Why is my toddler suddenly a picky eater?

Plus, helpful tips to keep in mind when expanding your child's palate.

Why is my toddler suddenly a picky eater?

For the first 18 months to two years of your child's life, you've diligently fed your child by either breast, bottle or spoon with everything being eaten quite agreeably. Then, suddenly, your toddler begins to refuse food. Of course, you worry. "Why won't my child eat? Have I done something wrong?" As a mother of three and a certified Integrative Nutrition Coach and the founder of Yummy Spoonfuls, I'm well aware of the challenges of picky eating.

Understanding that we all are quite literally what we eat, my two-sided approach to overcoming this particular toddler issue will help you provide your little one with the proper nutrition they need to fully thrive.

Why your toddler has become picky

If you have a picky toddler, you are not alone. The reasons for this sudden food aversion are both simple and complex:

  1. They're becoming more independent. Now that your child has started walking and is beginning to speak, they are developing a sense of independence and have the consciousness to act upon it. Whether your child likes a particular food or not, they can refuse to open their mouth, run away, cry in protest, throw a tantrum or do all of the above.
  2. They're becoming more intuitive. Toddlers can begin to notice a pattern with eating: most "good" foods are sweet and most unsweet foods are green. The vast majority of baby food products combine vegetables with sweet foods like apples, bananas or pears. A baby who has grown accustomed to eating such products develops a palate for sweet foods. When attempting to introduce a non-sweet green vegetable, that toddler will inevitably notice the difference and refuse it. Parents also tend to impose their own food hang-ups on children. For example, parents who do not like okra or brown rice do not cook those foods for themselves and therefore do not give them to their children. It's important for parents to remember that eating is a learned behavior beginning with the very first spoonful and reinforced with each and every meal.
  3. They're learning what they do and don't like. Your child may not be a fan of certain textures. Because eating is as much about tactile sensation as it is about taste, your child may not like foods that are too crunchy, slimy, soft, grainy, chewy and so on. If this is the case then your child's pickiness should be consistent across different flavors. For example, if they don't like crunchy foods, they'll refuse a sweet, juicy crisp green apple as quickly as they'd turn down fresh, crisp celery. The problem is not the pickiness but rather the way that pickiness is managed.

Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when expanding your child's palate.

1. Don't stop trying to introduce new foods too soon.

Many parents aren't aware of the lengthy yet normal course of food acceptance in children. A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Diet Association revealed that 25% of mothers with toddlers offered foods only once or twice before deciding if the child liked it. Approximately half of mothers made similar judgments after serving new foods only three to five times.

Touching, smelling, playing with and spitting out food are all normal exploratory behaviors that happen before acceptance—and some kids simply take longer to try new food and develop a taste or affinity for it. Keep trying and eventually, your child will come around. Be consistent, don't give up and remember, this stage in your child's life is critical as the foods they eat now are key building blocks for healthy growth and development.

2. Bring home the food items you want your child to eat.

Your child can only be as picky as the food options that are made available to them. If you want them to eat more healthful foods, fill your refrigerator and pantry with what you believe are healthy, nutritious food options. You can also make life easy for yourself by stocking your freezer with convenient foods that don't skimp on taste and nutrition.

3. Expose kids to all varieties of foods.

Introduce your child to an array of food flavors and textures no matter what your own personal preferences or aversions may be. Your child may very well love some of the foods you dislike.

4. Don't provide too many food options.

Often parents of multiple children will make a variety of dishes for a meal in order to appease each child's individual tastes. This kind of short-order cooking habit is tiring, unsustainable and only serves to foster the habit you are trying to correct. There's no reason for any child to stop being picky if other options are always readily available. Unless your child has an allergy or sensory issue, then they should learn to try whatever you serve.

5. Don't supplement missed meals with junk.

Every parent living with a toddler understands the practice of "picking one's battles" but setting up healthy nutrition practices is a battle that should be fought to win. If your child refuses to eat a meal because they don't like the options available, try not to give your child junk food just to fill their belly. In time, those empty calories can become lifelong unhealthy choices. Your child depends on you to choose a balanced diet that is developmentally appropriate and fuels good health and happiness.

6. Treat every meal and snack time as an opportunity to nourish your child with good food.

Instead of viewing snack time as "treat" time, consider snack time a mini meal and feed your child accordingly. Again, give your child every opportunity to get acquainted with new foods. Avoid crackers and other convenience foods and try giving your child sliced carrots or bell peppers instead.

7. Make every eating experience enjoyable.

As many studies have shown, children who help with meal preparation are more likely to eat food they helped make, so let your child pitch in! Make cooking each meal a family activity by allowing your child to help. This is a great way to show your child that delicious food and healthy food aren't mutually exclusive. Prepare foods in their most delicious and visually-appealing form and be sure to take into account your child's texture preferences. For example, don't overcook string beans for a child who likes their veggies firm.

8. Don't force a "clean plate."

While you may be anxious about your child getting the necessary nutrients they need for growth and development, avoid forcing them to eat every bite you serve. Your child is not trying to frustrate you, they're simply learning as everything is still new and different to them.

Remember that for many kids, food acceptance takes time and this important stage in your toddler's life is absolutely normal. Also, forcing them to clean their plate causes a child to lose their natural sense of knowing when they are full, which can lead to overeating. Building healthy eating habits means respecting when your child is full even when you may think they've not had enough. After all, you can always serve any leftovers as a mini meal for snack time.

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My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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Sand play set

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Water play set

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Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.


Mini golf set

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Vintage scooter balance bike

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Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.


Croquet set

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The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.


Wooden digital camera

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Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.


Wooden bulldozer toy

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Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.


Pull-along hippo

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There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.


Baby forest fox ride-on

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Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.


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