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.

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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.