Mealtimes with toddlers and young children are NOT for the faint of heart. As the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old, I totally get it. Case in point: my son loves chicken tikka masala, and with a sophisticated favorite like that, you’d think it’d be downhill from there, right? But when I try to give him a bite of yogurt, the ultimate kid-food, his entire body language is like, “Why would you do this to me?”
As parents, we focus (maybe even obsess) on every bite our kids take, worry whether they are getting the nutrition they need, and wonder where we went wrong and raised a picky eater who only likes four things, all beige in color. Picky eating is a top concern that parents voice when they see me in the office. Parents struggle with the inflexibility – it’s hard to go out to restaurants or do family events when you feel like you have to bring your own food. But their bigger concern is the lack of nutrients that would normally come from eating, say, green and purple and red foods. To combat this, parents feel like they have to resort to all sorts of mealtime tactics that run the gamut from cajoling to sneaking ingredients into a dish to punishment or an all-out fight.
Picky eating is very common behavior for kids between the ages of 2 to about 6 years old, but I am happy to report that most kids who are picky eaters are growing and developing just fine, which is our primary yardstick for health and wellness. Let me share some perspective and suggestions I often give to families to demystify the young-child diet.
#1: Keep Offering and Stay Positive.
At this age, young children are learning their sense of self and how to express their opinions. What they choose to eat is one of the few things they can control. The role of a parent of a toddler and young child is to offer healthy foods at healthy times, but it is their child’s decision as to what they’re going to put in their body. As parents, we can fight them on that, but I try to remind parents that food and mealtimes should be a positive experience. Therefore, try not to stress about the picky eating and avoid the negotiations of “just one more bite and we can watch this” or “one more bite and you can do that.” While I know it’s hard, instead focus on the, “Wow, you tried this for the first time! Granted, you chewed it and spat it out, but you tasted it! That was awesome!” The goal at this age is really about giving kids some autonomy while also pushing their boundaries a bit, and then being supportive when they are willing to try something new. As long as they’re growing and developing fine and you keep offering, let go of the daily struggle, take the long view, and eventually, you will be successful.
#2: The Way Young Kids and Adults Eat is Different.
Many families approach nutrition from the adult perspective of a balanced diet. We are taught that each and every ideal meal must contain primarily fruits and vegetables with smaller portions of meat, grains, and dairy. Young kids don’t necessarily eat this way. There are some days when every meal is peas, and the next day it’s chicken. But over the course of the week, if you step back and look at the foods your toddler ate, parents often find that their kids are actually eating a more balanced diet than they thought when they looked at the day-by-day or the plate-by-plate choices. If you continue to offer healthy meal choices, it’s usually okay to have a dinner that’s just peas. Chances are in a few days the peas will be a thing of the past and your child will be on to something else, and over the course of the week there really will be varied and different food groups consumed.
#3: Family Mealtimes Can Model Good, Healthy Choices.
There’s a lot of literature today that suggests that family dinners are really helpful for a lot of different reasons. It gives you time to focus on being together and on one another, in conversation and hopefully with fun and laughter. You’re also modeling behaviors in what you are eating, and children of this age are more aware of their environments and are observing what you and the rest of the family are doing. When you link this positive time with eating – and you make eating fun – your child’s attitude towards food and healthy eating may shift, too.
#4: Let Kids Engage with Meal Preparation.
Toddlers and younger children are naturally curious, so try to channel that into the meal preparation process to raise their investment in and willingness to try new foods. Depending on the age and development level of your child, this can take various forms. You can take your child grocery shopping and make a game out of picking three new foods or choosing one food of each color in the produce section. At home, you can show how ingredients can be mixed to make something entirely different, or have your toddler pick from lots of items to assemble a sandwich.
#5: Watch Snacks and Drinks.
Assuming that your child is growing okay and there’s no concern about weight, it’s good to be mindful of snacks and snack times, because we want kids to build hunger between meals. If they’ve been snacking throughout the afternoon, they won’t feel hungry enough to want dinner. The same is true for milk and fruit juices. Milk and juice have a lot of calories, so they can easily fill up your child and reduce hunger for other food. Although milk is generally considered healthy, it doesn’t offer other sources of protein and nutrients that solids food do, so your child may not get the same nutritional benefit from it. I recommend just water with meals or milk for a really picky eater, but only after the meal so they have the room to eat the solid foods first.
When to Call Your Pediatrician
First of all, call us any time! We are always here for you, and if you’re worried or unsure if all is well, please make an appointment. As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, however, we really don’t worry as long as your child is tracking as expected on the growth charts. Kids don’t grow as fast in the 2-6 year old age range as they do when they’re younger or when they’re older and go through growth spurts. Therefore, they don’t need many calories and can usually weather the ups and downs of picky eating. We do get concerned when kids begin to fall off the growth trajectory they established before the age of 2 and would want to look at that. Anemia is a possible complication, especially if a young child fills up on milk or juice and as a result, does not get as much dietary iron.
We also want to address early on any changes with potty habits. If there’s any concern for reactions to food – e.g., if certain foods cause diarrhea or constipation consistently – maybe there’s an underlying allergy and it’s not just picky eating but avoidance. When kids are constipated – and it’s a super common problem we see at this age – it often has to do with behavioral and dietary patterns. And the longer they suffer from constipation, the more complex and long-lasting the side effects can be. It can lead to decreased appetite, delayed potty training, and cause urinary accidents, to name a few potential issues.
With parts humor and patience and determination, you can successfully guide your picky eater to discover and enjoy lots of wonderful foods. I wish you the best of luck!