Do you have a picky toddler at home? Has planning a meal that they will actually eat become a painful chore? Do you wish you knew what you could serve that would meet the needs of their growing body AND be something they would actually eat?
You aren’t alone!
Planning meals for picky eaters is hard, and toddlers can present some especially unique challenges (hello, independence and opinions!) You don’t need to be left thinking, “what can I do for my picky toddler, so they actually eat variety, and my sanity is intact?!”
This comprehensive article will walk you through 10 strategies you can start to use in your own home (right now!) to give your toddler the opportunities to eat what they need (for safety, nutrition and enjoyment), learn to like new foods, and have calm, pleasant meals for the whole family.
If you’re ready for that, read on!
1. Serve foods your toddler is developmentally ready to eat
Parents often think that new types of foods can be offered over time based on their advancing child’s age. While a food list based on age might be helpful as a starting point, it does not take into consideration that children naturally develop skills at different rates.
So while one 2 year old might be able to chew a more difficult food like meat very easily, another child of the same age could be struggling. Similarly, one 3 year old may find wet and slippery textures pleasant, while another child of the same age is repulsed by them. In both these cases, one child may need help learning some new skills to facilitate eating a larger variety of foods.
Skills that should be considered include:
- Sensory tolerance and exploration (the willingness to touch and engage with foods)
- Postural stability (the ability to sit in a position appropriate for feeding)
- Tongue tip lateralization (the ability to use the tongue to push food to molars for chewing)
- Rotary chewing (the circular motion used for effective chewing – think about what a cow looks like as it chews – people use that skill too!)
- Positive mindset (having positive associations with food and eating)
When a toddler is lacking in these skills, it’s common to think, it’s picky eating! However, addressing the underlying skills needed, is actually what will help your child try new foods.
If you suspect your child is lacking skills, it’s always a good idea to discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician and/or seek out the support of a speech therapist, occupational therapist, or dietitian. A helpful place to get started learning more about eating skills is my free Causes of Picky Eating mini course.
2. Serve foods that are safe for your toddler to eat
While it might seem obvious, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of serving foods that are safe. While parents often feel their child has the skills to chew and swallow any food, the fact is that choking still happens.
Safety is especially important to consider for toddlers, as many foods can be a choking risk for children under 4 years old.
Common choking hazards with safer alternatives/modifications
- Hotdogs – cut lengthwise into long strips or cut again into small cubes
- Popcorn – offer meltable puff
- Round foods (grapes or cherry tomatoes) – quarter into long strips
- Hard chips – offer meltable chips (like veggie chips)
- Whole nuts and large seeds – grind or offer naturally small seeds such as chia
- Thickly spread nut and seed butters – spread thinly
- Large chunks of cheese – shred
- Hard raw vegetables – slice thinly (matchsticks) or cook to soften
- Hard candy and gum – offer chocolate or candy that isn’t hard/sticky
While it may be impossible to avoid every choking risk day in and day out, being aware of common choking risks can help you serve what is safest for your toddler. A good resource for information on choking risk is the CDC’s Choking Hazard page.
3. Use plates, utensils and cups that are age appropriate
There’s nothing more fun than making a baby registry that has the cutest plates, utensils and cups for starting solids and beyond. While cute is nice, we also need to be concerned with functionality.
We don’t want incorrect equipment to get in the way of toddlers, tasting, eating, and enjoying food! Think about size, design, and functionality when making selections.
Best Plates for Toddlers
- A lipped edge gives toddlers a place to push food to get it onto utensils.
- Dividers can amplify a desire to have foods separate and cause problems later; consider your child’s tendencies.
- Rubber or plastic reduce the stress about breakage.
Best Utensils for Toddlers
- Kid sized utensils are easier to hold and fit in the mouth.
- Don’t stress about a preference for using hands instead of utensils; this actually helps toddlers learn to like new foods!
For specific examples of plates and utensils, check out my “At the Table” Amazon Store.
Best Cups for Toddlers
- Small cups make it easier for toddlers to hold and have less liquid to spill (an important consideration since filling cups to the top actually makes it easier for toddlers to drink)l.
- Open cups at the table help mouth development and give toddlers time to practice their skills.
- When needed, cups with narrow, short straws are the best alternative to open cups.
For specific examples of cups, check out my “Cups” Amazon Store.
4. Take a look at what your toddler drinks
Food is not the only thing that fills toddler tummies. Toddlers may love milk. It’s a beverage that offers comfort and familiarity, making them prone to drink more than enough. Plus, it can slide down quickly if still given in a bottle or sippy cup, meaning they can fill up on it quickly.
For toddlers, 16 ounces (2 cups) of milk per day should be the maximum amount provided.
