When you have a picky child, making it through each meal can feel like climbing Mount Everest. Each spoonful, each bite, is a test of your endurance, patience, and fortitude.
You set your squirmy child in his or her seat, present a carefully cooked array of fruits, vegetables, and protein, and wait for the screams to start.
“No. No. No. No.”
“This is yucky. I hate this.”
“I want Mac and Cheese. Gimme Mac and Cheese.”
It doesn’t matter if your child is just starting to toddle or if your child is prepping for preschool—dealing with a picky eater can make you question your parenting.
Why Is My Child So Picky?
During the first year, infants undergo rapid growth, nearly tripling in birth weight. Because of this, they constantly need to eat to sustain that growth.
However, toddlers grow much more slowly. During their second year, your child may only gain about 5 pounds and grow about 4 to 5 inches. This means your toddler will need less food to sustain growth, and his or her eating patterns will change as a result.
Additionally, young children are more sensitive to strong tastes and smells than adults. Their smaller bodies are more vulnerable to toxins, and what may not affect you could make your child feel sick to his or her stomach. Bitter, sour, and hot foods can be more difficult for your child to digest, and he or she may want to avoid them as much as possible.
What Can I Do?
Just because your child wants to avoid certain foods or eat fewer foods doesn’t mean that you have to cave in to all of his or her demands for sweets or junk food. Eating a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet is essential for your child’s growth.
If you struggle to serve your picky eater, here are a few suggestions to make meal times a little more manageable.
Offer Nutrient-Dense Nibbles
Young children are constantly on the go—they want to wiggle, walk, move, and squirm, which helps them develop essential motor control and build strong muscles. This makes it difficult for some children to sit still long enough to eat. So when your child does eat, you need to make sure every calorie counts.
Offer your child nutrient-dense snacks that will not only fill him or her up, but keep blood sugar levels from spiking or dropping (which can lead to temper tantrums and general fussiness). The following snacks and foods are good choices in small, child-sized doses:
- Brown rice and similar grains
- Greek yogurt
- Kidney beans
- Peanut butter
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Whole-grain pasta
Feel free to mix and match these foods to see what your child likes and doesn’t like. Keep in mind that tastes and preferences will likely change from day to day, so if your toddler doesn’t want a certain food one day, save it for later and try again.
Let Your Child Play with Food
Children learn by exploring their environment. Tasting, touching, seeing, and smelling all help your child understand how different things relate to each other and how they work. Even if your child isn’t particularly hungry, it’s a good idea to let him or her explore food at his or her own pace.
For example, let your son pick up and squish a grape. Let your daughter spread spaghetti noodles all over her face. Let him smell your casserole, and let her listen to the sound of popcorn popping. Positive experiences now will help prepare him or her for eating the food later.
To make eating more fun to explore, cut food into small, fun shapes. Array a rainbow of fruits and vegetables that appeal to the eye, or try serving foods on colorful plates or with child-sized spoons and forks. Let your child help wash and prepare food for dinner.
Limit Sugary Drinks and Snacks Between Meals
Your child might not want to eat meals simply because he or she is already full. Snacking between meals and sipping on juice or milk will fill up those tiny tummies before it’s time for dinner. Food isn’t nearly as appealing on a full stomach, so your child may be more likely to pick at those vegetables and complain about their smell.
If possible, limit drinks and snacks between meals. Then give your child the option of picking his or her own portion sizes of foods you’ve prepared.
Relax—You’re Not a Bad Parent
These are just some of the tips that you can try at home with your child—but even if they don’t work, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. Relax, be patient, and remember it’s not necessarily your fault if your child refuses to eat his or her broccoli. Simply try, try, and try again. Many children eventually grow out of being picky.
If you worry that your child’s picky eating behavior is affecting his or her health, don’t be afraid to talk to a nutritionist for advice.