Picky Eating: The Toddler Food Wars!

I hear it a lot from parents of my toddler patients.

“He used to be such a ‘good eater’!” Meaning, their little one used to polish off all of the healthy things they put in front of him. Broccoli, apples, peas, fish, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, etc.

Their little baby with the cute toothy grin was eating the rainbow! They were rocking it as parents, but then one day it happens and the party is over.

Many parents see this change around 2 years old. Some children will refuse the veggies that they used to chow down on, they may insist on eating only one kid of food or some days it seems like they will hardly eat at all.  

Don’t worry, this is all pretty normal and it does not mean you have failed as a parent, either. It just means that you might have to take a different approach to get those healthy foods in your toddler’s tummy.

Involve your child.
Nurture their growing independence by getting your child involved in the process. Let them pick out some healthy foods at the grocery store and help you prepare it.

Be a role model!
I know I say this in every article, but it is so true. If you eat healthy food, your child will be more likely to do as you do.

Let them graze.
Toddlers have trouble sitting still and are easily distracted, so don’t fight it. Allow them to graze on various healthy snacks throughout the day.

Just remember to keep it healthy. Don’t let them fill up on juice or other unhealthy options instead.

“Healthify” their not-so-healthy favorites.
If they will only eat spaghetti, use whole-wheat noodles. If they love French fries, bake them in the oven. You can do the same with chicken fingers, too.  

Sneak in those veggies.
Add finely chopped veggies to spaghetti sauce, casseroles and soup. Smoothies are another great option. A friend of mine gives her 3-year-old son a spinach smoothie every day and he loves it.

Give it a try:
2 handfuls spinach
1 banana
2 handfuls mixed frozen fruit 
1 to 2 cups (depending on your preferred consistency) whole milk, soy milk or your favorite nut milk

If you don’t think your child will go for the green color, try putting it in a dark colored cup with a lid.

Start small.
Offer small portions and let them ask for more.

Don’t become a "short-order cook."
Make one healthy meal for the entire family and if your toddler doesn't eat, wrap it up and put it away for later. When your hungry toddler asks for a snack or something else after meal time, pull out the uneaten plate and offer that instead.

Keep at it.
Even if they refuse to eat the broccoli, keep offering it at meal time. Eventually you may get lucky.

Don’t turn meal time into a power struggle.
You know by now that negotiating with a toddler isn’t easy and you usually don’t win, but overall you don’t want to turn meal time into a negative experience for your child.

No tuning out.
Turn off the television and other electronic gadgets during meals, so your toddler can focus on eating.

If you still have concerns about your child’s eating habits or you are worried about their growth and nutrition, talk to your pediatrician about other ways you can manage your toddler’s picky eating habits (and your sanity).

Just remember that as long as your child is not losing weight and has the energy to play and interact, it is likely that he is eating enough to support his growth.

Kathryn C. Self, M.D., is a pediatrician at Carilion Children's pediatric medicine practice in Rocky Mount, Va. Check out Dr. Self's bio to learn more.