Anyone else have a very picky toddler?! One day they will eat anything and the next every food group seems to be a battle. Like a lot of parents of young kids, we struggle with vegetables around here! Today Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC is answering all of YOUR picky eater questions! Crystal is a mama of 5 and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in maternal health and child feeding.
Q: How can we get our toddler to eat more veggies?
This is a great question. First, I think it’s important to normalize some of the typical toddler eating behaviors we might be seeing in our kiddos. If a toddler is becoming more picky or selective with their eating habits or isn’t willing to eat certain foods, like veggies – they are likely 100% normal.
You aren’t a bad parent or failing as a mother is your child isn’t drawn toward eating certain foods, like veggies. It’s actually expected for toddlers to refuse eating certain foods that they happily and willingly ate as a baby.
Part of a toddler refusing to eat veggies is parallel with their developmental stage at the time. Most toddlers are starting to become more autonomous and independent. They want to be able to do things on their own terms, and this is especially true with food. So trying to pressure or persuade a toddler to eat certain foods, like veggies, can potentially backfire and actually make them dislike those foods even more.
So what’s the best approach to take if your toddler isn’t eating too many veggies?
Keep your eye on the big picture while feeding your kiddos. The most important goal is not to get them to eat more veggies, but to nurture a positive and trusting feeding relationship between you and your child. Creating positive eating experiences and mealtimes with your kids has more of a lasting impact on their overall health than trying to micromanage their food intake or the types of foods they’re eating. When parents are stressed about feeding their kids, kids will in turn feel stressed about eating. This is a surefire way for creating power struggles at mealtimes.
Remember this mantra: parents provide, child decides.
This means you’re responsible for deciding what you’re going to feed your child. Your child is responsible for deciding: 1) whether or not she wants to eat, and 2) how much she wants to eat from the food you’ve provided.
Stepping outside these parameters as a parent can make mealtimes stressful for your child.
When you realize that it’s not your job to get your child to eat anything, including veggies, you’re creating space for them to explore food on their terms, which is important for a child to feel safe with eating.
The most effective way to support your child’s overall veggie intake is to continue offering veggies in a variety of ways without pressuring your child to eat them.
Remember – toddlers need to be able to eat on his or her terms – not your terms, in order to feel safe about trying new foods. But just because your child rejects a certain food, like vegetables, doesn’t mean you should stop offering them. Eating is a skill kids are learning to develop and they need multiple opportunities to try within a safe environment.
So keep offering and exposing your child to a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables.
Try different ways of serving vegetables to make them interesting and flavoral. Any time your child can interact with food may increase their comfortability with eating that food. So letting your kids dunk their veggies in a dip, or even playing with their food can help them feel safe to eat those foods.
It’s also important to remember that fruits and vegetables have a similar nutrient profile. So if your child isn’t eating many vegetables but enjoys fruit, they are likely getting the micronutrients needed to support overall growth.
For more support on this topic, check out this post: “Eating Veggies Won’t Save Your Child’s Health, But Here’s What Can Help”
Q: How do you feel about “hiding” veggies?
I think when we try to “hide” veggies, there’s usually good intention behind this.
But this can cause a child to distrust their caregivers and food overall. Distrust around food can create more problems for a child when it comes to eating. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t integrate veggies into your child’s favorite foods to try to increase acceptance, but I wouldn’t try to hide it from them. The best thing is to be open and honest with your kids about food, especially if they’re asking about what’s in the food.
For example, if you serve a dish that integrates veggies in it, and your child is asking you what foods in it, I would be direct about letting them know what you’ve included in that dish.
A good follow-up response is to reassure your child that she doesn’t have to eat the food if she doesn’t want to. The transparency on your part, along with the invitation for your child to try the meal on her terms, can help her feel safe to eat.
Kids are highly suspicious of foods that are new, so you want to make the environment as safe and comfortable for them as possible to explore food.
If you can include your child in the kitchen and in meal preparation, this can also be a way to build curiosity and comfortability around food.
Q: If my toddler doesn’t eat what I offer, should I offer a second option?
Going back to our mantra above, Parents provide, child decides.
Remember – it’s not your job to get your child to eat, and there may be times where your child decides not to eat what you’ve offered. And that is okay.
Trying to cater to your child’s every preference is just not realistic and may drive you bananas in the process.
Toddlers in particular commonly experience what we call “food jags” – which is when they go through periods of really liking certain foods and then not wanting to have anything to do with them. Sometimes, this can happen in a matter of DAYS. For example, your child might really like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and then randomly decide that they want nothing to do with them ever again (Insert eye-rolling here).
If you’re only catering to what your kids might like in the moment, this won’t help them learn how to eat.
So again, the key is to offer, but not pressure your child to eat.
You can (and should) be considerate of including safe foods they might like to eat with the meal you’ve prepared, but you don’t need to make anything special or separate for them. Be considerate of your child’s preferences without catering to them.
As long as you have at least 1 safe food option for your child at mealtimes, your child won’t go hungry. If the meal is over and they’re asking you for other food, you can let them know more food will be available at the next meal or snack.
It is important for your child to know that there will always be something he can eat at mealtimes, so including a safe food option will help create that reassurance for your child. This might look like bread, milk, fruit, etc. – at least one option you know your child will be comfortable with eating. When a child can identify at least one safe option at the table, that also helps take the pressure and stress off the child.
This is also something that can be used to redirect your child at mealtimes. For example, if you serve a meal, and your toddler says, “I don’t like that!”. You can simply say, “That’s okay, you don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to. There’s some other things on the table you can eat if you’re hungry.”
Q: Any ideas for kids who don’t want to try anything new?
