Why is my toddler such a picky eater and how can I navigate it?

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Most parents can’t wait to start solid food after four to six months of a milk-only diet. Feeding your child feels like the start of a whole new, hopefully fun, exciting journey toward eating. Unfortunately, for many families, mealtimes can become one of the most stressful parts of parenting. We all want to see our children enjoying nourishing foods and it can be extremely disheartening when picky eaters opt for an all pasta and chicken nugget diet when we’re putting a rainbow of nutritious foods on their plates.

Why are some kids such fussy eaters while others seem to chow down on whatever’s in front of them? There are several reasons why you might have a picky eater on your hands and fortunately, lots of ways to help broaden their palates.

Strong flavours 

Did you know that children have a completely different composition of taste buds than adults? Children have a higher concentration of taste buds that are receptive to sweet flavours – likely to help them be more enticed by their mother’s milk. Children also have a stronger reaction to bitter flavours. This serves an evolutionary purpose as well – having more receptors for bitterness helps children avoid eating foods that could be poisonous. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4654709/).

Fortunately, these days, we aren’t foraging for our food and the vegetables we put in front of our picky eaters are anything but dangerous. However, their taste buds might say otherwise! If your child is particularly repulsed by even mildly bitter flavours, try introducing milder flavours. Kale and cabbage may be off the table but what about sweet potatoes or carrots? 

Some fussy eaters struggle with textures, too. If this is the case, parents can avoid serving food in the offending forms. If mush is the issue, skip the mashers and go for roasted potatoes instead. Sometimes simple swaps can make all the difference. Sensory preferences can require some intervention with feeding therapy. If this becomes a significant issue, a feeding therapist can help. 

Food fights

If it’s not a flavour or texture issue, your child’s pickiness may be a control situation. Young children don’t have control over almost any aspect of their lives. Food can quickly become a battleground and power struggles will only lead to your fussy eater digging their heels in further. 

Ellyn Satter developed the Division of Responsibility framework and many families claim this has changed their lives. The TL;DR is that you choose the foods that you serve, taking into consideration your child’s preferences, and your child chooses how much of the foods provided to eat. Period. No threatening not to allow dessert, not pressuring trying new foods (“Just one bite!”), or forcing the finishing of plates. This process requires a lot of faith and trust for parents but according to the experts – it works! https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/

Personally, we use this approach in our home with a lot of success. The key is to always provide “safe” foods alongside newer, riskier foods. The stress is greatly reduced for everyone when picky eaters know that there is no pressure to taste the new foods. You’d be surprised how quickly they take a nibble once you stop asking them to do so.

Too much snacking

If your kids are anything like mine, they’d be having an all day snack buffet if we let them. It’s tempting to hand over a bar or cheese stick every time they ask but it can often lead to lower appetites at mealtimes. By structuring your child’s day so that they have set meals and snacks, you’re setting yourself up for a hungrier child at mealtimes. Kids are incredibly adaptable and you can definitely create new habits over just a few days even if you’re currently riding the snack all day train.

When you do provide snacks, try to incorporate nutrient-dense foods like fruit and protein. Be aware of the sugar content in bars and other grain-based foods targeted toward kids. Understanding food labels can help you avoid foods that aren’t nourishing your child’s growing body and mind. And don’t shy away from pouches for older kids, too. They are packed with vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables!

What’s cooking

Providing foods that your fussy eater will enjoy alongside less familiar options is the key to a successful mealtime. You’ll need to move the dial slowly. Especially if your toddler or preschooler is currently on a beige diet (pasta, rice, chicken nuggets) and the only veggie to grace their plate or highchair tray is ketchup. 

Continuing to provide safe foods that they will enjoy is key to helping your picky eater open up to new flavours. This might look like nuggets (safe food) alongside three blueberries and two green beans. It can be challenging for picky eaters to even begin to try new foods. Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t touch the unfamiliar foods the first several times you offer them. It’s best to keep a neutral attitude toward the new foods. Avoid commenting on what they did or did not eat. 

In the process of providing healthy meals for your picky eater, you will likely face a decent amount of resistance. Food has probably been a trigger in the past, and children are designed to push the boundaries of discomfort with their caregivers. Even if food has been a battle, you can shift the dynamic. Try openly sharing that you’ll be taking a different approach: “I know in the past I’ve gotten upset when you don’t eat new foods. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m going to provide a plate with lots of options and you can choose what foods you want to try.” 

As your fussy eater begins this journey, there will still be days where beige seems to be the colour of the day. Try incorporating subtle shifts to increase nutritional intake: a drizzle of avocado oil on the one vegetable they like; cooking with coconut oil for added fat; tossing some chia seeds or flaxseed into their smoothie; or adding some peas to mac and cheese. We’re a fan of this supercharged bolognaise for sneaking in some extra veggies.

Make it appealing

Putting a variety of 4-5 foods in toddler-appropriate portions on the plate greatly increases the likelihood of trying new foods. A large part of that is making the food appeal to their senses. Kids are particularly observant and will often be the first to point out a tiny brown spot on a slice of avocado. Making the plate colourful with a variety of foods in different shapes can make a huge difference. Experiment with different plates and bento boxes. Try using fun shape cutters or brightly coloured food picks to mix things up. Novelty can go a long way in getting nutritious food into fussy eaters’ bellies!

Picky eater are one of the most challenging aspects of parenting and can be a major stressor. Fortunately, as tastes mature, many children begin to grow out of it. Celebrate the tiny wins – he ate a pea! And remember that developing a palate is a process and your picky eater is on a journey toward enjoying a more diverse menu. One meal at a time.

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