Handling Picky Real-Food Toddlers |

Handling Picky Real-Food Toddlers

admin February 1, 2011


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?

Abnormal Pickiness

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.

Normal Pickiness

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?

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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!)
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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:

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!

Final Thoughts

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?

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  1. Reintroduction was big for us–just recently Cam started liking sweet potato "fries," after we kept putting them on his plate over and over (we have them once or twice a week!). He does not care for mushy potatoes at.all. but we kept telling him the cut/baked sweet potatoes were "just orange fries." :shuffles: Now he will eat a couple and actually seems to like the taste, though he still sometimes shudders at the texture.

    Another point I thought would be helpful–serving size. I think a lot of people overload their kids' plates. I know we are frustrated when Cam doesn't eat what's on his plate, but putting smaller servings on there helps. His belly IS still quite small, and less food is less overwhelming/daunting for him, as well. Then when he finishes his food he can have seconds of whatever, or something else like fruit, etc.

    Our biggest issue lately is that dinner is a challenging time–he is climbing in and out of his chair, picking at his food, dipping his fingers in the sauce, etc. It is infuriating and really ruins the mood…plus, he's HUNGRY (hasn't eaten since lunch most days…giving him an afternoon snack–even applesauce–pretty much guarantees he won't eat dinner). He winds up in time-out for any number of reasons (usually getting up and down or dropping food or whatever). He knows that he doesn't *have* to eat…he can be done if he wants. But then he's at our ankles bugging us while we eat our dinners, and we have to remind him that WE are still eating, he needs to go play elsewhere.

    It seems like dinnertime just rings a bell in his mind to start acting up. Very frustrating! He's always been pickier about meat (loves sausage, does okay with pork and chicken, dislikes beef–but lately all he will eat without fuss is the sausage and he requests it every night, lol) but it's getting really ridiculous. We serve the same 10 meals over and over, so he has eaten them all before. We know he doesn't *love* the meats but he doesn't hate them, either. And we always serve a vegetable he likes, and sometimes rice, so it's not like he starves. He just is acting up, I think…it's the end of the day, Daddy just got home and he wants to play, etc. We just wish he'd sit and eat with us and enjoy the meal so we can all have a pleasant experience. He'd rather just be three, I guess. 😛


  2. "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."

    I am curious what you think most doctors would do about this? Our doctor is very holistic when it comes to vaccinations, antobiotics, and other medical choices. When is comes to nutrition he is horrible. Still stuck on the SAD and is even a vegetarian promoting soy products. Needless to say he would not be of any assistance to us in the area of nourishing foods for our toddler.

    Speaking of our toddler. Naomi is almost two and still weights under 20 lbs. She is below the charts for weight and height, but is developing ahead of the game as far of speech, gross and fine motors skills go. For the last year she will ONLY eat the following:
    -Sprouted toast with butter
    -Raw cheese
    -cereal bars
    -2 varieties of Earth's Best Baby Food (Vegetable Beef Pilaf, Zucchinni and Broccoli)

    I have been very concerned with her diet but have tired everything to get her to eat more/try other foods and she will not do it. I was recently diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity and have gone GF and would love for her to try that as well, but she would starve before eating anything else.

    Do you have any ideas where to start?


  3. Cori,

    First, I'd have her zinc and vit D levels checked. My daughter started eating more foods once supplemented with zinc. It improved her immune function and cleared some junk from her system so she felt okay to eat more. I mean, within HOURS. I'd also offer her any form of probiotics you can — yogurt and raw cheese is great!

    I'd consider going GF with her, or even completely grain-free. She will not like it (my daughter didn't either) but she will learn to eat other things. My daughter started to eat a lot of meat when we took away grains. Then other stuff. You'd be in for a miserable few days, but she would start eating other things, then would feel better. Plus she could still have bananas, yogurt, and cheese, so she'd have SOMETHING she likes. We've found great success with the GAPS diet. My daughter does eat just about anything now! (She's still picky about anything tomatoes and any type of sauce, and does not like anything carbonated, even kombucha. But…other than that….) Carb cravings are generally a sign of damaged gut health, unfortunately, especially if it's ALL the person will eat. I hope you find something that works! Just don't be afraid to change things, thinking she'll starve. She won't. It will be temporarily difficult but ultimately a lot better. 🙂


  4. I like the mention of frozen foods. My younger brothers, even at their pickiest, would never say no to frozen peas. They liked the different feel of the cold food.

