Many toddlers go through a picky phase, where they become very specific about what they like to eat. This is (usually) normal: toddlers like to assert their independence, and one way to do that is to choose the foods they will eat! Knowing that it’s normal doesn’t make it easy on parents, however. Many think about how, just a few months or weeks earlier, their child would eat anything! And mainstream advice isn’t very helpful: “Ignore it, just let them eat ‘kid food’ for awhile if that’s what they want; don’t serve them ‘weird’ things.” So what’s a real foodie with a picky kid to do?
First of all, it’s important to note that there are few circumstances in which pickiness is not normal. If your child suddenly and severely restricts his food choices to only two or three foods; if there is any hint of illness (nausea, diarrhea, etc.) that is ongoing; if there is developmental regression; if there are any other accompanying symptoms, pickiness may not be normal. If you’ve read Bekah’s Story, then you know that as a result of illness, allergy, and poor gut health, Bekah self-limited her diet to only bread, potatoes, apples, and bananas around 1 year of age. This was not normal. Once we removed allergens from her diet and started supplementing with zinc (as per doctor’s instructions), she began to eat more foods again and now will eat almost anything.
Especially if your child limits to only carb-heavy foods, only processed foods, or only “white” foods, or some other strange and highly limited grouping, this may be a sign of a problem, and you will want to see a doctor. Children should never be so heavily and consistently restrictive, even during a picky phase.
On the other hand, a normal child may love a particular food one day and hate it the next (and love it again the day after). They may temporarily refuse all “green” foods, or throw fits about trying new foods. They may select whatever is favored on their plates and eat most/all of that food and little of the other foods. They may prefer or reject certain textures (which can be a sign of teething; Daniel preferred soft foods when his molars were coming in). What they like and what they will agree to eat can change from one day to the next, and they generally are wary of new foods. This is annoying, but normal!
So what’s a mom to do?
- Keep serving nourishing foods! — No matter what, do not give in to the mainstream idea that if you just give your kid “kid food,” they will eat, and that eating something is better than nothing. This is ridiculous. They will eat what they are used to, when they are hungry. (Regular) Hot dogs, chicken nuggets, fries, boxed mac’n’cheese are not healthy, and there’s no point in serving them. Persist in serving nutrient-dense foods like pastured meats and eggs, organic produce, etc. Whatever they do eat will be healthy, and you won’t have to worry so much about what they do or don’t choose!
- Serve simple foods — Some toddlers will reject “mixed” foods because they don’t know what’s in them. It’s fine to serve fresh fruits and vegetables, raw cheese cubes, plain pastured meats, etc. Leave off the spices and sauces if you need to. When you’re making dinner, simply pull out a portion of meat or veggies before adding additional ingredients. Eventually they’ll learn what they like and might want to try the sauce or spices and find they like them. But give it time.
- Serve a variety — It doesn’t matter if you think your child will reject it, just serve it if it’s on the menu, and make sure there are 2 or 3 options on the plate (all nourishing, see point #1!). You might be surprised by what your child eats.
- Keep offering new foods — Allow your child to try new things; she might like them! Just make new things available so that she has the chance to try them if she wants to.
- Model good eating behavior — This generally isn’t a problem for real foodies, because we all try to eat so well anyway! But if your child sees you eating and enjoying all these interesting foods, she might want to try too, especially if you go with point #6.
- Don’t make a fuss — A large reason why toddlers get picky is because they have control over what goes in their mouth. You can’t really make them eat; if you manage to get it in, they’ll just spit it back out. If everything on their plate is nourishing it really doesn’t matter what they eat. Let them choose; it’ll balance out in the end.
- Offer sauces or spices — Some kids like sauces. (I have one who hates them and one who loves them.) Offer mustard, fermented soy sauce, yogurt dip, homemade cheese sauce, etc. Some kids will eat anything that they can dip. My son loves strong, spicy flavors, so this definitely gets him to eat a bit more if he’s feeling picky.
- Offer nourishing snacks — We are talking about toddlers here, not preschoolers. Toddlers don’t have any self-control or forethought, so trying to teach “If you don’t eat your meal, you can’t have a snack” is just going to backfire (we do this with our 3-year-old, though, to some extent). Offer yogurt, cheese, bits of leftover meat, fruit slices, etc. in between meals to see if he’ll eat. Toddlers like to graze anyway, rather than eat big meals. Your goal is to make sure your child gets enough healthy food everyday, not make food a battleground. A bedtime snack can be especially helpful, one full of protein and fat in order to encourage sleep (my son sleeps through the night on occasion and the missing variable was a bowl of plain yogurt before bed!)
