Tips for Feeding a Picky Eater Toddler from the Experts at Brenner FIT

Written by Christine Jordan, EdS, LMFT

Feeding a toddler can be a frustrating experience. The foods that your baby once loved suddenly are rejected as he grows into a toddler. Developmentally toddlers are growing and learning to become independent. Eating is a way that toddlers can learn to become independent and exert control over their environment. Parents and toddlers can easily end up in a power struggle, particularly as parents feel their own pressure to make sure that their child is eating healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables. We may pressure our toddler to eat his vegetables by praising or rewarding him with other foods like dessert. However, we find that our pressure backfires as toddlers push back by not eating what we want them to eat. Also, our fear or worry about our child and what he is and is not eating can take the joy out of feeding our child. Ellyn Satter, dietician, social worker and expert in feeding children, suggests that if we do our job as parents in feeding our children, our children will do their job with eating.

Our job in feeding our toddler is to provide structure and safety around eating. As parents we do this in a variety of ways: 

Eat meals and snacks together as a family. Providing routine and reliable meals and snacks allows children to come to meals hungry but not too hungry.

Have set snacks at a table with your toddler. This teaches your toddler the importance of feeding himself regularly and paying attention when he is eating. By not allowing your child to graze throughout the day, he will come to the next meal hungry and ready to eat.

Provide the same meal for adults and toddlers. Be considerate of your child's tastes and likes without catering to him. Avoid offering substitutions to the meal. When introducing a new food, try pairing the new food with something familiar. For example, if you are unsure whether your child will eat grilled chicken, offer a familiar food with the meal like rice or fruit. He will be more confident to try the chicken if he has a familiar food to fall back on.

Trust your child. Let your child pick and chose from what you have offered at a snack or meal. He may or may not eat. Trust that he is doing his job of learning to eat and developing age-appropriate independence. 

Our toddler's job in eating is to decide how much to eat, and if he will eat at all. By allowing a toddler to eat as much or little as he wants, we respect his own developing autonomy. Our toddler's job is to come to the family table and experience others eating and enjoying a variety of foods. When the meal is over, the child plays and goes about his day until the next planned snack or meal. He may have not eaten much at one meal, but he then may come to the next snack or meal hungry and ready to try new foods. If we provide structure without pressure to our toddler, they can do their job with eating, and we can enjoy our job of feeding.

Provided by staff who are part of Brenner FIT (Families in Training). Brenner FIT® is a pediatric weight management program at Brenner Children's that helps families create healthier lifestyles together. Brenner FIT offers free cooking, nutrition and parenting classes.