    And, of course, there's always the "playing with their food" solution. Broccoli trees, carrot coins, dips, pictures drawn with spread on a slice of bread, all can be useful in making food a bit more fun.


  5. I'd love to hear if any readers have suggestions for older kid pickiness. I have yet to have a toddler who is picky (4 kids are past this stage and my last is heading into it, being almost 1), but my 10 YO seems to have texture issues with stuff like rice or oats. We fed her all kinds of stuff as a young child but that seems to make no difference long-term.


  6. I think sometimes food texture issues can be a forever thing! I'm 27 and still can't eat chunky/fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, for example. 😛 Makes me shudder just to think about it. Or like, crunchy bits (celery) in tuna salad gives me goosebumps…weird, but it is what it is!


  7. came here from RFW, nice blog! I'm very interested amylase/grain digestion with babies. can you post some links with articles, studies, etc. if you're up for it, I love to have you guest post on FwKA on this topic.

    so true that most pickiness is normal. it will be temporary only if mom and dad believe it will be temporary (barring any medical reason for food aversions as you mention).

    all of the things you say are spot on, but i would include one more. it's taken a couple years of blogging on the subject of "growing good eaters" and working directly with parents of picky eaters for me to be able to articulate this myself. see what you think.

    kids are capable of doing what we expect them to do (almost all the time). if we as parents believe they will be good eaters, they will be, regardless of how many picky phases and food jags they have as toddlers, grade schoolers or adolescents. they may not want to eat what you serve, they may not prefer what you're serving, but they will eat it, if you expect them to be capable of it.

    consider literacy. the vast majority of kids learn how to do something complicated that requires a lot of practice like reading. why? not just because they have guidance and daily practice in kindergarten. but because the kinder teacher and parents expect the child to be able to read.

    if you expect your child to become tolerant of vegetables, whole foods, spicy foods, ethnic foods, she will.

    you will have to follow your expectations (or mindset) with matching actions like offering healthy food, encouraging/expecting them to taste it, giving plenty of opportunities to practice, exposing them to whole foods not only on the table but in books, in the kitchen, in the garden, at the store/farmer's market etc.

    growing a good eater is possible when your mindset, thoughts, actions are all in accord. then the result "growing a good eater" will naturally fall out. Even if it takes longer than you expect, or there are moments of resistance, or periods of regression.

    cathy – about older kids who have particular aversions. it is possible for them to overcome them. i am a recovering picky eater. not only was i uber picky as a child, i was fussy about how i wanted foods (separate, plain, etc) i didn't learn to eat (and now love) things like onions, mushrooms, leafy greens, raw carrots, nuts etc until i was in my 30s. most of my issues were texture related.

    two things helped 1) i experimented with different preparations to find ways that didn't bother my texture aversions. i like grated carrots but not a carrot stick. now i'm a big girl and if carrot sticks were the only food available and i needed nourishment i can eat them. i just hate that mouthfeel of a bunch of dry carrot crumbles. same thing with raw nuts. if i grind them into a pesto, or eat them covered in chocolate, i enjoy them.

    2) i challenged myself to like them. i believed i could find a way to like them. i gave myself the "permission" to like them, practiced a bunch, changed my mindset and was successful. Not sure I would have cared to be capable of that at 10, but who knows, maybe your daughter would love a challenge like "find a way to love rice" sushi? cold rice salad? with a saucy stir fry? as a grain in soup.

    one thing i'd say is, as a nation we eat far too many grains anyway, so i'm not sure it's too necessary to work really hard on falling in love with rice and oats. she may be avoiding them because they are hard for her to digest and cause GI problems. if she has other necessary nutrients available (veggies are carbs too) nothing to worry about.


  8. I must have the "not-normal-see-a-doctor" kid because my second son will ONLY eat about three foods. But we have told the doctor, and they aren't concerned. I even saw a naturopath and had the kids tested for everything, but they got a clean bill of health. I try EVERYTHING to get my 3 yr old to eat, but it is a lost cause. There is absolutely no such thing in my house as feeding him a variety. He will ONLY eat fruit, carbs, cheese, and peanut butter. If we put other food in front of him, he'll just go on strike until I get so worried that I shove a peanut butter sandwich in his face. But if I didn't do that, he wouldn't eat for days. I mean it — DAYS. That boy has more willpower than any parent could stomach. His pediatrician has never seen a problem with it though, and he's perfectly developed in all ways.