- Sneak it in — I really don’t like tricking kids, so I wouldn’t really advise relying on this as your primary strategy. But. Some things lend themselves well to hiding, anyway. Make smoothies with raw egg yolks, raw milk or yogurt, fruits, and maybe even some veggies. It’s something you’d make and serve anyway, right? And it could get extra nutrition into them. You can hide shredded zucchini in meatballs or tomato sauce. If it’s something that you would eat and serve anyway, and just happens to increase the nutrition, go for it.
- Offer the usual supplements — The only one I can recommend is fermented cod liver oil, but if you’re giving it to him, it’s excellent and can make up for a lot. Breastfeeding, too, while not exactly a “supplement,” can also make up for a lot.
- Be patient — This is only temporary. Your child will soon embrace all the different foods you’re serving and enjoy them. The more you persist in making nourishing foods available, and the less fuss you make, the less it will matter and the sooner it will be over.
Ideas for nourishing snacks for picky toddlers:
- Bits of leftover meat
- Raw cheese cubes
- Fruit cubes or slices (apples, bananas, berries, melon, whatever is preferred)
- Plain yogurt (with raw honey and berries added if plain is not preferred)
- Frozen organic fruits or vegetables
- Dried fruit
- Freeze-dried fruit or vegetable cubes
- Crispy nuts or baked goods made with nuts
- Yogurt or kefir popsicles
- Fermented pickles or other condiments
- Homemade ice cream
Why not grains? Babies who don’t yet have their 2-year molars do not make enough of the enzyme amylase to digest grains well, so in general it is best that they don’t have them.
What if we’re coming from SAD (Standard American Diet) or my kid will only eat “kid food?”
This is a common question among parents who are trying to move to a traditional-foods diet who have toddlers and older children. What will they eat? Will they reject the new foods? Do they “need” kid foods?
Actually, it’s quite common for kids on SAD to be extremely picky. But many parents find that when they switch to a traditional foods diet, their children learn to eat and enjoy new foods. One parent said her son wouldn’t eat anything green, but once they moved to real food, he tried and liked many vegetables! Once kids taste “real food,” not canned or boxed fake foods, they often find that there’s a lot more that they like than they thought.
I am a firm believer that kids will eat what they are offered and that they will not restrict themselves to “kid food” unless their parents believe in “kid food.” If you think your kid will only like hot dogs, mac’n’cheese, chicken nuggets, fries, pizza, etc., that will be what you serve him. And if that’s most or all of what you serve him, that is what he will learn to eat and like. It is really just a self-fulfilling prophesy.
That is what I thought before I had kids. I still believe it. My 3-year-old celebrates broccoli, begs for bananas, loves prunes, cranberry juice, pastured meats, etc. My 18-month-old won’t even eat most sweet things! It is because that is what they have always eaten. On the rare occasions we go to restaurants, I always look up the menu in advance, because I order them grilled chicken and broccoli. They would not even eat “kid food” if I ordered it. There is absolutely no reason why children should prefer, or be taught to prefer, junk food. And that is what a steady diet of “kid food” is. (And yes, I’m including dry cereal, “fish” crackers, commercial granola bars, etc. in this category too.)
But, what if you’re just switching to a real food diet? Your child is begging you for familiar food! Serve some “kid food,” but make it at home so it’s healthy, and serve some new foods. An example would be homemade chicken nuggets, baked potato with cheese, and broccoli. Or, grilled chicken and homemade fries. You can even make mac’n’cheese at home! Popsicles are easily made at home (and the only way I can get my 3-year-old to eat yogurt). This is a good compromise. Your child will learn to have new favorites, and will still get some old-standbys — albeit, much healthier versions!
Pickiness will end. Always, always persist in serving nourishing foods, and your toddler will eventually get on board, whether he’s had real food his whole life or it’s brand new to him. It’s better not to even start a junk food habit, or nix it early than to allow it and deal with it for your entire life!
Not that the occasional treat isn’t okay. 🙂 But we’re talking about meal times. Don’t allow treats because “he won’t eat his meals,” unless they, too, are nourishing, otherwise your efforts to get past the pickiness will fail! Find a few no-fail nourishing snacks and offer them if your toddler is having an especially picky day (plain yogurt never fails here). Above all, just know this will end, and then you will have a happy, healthy child who will eat most foods!
Did your children go through a picky phase? How did you handle it?