
- A stir-fry dish made of vegetables, tofu, and meat (if desired). Tofu needs to be cooked for at least 10 minutes to become soft, however
- Chicken with baked vegetables. Simply bake vegetables in the oven until they are nicely browned and then mix them with chicken pieces. You may add cheese to this dish as well
- Pizza – the crust can be made out of whole-wheat flour or a gluten-free alternative if necessary. You can also use a tortilla instead of pizza dough. You may top it off with some vegetables or try different kinds of cheese
- Rice with vegetables and pieces of meat (if desired)
- Turkey sandwiches – they can be made out of whole-wheat bread. Instead of using a regular slice of processed meat, you can choose to make turkey
What are the warning signs of a possible disorder?
Here are warning signs that it may be more than just the “normal” picky eating during the toddler stage. If you see any of these signs, you should speak with your pediatrician about it.
- Failure to meet child growth standards. Your pediatrician will measure your child’s weight and height against objective growth standards. Take note that we want to avoid comparing one child’s weight with another. Often, people may feel their child is “too skinny” when actually their weight is just fine.
- Gagging during feeding. This may be a sign of a possible swallowing disorder. Contrary to what many people say on the internet, gagging is NOT a good sign!
- Severely limited foods.
- Extreme stress or anxiety during mealtimes.
- Lack of interest in eating, or complete refusal to eat.
If you have a child who is a picky eater, take heart. It does not mean you’re a bad parent. For most kids, this stage will pass and they’ll soon be eating with huge appetites!
For other kids, intervention and feeding therapy will help. If you suspect that your child’s picky eating is due to a disorder, talk with your pediatrician about it.
If you’re the parent of a picky eater, take heart. It does not mean that you’ve done something wrong as a parent. With the correct feeding strategies, many children grow out of this stage.
If you’re worried that your child might have the signs of a feeding disorder, speak with your pediatrician about it.
For more help with picky eating, check out our masterclass on Feeding the Picky Eater.