    My husband worked in fine dining for YEARS before our kids came along, and we both swore up and down that our children were going to have an advance palate, but all of that went out the window when it came down to a choice between force-feeding them to eat the dinner we made, or letting them starve. Starvation doesn't sit right with me, so we do what we have to do. After I told the doctor that we were considering force-feeding, they told me that we were going to give our kids an eating disorder by forcing them to eat things they didn't like and focusing too much on food. So now they eat when they're hungry, and whatever they want (as long as it's not cookies or lollipops.) That's the best I can do.


  9. feminist breeder – sounds like you have a real challenge on your hands. i suspect that because your child's diet is so limited that there is a medical issue at play. your pedi may not be clued in to those things, but your naturopath should be. i advise you to bring research into your pedi that shows a side effect of kids with GI issues, sensory disorders and on ASD that have very intense food aversions and very narrow list of accepted foods. if your pedi doesn't agree to consider a medical issue is at play, find a new doc. There is still plenty of hope for your child. Once you determine whether there is a medical issue at play and resolve it, the eating will get better. unfortunately for most kids with medical issues, the carbs they crave and accept make their condition worse. i'm not saying it will be easy, as your child will not like giving up the foods he currently accepts, but at 3yo, he is old enough to understand when you tell him certain foods harm his health. in time he'll adjust to their absence and accept other foods that don't make his condition worse.


  10. i think this post might be sending some wrong signals and may also be helping to set in real panic. people eat what they eat – i know many many picky adults. my kids are very picky themselves and they are developing just fine. just be conscience – your kids only eat peanut butter sandwiches? great just make sure it's grainy bread and all-natural peanut butter and not white bread & skippy. they only eat cheese? great just make sure it's not processed cheese slices. only yogurt? try for plain with your own blend of fruit in it in place of the stir-yourself fruit-at-the-bottom.
    and always offer some fruits and veggies and if they say no they say no – possibly one day they will say yes. my daughter will only eat purple apple sauce and sunrype veggies strawberry banana juice so i make sure she gets some of the everyday. my son is better in the fruit department but not the veggie so i work with what i can. yes i get totally stressed about it but they are the tallest around, my 4 year old has picked up french like nobodies business and my 5 year old just got a glowing report card so i really don't think their development is being denied.
    i agree with the lead by example – eat what you want them to eat and don't have in the house what you don't want them to have – even if you have to suffer with going without your favorite cookies. have on hand the foods you want them to eat and let them pick from those what they want. they love control and if you hand that over to them they will be more willing in the long run.
    i feel we run to the doctor too much as a society but i am not ruling it out – by all means if you feel that there is a problem there go go go! these are our children and our job is too protect them.
    what you do is the best you can do – if you remember that and try to make as many healthy choices as humanly possible they will turn out just fine.
    i'm not a doctor or nutritionist – i'm just a mom who has been dealing with this for about 3 years and i'm just offering my two cents and who is still struggling with all this herself.
    have enjoyed very much this debate and everyone contributions and thoughts on the matter.


  11. My serious concern about children with limited diets, especially those who ONLY eat carbs/sugar/dairy (even natural cheese, whole wheat bread, and real fruit) is that there is a gut imbalance. This is SO COMMON these days. Parents have the problem so their kids are born with it, often times. The "sweet" foods feed the yeast so they crave them. Simply saying "We're only going to offer meat and veggies" will initially be met with a huge resistance. But I believe it IS crucial to address this issue.

    Parents who are not familiar with the "real food" movement may not understand all of this. Nor would they see anything wrong with their child having a limited diet as long as it is "unprocessed," but it is NOT normal over a long period. Kids may go through fussy phases, but they should not limit themselves to only a couple of foods for months or years on end. In this case, seeking help from an alternative doctor is advised.

    It is not meant to stress or upset parents. It is meant to help them deal with minor health issues before they turn into bigger problems down the line.


  12. My almost 2 year old son was sitting at the table for breakfast NOT eating his Hootenanny pancake. He is off and on all the time about what he will eat one day and not another. A close family member was in town and trying to “help” my son sneak in bites between distractions to eat as much as possible, even though it was obvious my son didn’t want to touch his food. About an hour later on the way to an activity, my son threw up in the car for the first time ever. It is important to listen to our children and be understanding that they may have an occasional stomach pain, allergy, or texture, smell, taste dislike. We all have those days. But we don’t have someone bigger than us making sure we are eating every healthy item possible and not wasting their time and money on what we don’t eat.
    READ ME: http://parentarizona.com/how-to-get-your-kids-to-eat/


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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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