May 8, 2022/Children's Health

How To Deal With a Picky Eater Toddler

From routines to portion sizes, these strategies can help your child eat a broad range of food

An illustration of an adult feeding a child

From an aversion to green foods to a love for mac ‘n’ cheese, your child is, shall we say, highly discriminating when it comes to what they’ll eat. And, picky eating typically starts during the toddler years.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

“Normal picky eating can start anywhere as early as age 2 or 3,” says registered dietitian Jennifer Hyland, RD, CSP, LD. “Usually during infancy, children are adventurous eaters and they’re trying new things. The picky eating really creeps up around the time they become toddlers. Parents will say, ‘My kid ate vegetables and they liked this and they liked that and now they don’t eat anything.’ We see that pretty frequently.”

But don’t give up on efforts to entice your child to eat a broader range of foods, including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s important to continue to expose children to new foods over time to get them to try them,” says Hyland.

There’s a wide spectrum of behavior when it comes to picky eating. But for most children, picky eating doesn’t go away on its own unless parents really work at it.

Research shows it can take anywhere from 10 to 20 tries, and often more, for a child to like a particular food.

Here are some tips on how to get your children to be more adventurous when it comes to eating.

Don’t force foods

You want to make mealtimes a safe, enjoyable space, so don’t force your kids to eat if they say they aren’t hungry or even make them clean their plate (are those last two bites of peas worth the battle?).

Doing so could lead your child to connect food with anxiety and frustration.

“Forcing food can cause your child to distrust their own appetite and lead them to believe that they can’t regulate their own hunger cues,” warns Hyland. “It can be very confusing as they grow. Also, research shows that forcing food doesn’t make a kid less picky.”

Keep up a routine

Make sure you serve meals and snacks around the same time every day. Aim for three meals and two snacks each day. This’ll help establish a routine.

And watch what kind of snacks you offer: apple slices are great, while cookies shouldn’t be a regular choice. Filling up on unhealthy snacks might decrease their appetite when it comes time to eat a meal.

Advertisement

“Children thrive on routine. It’s the parent’s job to choose what’s served and when it’s served,” says Hyland. “If you’re offering food every few hours throughout the day, they have many opportunities to eat, versus grazing and filling up on snack foods and then not being hungry for meals.”

Start small with portion sizes

Large portions of new foods can be overwhelming for children. Instead of serving a whole scoop full of a nonpreferred food, put one bite on their plate. Your child may not touch it, but continued exposure to these foods over time will often eventually lead to them getting curious.

“Big portions are scary for kids,” says Hyland. “Start small and you can always add more.”

Talk about food

Instead of focusing on how food tastes, talk about how the food looks from its color, shape, texture and smell.

Also, seeing you try new foods and eating a variety can help your child feel OK when it comes to branching out. Remember to practice what you preach.

“When I see picky eaters, I don’t allow them to use words like “yuck” or “gross,” says Hyland. “Instead, they have to describe how the food actually looks, smells or tastes.”

Make meals fun

Think about presentation when making meals. Can you cut foods into fun shapes with a cookie cutter? Add dips like ranch to a side of broccoli or hummus with baby carrots.

“Sprinkles also go a long way. Yes, actual sprinkles, or foods that they can shake on like sprinkles. Think seasonings, herbs and chia seeds,” says Hyland. “If a kid doesn’t like the food presented, I would ask what we can add to make it more exciting. Sometimes, it really is as simple as that.”

Cook the same meals for all family members

At mealtime, it’s helpful to have at least one food on the plate that you know your child will eat. But be sure to give everyone at the table the same foods.

“Try your best to cook the same meal for the whole family,” advises Hyland. “The child may not eat all of it, but it’s important that you present it, and that you set an example of trying these foods yourself.”

Get kids involved in meal planning

When you’re grocery shopping, ask your child to pick out some fruits and vegetables. Making them feel like they have control over the situation can positively influence whether they try it during a meal.

Advertisement

You can also have your kids help with washing vegetables and setting the table.

“When kids do things themselves, they have more ownership over it and may be proud to try what they make,” explains Hyland. “Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but keep them involved and they will eventually try things.”

Limit distractions

While it’s easy to use a smartphone or TV to occupy your child’s attention while you eat, it can distract your child.

“Not only do I want kids focused on the food, but I want them focused on family time and conversation,” says Hyland.

Don’t ban sweets

From dessert to candy, it can be easy for parents to say no to those sugar-laden treats. But establishing healthy guidelines — which includes occasional treats — can help your child learn how not to overindulge and how to set boundaries.

“When you make treats a restricted food, kids and adults will crave them more,” says Hyland. “I suggest serving the occasional treat with the meal, rather than making them eat all their food to have a reward at the end.”

Should parents worry about their picky eater?

If your child is underweight, you might be worried that your child isn’t getting enough nutrition. This results in parents giving their children whatever they want to eat to make sure they’re getting enough calories.

If this is you, it’s a good time to meet with a registered dietitian or physician because there are ways to combat that problem, while still improving your child’s picky eating habits.

“The most important thing a parent can do with a choosy eater is to be consistent and not give up,” says Hyland.

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person eating salad with oversized clock behind them
April 10, 2024/Brain & Nervous System
Eating Too Fast? Here Are 4 Ways To Slow Down

Eating mindfully, sipping water and chewing slowly can help your brain catch up with your stomach

Close up of hand holding a scoop of powder baby formula over container of powder baby formula
February 23, 2024/Children's Health
Feeding Your Baby: How and When to Supplement With Formula

When breastfeeding doesn’t go as planned, you may need to supplement with formula or donor breast milk — and that’s OK

pregnant female feeling her breasts
February 5, 2024/Pregnancy & Childbirth
When Does Milk Supply Regulate When You’re Breastfeeding?

Typically, milk comes in a few days after birth and regulates around four weeks after delivery

male kid eating celery sticks with peanutbutter at table with homework
January 11, 2024/Children's Health
Snack Attack: 6 Healthy Snack Ideas for Kids

Look for snacks that are low in sugar and high in fiber, protein and healthy fats

Young female teen drinking canned beverage outside
December 26, 2023/Children's Health
The Young and the Restless: Why Kids Should Avoid Caffeine

No amount of caffeine is safe for kids under 12, and kids 12 to 17 should be cautious about how much they consume

Toddler drinking from a cup while at the table during dinner.
November 20, 2023/Children's Health
Toddler Drinks — What Does the Research Say About These Products?

They aren’t unhealthy, but they’re probably a waste of money

people eating dinner at table with clock in background
November 1, 2023/Nutrition
What’s the Best Time To Eat Dinner?

A study shows that eating a late dinner can increase your chance of having obesity

Person making a selection from a food delivery app on their phone.
October 11, 2023/Nutrition
4 Ways To Kick a Food Delivery Habit

Be mindful, like gauging your hunger and reviewing nutritional information

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey

Ad