Food neophobia, or fear of trying new foods, is something we expect to see with toddlers. Keep in mind that eating and learning how to eat different and new foods is a skill they’re developing. Just like riding a bike, your child needs to learn about new food in incremental steps.
I think we expect a child to go from seeing a new food straight to being able to eat it, but there’s a lot of steps that have to happen in between for a child to feel comfortable trying new food.
For example, a child might need several exposures to a new food just to feel comfortable tolerating it being on his plate, which is one of the earliest steps in learning about new foods. He then may need many more exposures to that particular food before he feels comfortable enough to touch it or pick it up with his hands or fork.
Think of it like climbing up a ladder. Your child has to master the step he’s on before he can move to the next step. And it has to be on his terms. If he feels prematurely pushed into trying food before he’s ready, it might actually set him back or create aversions around eating that food.
It can feel tedious and painstakingly slow to see your child make progress in this area, but just remember that it really does take time and patience. Your child needs consistent opportunities and multiple exposures to a variety of foods without feeling any pressure to eat those foods. Gradually, with this approach, you’ll see your child make progress in this area.
Some steps of progress with new food might be:
- Your child can tolerate new foods being on her plate
- Your child may interact with new foods, like picking it up or holding it in his hand
- Your child might play with new foods (kids learn about their environment through play, so this is actually a positive way for your child to feel more comfortable with trying new foods)
- Your child might put a new food in his mouth and then spit it out
- Your child may be more engaging with family and conversation at the table
- Your child may be less fearful of coming to the table
- Your child may be excited to serve herself and others
While none of these steps actually involve your child eating the food itself, they’re important for helping your child feel more confident in progressing to trying new foods.
Ultimately, when you give your kids the space they need to explore new foods on their terms and don’t pressure them to eat anything they’re not ready to try, they will feel safer and more comfortable to try new foods when they’re ready.
For more on supporting a child in trying new foods, check out this post: “How to Get a Picky Eater to Eat: 5 Proven Ways For Offering New Foods”
Q: Should you make them try everything on their plate at least once?
I don’t encourage this approach because it can inadvertently cause a child to feel pressured to eat. We want to avoid pressuring a child to eat because that can make mealtime feel unsafe and uncomfortable.
This might seem like a short-term solution to getting your child to eat, but remember, this is not the end goal. The goal is to help your child feel comfortable with food and to have positive mealtime experiences. This approach has been shown to be an effective way to help a child build confidence with eating and to support a child in meeting her nutritional needs to best support her growth and development.
As much as possible, try not to micromanage what your child is eating at mealtimes. Any given mealtime is not an accurate snapshot of your child’s nutrition intake. While as adults, we might be intentional about eating a variety of foods at mealtimes, kids are not programmed in this way. What we see is that kids are able to meet their nutritional needs over weeks at a time, not necessarily in any one given meal.
Q: How do you know what’s normal picky eating vs. a problem you should get help with?
This is a really important question. While picky eating can certainly be a normal behavior, there are some signs to be aware of that this may be something to seek out professional help for.
Some of these signs that warrant professional evaluation include:
- Your child may be losing weight
- Your child is not gaining weight appropriately
- Your child frequently vomits or gags when eating
- Your child may appear to be in pain or upset when eating
- Your child may have swallowing difficulties
- Your child may be unable to get beyond baby foods or purees
There are many wonderful professionals and resources available to help support you and your child on your feeding journey, and you definitely don’t need to navigate this alone. Be sure to connect with your pediatrician if you’re concerned about any feeding difficulties and consider working with a pediatric dietitian who specializes in picky eating. I’m happy to point you in the right direction too if you need any help connecting to support.
Q: What if my child doesn’t want to eat or try meat?
This is much more common than many parents realize. Meat often has a texture that is more complex and harder for kids to manage. That is okay. The good news is that there are a variety of ways for your child to get the protein and iron needed to support growth and development.
Keep in mind that a child’s protein needs can be met with other foods outside of meat, and portions needed to meet their protein requirements are much smaller than we expect.
In general, a toddler needs about 13-18 grams of protein per day to meet their overall needs. This could be met with a hardboiled egg and a cup of milk during the day (it’s not much!)
There are also plenty of other non-meat foods that are high in protein and iron that your child may enjoy eating or feel comfortable with, including:
- Legumes, beans, lentils, hummus
- Whole grain breads
- Any dairy products, including milk, cheese, yogurt and cottage cheese
- Plant-based milks, like soy milk
- Plant-based proteins, like tofu, soy beans, etc.
- Legume based pastas, like chickpea pasta
- Veggies, like peas, potatoes, and corn
The most effective thing is to keep offering a variety of foods without pressuring your child to eat. Meats that are softer in texture can also be more manageable for your child, like ground meat, soft-cooked meatballs, and or minced meat cooked into other dishes, like casseroles.
No matter what your feeding journey might look like with your kiddos, know that you’re doing an incredible job, mama. Our kids don’t often eat the way we might expect them to, and this does not mean that you’re failing at this whole feeding process. This is really normal and expected. One of the most powerful things you can do is meet your children wherever they might be, in respect to eating, and trust that is exactly where they’re meant to be. You’ve got this, mama!
Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, is a mama of 5 and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in maternal health and child feeding. Crystal is passionate about helping mothers build a peaceful relationship with food & their bodies so they can confidently nourish themselves & their families and bring joy back to eating. Crystal is committed to providing holistic, compassionate, and evidence-based nutrition care to mothers and families worldwide through her online blog and virtual nutrition coaching practice. Find more motherhood and meal time inspiration on her blog or on Instagram @crystalkarges.