Juice is another beverage that kids enjoy and can fill up on, leaving little space for other foods. While juice often does have plenty of helpful vitamin C, it lacks nutrients that whole fruit and other foods offer.
It can absolutely fit into a toddlers daily routine; we just need to keep amounts within reason. A good maximum for children 1-3 years old is 4 ounces (½ cup) per day.
Helpful phrases when making this change
If they demand more milk or juice, it’s time to flex those parenting muscles and set firm, yet loving boundaries. You can keep it simple and say, “That’s all the milk/juice for now.”
If demands continue, it can help to validate their feelings. You can say something like, “I see you are upset that milk is all done for today. It’s OK to be upset that you can’t have more.” It can also help to suggest another activity to help your child move on.
5. Make and stick to an eating schedule
After we’ve made sure your toddler isn’t filling up on fluids before their meals, it’s important to consider if they are filling up on food – at all the wrong times. Toddlers, or as I like to call them, snack monsters, love to eat. All. Day. Long.
It’s a common misconception that this helps them meet their nutritional needs. In fact, grazing (or, eating very often) can result in toddlers eating less food over the course of a day. It produces the exact opposite result of what many parents are hoping for!
Grazing creates a vicious cycle of snacking, not being hungry at a meal, asking for a snack shortly after a meal, asking for another snack, not being hungry at the next meal and so on. Often, and without even realizing it, we are setting a picky toddler up to eat more snacks, less meals, and make sitting at the table painful.
The best way to get a picky toddler to eat is to help them come to the table hungry. Having a meal and snack schedule that you’ve thought about in advance can be helpful. When you’ve taken time to consider what will work and feel confident in executing the plan, you are more likely to follow through and see success!
To make a toddler meal schedule, take a look at a typical day. Consider your toddler’s wake time, activities, nap time (if you are lucky enough to still have one or more!), and bedtime. First, pick a time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then, look to see if there are large gaps of time between meals.
If you find there are large gaps of time, plan for snacks at times that create ~1½ – 3 hours between eating times. Finally, put your schedule in a place you will see it when your toddler asks for snacks (the fridge works well for this), so you can implement the plan.
Helpful phrases when making this change
Now, because we all know that toddlers can be relentless, making this change might not be easy. Remember, it’s your toddler’s job to push and test limits, and it’s your job to hold boundaries. When met with a request, you can say, “It’s not snack time right now, but I’ll let you know when it is.” Then help them to move on to another activity.
6. Serve the nourishing foods you want your toddler to eat
You might be thinking, no meal schedule is going to stop my toddler from eating all the snacks! To that I say, take back your power as a parent. You get to decide what foods you serve to your toddler.
That means, traditional snack foods (the ones from bags and boxes that toddlers hold so dear) don’t need to be served at every eating time. Think about routinely serving the foods you want your toddler to eat not just now, but for the rest of their life.
The best way to teach a child how to eat is to have them live it day in and day out. That means serving meals with multiple food groups (aim for 3 or more), eating together to model for them, and aiming for as much variety as possible.
Remember, there is no such thing as “toddler food.” As long as food is developmentally appropriate and safe, you can serve any food to your toddler.
Make nourishing foods the norm and remember that the type of meals served at home are a big predictor of how kids eat into adulthood. So, even if they aren’t eating everything served now, they are still seeing what well-rounded meals look like, which contributes to the long term goal of expansion and raising a competent eater.
7. Serve foods that taste good too
With that said, it’s okay to serve foods simply because they taste good and are enjoyed. Even toddlers eat not just for hunger, but because food tastes good!
When we serve popular toddler meals sometimes (think chicken nuggets), we show them that we are on the same team. They trust that we are going to serve not just foods to meet their nutritional needs, but foods that satisfy their emotional needs too. Once this trust is established, toddlers don’t need to obsess over sweets and snacks.
Parents often fear that serving toddlers their absolute favorite foods will result in them only eating that food. This can stem from a deeper worry that a toddler can’t be trusted to eat what they need to grow and thrive.
However, just as your toddler needs to trust that you are on their team, you also need to believe that they can be trusted. Toddlers, although young, can (and should) decide what they are eating from the foods you’ve decided to serve and in what amounts.
In fact, they often thrive in their newly-allowed independence and may make choices that surprise you!
8. Make the foods served at meals and snacks the same
You might be thinking, how can I balance these nourishing and favorite foods? Exactly what foods can I feed my picky toddler?
The most straightforward way to decide what foods are being served at toddler meals versus snacks is to make them the same! Serve multiple food groups. Don’t get caught up in what’s a “typical food” for any time of day or meal versus snack. Food is just food!
