Can you prevent picky eating & how to help your picky toddler

baby feeding problems picky eating toddler Apr 10, 2024
A picky toddler is frowning at the table with a bowl of food in front of him

Picky eating can be a huge stressor for many families. It seems incredibly common, yet on social media we see many posts about how to prevent picky eating.

Moreover, we see videos of babies and toddlers eating food we can’t even pronounce and wonder what we are doing wrong because our baby or toddler has strong food preferences.

I want to dive into the topic of typical infant eating patterns, typical toddler eating habits, picky eating, and what to do about it.

If you’re looking for more information on the topic, check out the podcast I recorded with Jessica Irwin, OT, from Rooted in Routine.



Do babies eat everything?

I want to discuss baby eating habits before diving into toddler eating habits.

Babies are fed roughly every 2-3 hours from the time they arrive earthside. This continues once a baby transitions from breast milk or formula to solid foods. This is referred to as weaning.

Parents lay the groundwork for future eating habits as solids are introduced. Parents choose what flavors and textures to offer their baby and are in charge of textural progression. Parents also increase the amount of solids offered throughout the day as babies approach their first birthday. After their first birthday, babies often drink less milk and get the majority of their nutrients from food.

The goal is for babies to eat a variety of foods, textures, and flavors before they become opinionated toddlers. 

Remember, though it is more common for babies to accept a variety of textures and flavors, it is not true of every baby. Some babies are picky from the start, though it is important to remember that you may need to expose a baby to food 7-10 times before they accept it.


>>> Looking for ways to add flavor and texture into your baby’s food? Get a free guide here <<<


Can you prevent picky eating?

Saying a parent can prevent picky eating by doing XYZ things (baby-led weaning, offering 100 foods before one) is problematic to me. 

Yes, flavor and texture exposure can decrease the chances that your baby will turn into a more particular eater, but you can do all the things and your toddler may still be picky.

We can only control so much and the rest is up to our child.

That doesn’t mean it is hopeless and that a family shouldn’t try, but it does mean that its is not your fault if your toddler won’t eat as much variety as they did as a baby.


Why is my toddler so picky?

It is not fun when your baby who was once a fabulous eater becomes a choosier toddler. Unfortunately, it is incredibly common for it to happen.

Toddlers are notorious for their picky eating habits, and several factors contribute to this behavior:

  • Developmental Stage: During the first year of life, an average infant gains roughly 15 pounds (7 kg) in weight. During the second year of life, growth is about 5 pounds (2.3 kg). Between two and five years of age, weight gain slows down. Most children gain between 2 to 4 pounds (1 kg to 2 kg). They do not have as great of intake needs, which can impact their appetite and food preferences. 

  • Autonomy and Control: Mealtime is one area where toddlers may exert control as they assert their independence. Picky eating can be a way for them to assert their preferences and test boundaries.

  • Food Neophobia: Toddlers may exhibit food neophobia, a fear of trying new foods. This natural instinct is thought to have evolutionary roots, where avoiding unfamiliar foods helped protect early humans from potential toxins.

  • Sensory Sensitivities: Sensory issues, such as sensitivity to certain textures or smells, can contribute to picky eating behaviors in toddlers. 


Strategies to Encourage Healthy Eating Habits:

Dealing with a picky toddler can be challenging, but there are effective strategies to encourage healthier eating habits:

  1. Offer Familiar Foods: Continue offering familiar foods that your toddler enjoys while gradually introducing new foods. Having familiar options on the table can provide a sense of security and reduce mealtime stress. I like to choose two “safe” foods to put on Max’s plate. One is a fruit and the other is a protein. The other foods on his plate are what the entire family is eating.  This way I know he is getting important nutrients each meal even if he isn’t willing to try the new food.

  2. Be Patient and Persistent:  Encourage your toddler to try new foods without pressuring or forcing them. It may take multiple exposures before they feel comfortable trying a new food, so be patient and continue offering it in a positive manner. In other words, you get to decide what to put on their plate and they get to decide if they are going to eat it or not.

  3. Set a Routine: Establish regular meal and snack times to help regulate your toddler's appetite. Consistency can help reduce grazing, though toddlers and preschoolers typically love snacking. 

