Picky Eating Causes & Fixes
What may be behind your child's picky eating habits by the team at Cooper.
Your sweet baby has become a picky eater. Suddenly, the Brussels sprouts, lima beans, and avocados have been abandoned, thrown (literally) to the side, and mealtime battles are in full swing. How did you end up here? You entered toddlerhood.
When so much is new, your toddler craves the familiar. While toddler eating can appear to have become picky, it’s about control. An emerging understanding of their powerlessness makes your toddler feel uncertain, even insecure in this big world. As your toddler dramatically expands their world through walking, talking, and making choices for themselves each day, one of the natural places they exert power is around food. Their natural (and age-appropriate) desire for autonomy and independence - “me do it” - is likely to show up at mealtime, too.
Though 25-35% of toddlers and preschoolers are described by parents as picky eaters, research shows that limited eating habits bother parents MUCH more than children. Most toddlers are well nourished and maintain a balanced diet despite restrictive food choices. Why? Toddlers have significant changes in their growth in the second year of life, and can go from eating with gusto to being too distracted to care to eat at all. In addition, as their growth slows, they need less food than they once did, and are learning to regulate their own appetites. That’s why nutrition is largely measured over a week, and not based on one day of picky choices.
Considering your toddler’s individual needs over time can help you understand how much they should be eating. It’s also developmentally appropriate for your toddler to be hesitant to try new things. That can be a sign of their temperament (here’s looking at you spirited or cautious children) or just the normal resistance that many children experience. Research tells us that children may come around to new foods, but need frequent exposure to the same item (up to 15 times) to decide whether or not they like it.
Parental behaviors can also contribute to increases in picky eating - driving children further by forcing them to eat or giving constant attention to the issue. Forcing, threatening, or negotiating have been shown to increase picky and restrictive eating, contributing to other problems like eating disorders and obesity as children grow.
Managing Picky Eating
- Make good menu choices. Buy and make healthy food for you and for your toddler. Children look to the adults around them to imitate. If you’re not eating broccoli, they won’t either. Model what you want for your toddler and practice what you preach. Have the whole family eat the same meal, and only offer food that you are happy with them choosing from. If you don’t want something to be available, don’t buy it. (Save that ice cream in the freezer for after bedtime)
- Eat meals as a family. Make sure your toddler is pulled up to a table, next to others who are also eating. This may be hard to do all the time, but try to make sure you have at least 4 meals a week together, and ask caregivers or daycare about their eating practices too. Meals are a communal experience, and toddlers learn best eating alongside others. Put away devices and distractions and engage in conversations.
- Keep meals relaxed and fun. Avoid threats, bribes, punishment, or force feeding. Allow your toddler to feed themselves (yep! Embrace the mess) and support them in participating in whatever way they can if they need assistance.
- Shop and prepare food together whenever possible. Research shows that when children are involved in food preparation, they are more likely to try the meal, and appreciate new tastes. Let them watch, taste, smell, and squish. For years to come, there will be many lessons practiced in the kitchen - including math!
- Keep meals short - at this age they can be 10-15 minutes. Most toddlers can’t sit still for long periods of time, so it is OK if you need to end meals when they are done. Slowly stretch the length of meals until your toddler can get used to sitting for longer. Teach your children to sign or say “all done,” and watch for less pleasant signs that your toddler may be done - like food throwing or tantrums.
Unfortunately, understanding picky eating doesn't always make it better. A healthy dose of patience is a key ingredient in every toddler meal. Try not to panic about every missed vegetable, or stress over one particular day. Know that there will be highs and lows, but that the overall benefits of shared family meals can last a lifetime!