Our toddler is such a picky eater!

Our two year old is a very picky eater.  He has a few favorite foods that are healthy:  yogurt (with fruit), tofu, blueberries and chicken nuggets, but he wants syrup on his waffles and chocolate in his milk. If he had his way, all he would eat are cheese flavored “fishy” crackers.  In fact, one of his first words was “nack” for snack. He loves to eat while we are in the car, or riding in his stroller, but when we sit at the table for dinner he wants down in minutes. He’s a pretty small child, not really underweight but I worry that he doesn’t eat enough.  But he refuses almost everything we offer. What can we do?

Two year olds can be a challenge at mealtime.  Even if a child this age has a hearty appetite, he may not want to sit at the table for long.  Parents find it much more efficient to offer food that they are sure will be eaten at times when a child seems most enthusiastic.  So you are in a situation that many other parents will find familiar. 

To change your little one’s eating pattern we’ll use a step-by-step approach.  If you try to change everything overnight, a toddler (or any child) will often protest so loudly that you’ll wind up reaching a “compromise”, another word for giving your child the message loud objections are a good way to get mom or dad to back down.  If you take small, steady steps, you’ll find it easier to stick to a plan and your toddler will learn that you are in charge.

First, let’s look at your child’s rate of growth.  You say that he is small, but not underweight.  Do you know if he is staying on the growth curve he’s been on for the past year?  If his growth pattern is consistent, this is probably the height and weight that is right for him for now, and pushing extra food on him won’t make much difference.  Most children will eat when they are hungry unless they are eating (or grazing) all day so never get a chance to notice what it feels like to be either hungry or full.  A two year old shouldn’t be restricted to three meals a day, but it makes sense to have five or six small “sit-down” meals at predictable times. 

If your child seems to have a small appetite it may be that you are expecting him to eat more food than he needs.  Pre-school size portions are much smaller than adult-size.  At the same time, some parents who worry about their child not eating enough will let a child drink unlimited amounts of milk or juice.  A two year old doesn’t need more than 16 ounces of milk each day for calcium, and should never have more than 4 ounces of undiluted juice.  If your child is drinking more than that he won’t be as hungry for other foods. 

Children with “picky” appetites are often very wary of new foods.  Parents of children who back away from trying new foods often give up trying after a few refusals.  You don’t have to force your child to eat, but you don’t have to avoid offering, either.  Any time you want your child to taste or try a food, put a small portion on his plate—a tablespoon is fine—and keep offering the food over and over without comment.  If you don’t make a big deal about the food, many children will take a bite after ten or so tries.  If one food doesn’t work, try another, again, ten times.  Let me know what happens in a few months—you will probably be pleasantly surprised!

Last, but perhaps most important: Notice the snack foods that appeal to your picky eater.  Most children, and many adults, are attracted to foods that are sweet or salty, especially if there’s a touch of oil or butter added.  If a child is allowed to choose between a flavorful cracker and a plain slice of chicken he’s likely to pick the tasty cracker.  Parents often give children plain foods with little seasoning for “meals” and highly salted or sweetened food for snacks.  Guess what happens?

I’d suggest that you offer your child the same foods for meals and snacks.  If you need to have portable foods, don’t make them his favorites.  There’s no reason to have fish crackers, sweeteners or processed foods a part of his diet, and he won’t demand them if he isn’t given the choice.  Instead, make his regular meals as appealing as the snacks. When you cook, add real flavoring!  A little salt tastes good and enhances the natural flavor of foods.    Adding a teaspoon of butter or oil to any dish makes it more appealing—ask any good cook. The key is small amounts.

Here’s the most important message: If you provide food that is healthy, nutritious, and tasty, your child may not eat it all at every meal, but what he eats will be good for him.