That means breakfast could be peanut butter toast with yogurt and a side of fishy crackers, a snack could be strawberries with cheese, dinner could be eggs with cheese, whole grain toast, apple slices, and fruit snacks. Focus on variety and serve those typical snack foods in a way that makes them less coveted.
The more your toddler experiences being served all kinds of foods at all different times, the less likely they are to panic when they aren’t served exactly what they want. That means less tantrums, more trust, and happier meals for everyone!
9. Serve both foods your toddler likes and is learning to like
It’s easy to get caught in the trap of serving only the foods you know your toddler will eat. While this may prevent mealtime meltdowns and give you peace of mind that they are getting what their body needs, it’s not helping their picky eating.
The only way toddlers learn to like new foods is by being exposed to them. They need to become familiar with a food before they learn to eat it.
This does not mean you should only serve foods that your toddler is learning to like and hope for the best. This is not a safe strategy, though sadly, it’s a tactic that is sometimes recommended.
You might wonder, will a toddler starve themselves? The answer is, it’s possible. For a toddler with an underlying medical issue (such as those learned skills mentioned earlier), no amount of hunger will result in them eating a plate full of disliked foods.
For this reason it’s important to serve BOTH foods your child reliably eats, with foods for exposure to help them learn to like them. With that said, once you’ve carefully curated a meal that includes at least 1-2 foods your toddler reliably eats, the rest is up to them.
You do not need to add more food to the meal when they tell you they don’t want what you’ve served. They also have the right to eat (or not) what you’ve served in the amounts they choose.
Helpful phrases when making this change
There can be a learning curve when you are working to establish this feeding relationship with your child, especially if it isn’t what happened from the start. If that’s the case, expect pushback (even welcome it) and be prepared and confident in how you respond.
If they ask for (or demand) different food, you can say, “That’s not on the menu, but we can put it on the menu tomorrow for breakfast,” or choose another time that works for you. Then it’s important to follow through with serving the food they want at the time you picked. This builds trust, gives them a reasonable amount of control, (which all toddlers want!) and helps your toddler relax.
Another common scenario is a toddler yelling, “YUCK!” as you serve the foods that they are still learning to like. In this case, you could say something like, “You can pick what you want to eat from the food on the table.” You are giving them the control they desire but within limits you set.
10. Help your toddler engage with food
Once you are serving foods your toddler is learning to like and giving them the opportunity to get used to them simply being around and available, the next step is engagement. Realistically, just because you serve it, doesn’t mean they will eat it.
To help picky toddlers try new foods, we need to get them touching and experiencing food beyond just looking at it. That could mean mini food cutters, fun arrangements on a plate, food picks, meals in muffin tins, serving with dips and spreads, or anything your toddler might find interesting.
It’s important to note that we are not making their meals pretty. Pinterest-worthy kid meals are a constant sight in mom-world, and they aren’t necessarily helpful. What is helpful is a child poking a food because you gave them a food pick, or licking a food because it had a favorite dip on it. Better yet, biting a food because it was funny to bite a bunny ear off the shape. Keep this in mind when you choose to add fun tools to meals.
Take home points for planning meals for picky toddlers
It’s important to mention that strategies like these are never as cut and dry as they are on paper. It’s simple to understand them in theory, but when used, it gets messy. Nothing about parenting a toddler is easy, and feeding is no exception.
It’s a toddler’s job to test limits and a parent’s job to set and hold boundaries. Boundaries take work, but in the end they provide the safe, loving environment toddlers need to become competent eaters as they grow.
After you’ve considered developmental appropriateness, safety, drinks, schedule, food and engagement, the last thing to remember is YOU. It’s possible that after all your effort your little one is going to leave the meal having taken 2 bites.
Don’t panic. Toddlerhood is a time of slowed growth (compared to the first year of life) and thus a lower appetite. Toddlers are also notorious for meeting their needs over a longer period of time, not with single meals or even single days. It’s okay to lower expectations at meal times.
Do your best to see mealtimes as a time to relax, enjoy the company, and feed yourself.
If you are ready for more real-life practical strategies for helping you feel less anxious WHILE your child expands their diet, join me in the Mastering Mealtimes Membership. This library of picky-eater tools is filled with the knowledge, resources, and strategies parents need at an affordable monthly price.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. That means On Your Table LLC gets commissions for purchases made through links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, On Your Table LLC earns from qualifying purchases. All opinions remain my own.
Kim Slack is a Registered Dietitian and founder of On Your Table, LLC. She coaches parents on feeding strategies and parenting styles that support children to expand the foods they eat. Kim has helped many families have happier, calmer mealtimes and grow competent eaters. Kim also has 2 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her from her about page.