  4. Have realistic expectations: Does your toddler slow down during the day? Can you get them to sit still to do an activity? If you answered no to these questions, it is likely going to be hard for your child to sit for longer than a few minutes. It’s a work in progress.

  5. Get Creative: Present foods in fun and appealing ways to make them more enticing for your toddler. Toddlers love toothpicks, googly eyes, or sprinkles.

  6. Offer Choices: Give your toddler options to choose from, but limit the choices to avoid overwhelming them. For example, ask if they'd like carrots or cucumber with their lunch, rather than leaving it open-ended. We also have an “anytime” option. If Max (age 4) is still hungry, he can always ask for PB&J.

  7.  Food Progression:  Start with a food your toddler likes and add small modifications to add more food exposure. For example, if your toddler will only eat Annie’s mac and cheese, try a different shape of noodle >  noodles with butter and shredded cheese > chickpea noodles with butter and shredded cheese > chickpea noodles with shredded cheese and blended butternut squash.  It’s a slow process, but allows for gentle repeated exposure.

  8. Lead by Example:  Model healthy eating behaviors for your toddler by eating a balanced diet in front of your child. I’ve said it more than once, but if you refuse to eat vegetables or make faces at them, it will be a lot harder to get your child to eat them.

  9. Get Them Involved: Let them help with choosing what to eat and meal prep. Buy toddler-appropriate utensils for cutting and get them a toddler tower. 

  10. Give Yourself Grace: It can feel stressful and frustrating when you know your baby or toddler needs to eat, but they won’t actually put food in their mouths. This is especially true for kids on the lower percentiles in their growth charts. 

  11. Ask for help: If you are doing all the things and your toddler is still not eating well, trust your intuition and ask for help. It never hurts to speak with your pediatric provider, a dietitian, and, perhaps, a feeding specialist. 


Typical toddler eating habits:

  • Toddlers transition from breastfeeding or formula feeding to consuming solid foods.

  • They typically have three main meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) along with snacks throughout the day.

  • Toddler appetite fluctuates due to growth spurts, activity levels, and individual preferences.

  • Toddlers may prefer grazing throughout the day rather than eating large meals. This is okay.

  • Offering healthy snacks between meals helps meet their nutritional needs.

  • Selective eating is common among toddlers, with preferences for certain foods. Toddlers like it when their food consistently looks and tastes the same. 

  • Encouraging a balanced diet including fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy is important for growth and development.

  • Involving toddlers in meal planning and preparation can foster a positive relationship with food and encourage trying new foods.


Realistic expectations for picky toddlers

 This is my “hot take” as a pediatric nurse practitioner, the mom of two boys, and a former picky eater (I ordered chicken fingers and french fries at every restaurant I went to from the ages of 4 - 18 years): 

  • Offer some protein and some carbs at each meal and snack if possible.

  • Offer fruits and veggies with different colors throughout the day to get in different nutrients.

  • Make sure your toddler is getting enough water and fiber.

  • Daily smoothies can add a lot of nutrients, calories, and healthy fats. Some of my favorite ingredients are: coconut cream, flax seed, hulled hemp hearts, spinach, kale, turmeric, vitamin C-containing foods, nut butter, and unsweetened Greek yogurt. 

Picky eating in toddlers is a normal part of their development, but with patience, persistence, and the right strategies, parents can support their children in developing healthier eating habits. By understanding the reasons behind picky eating, implementing effective strategies to encourage exploration of new foods, and being aware of typical eating patterns for babies and toddlers, parents can navigate the challenges of mealtime with confidence. 

Remember, as your toddler gets older, you will be able to rationalize with them more. This does not mean they will eat everything, but taste and influence change.


>>> It can be stressful when your baby isn't eating as much as you'd like. Schedule a consult where we can talk about ways to get your baby eating! <<<

*All information is US-based education only. Erin Moore is not your baby’s medical provider. All questions should be directed to your baby’s care team.

**This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase with my links, a small portion goes back to my business at no extra cost to you. It either goes to me or to buy Jeff Bezos another rocket ship.

>>> Tired of worrying about feeding your baby? Get personalized support so you can enjoy feeding your baby. <<<

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