Ask any parent about the most stressful parts of raising a kiddo, and they’ll quickly discuss feeding. It starts in the first few days with a newborn, trying to master breastfeeding or selecting the best formula. And it continues through the scary stages of introducing your baby to first foods and trying not to wince as they gag on solids with baby-led weaning.
Then, of course, is the most exhausting age of all: toddlers and little kids. This tends to be when picky eating peaks, which can continue for years. Whether your child refuses to nibble on anything green, will only eat broccoli if it’s smothered in cheese or puts up a protest at all meals, you’re not alone.
Picky eating is common (and painful for parents), but there are ways to help expand your babe’s palate and reduce the stress of breakfast, lunch and dinner. We spoke with experts about just that and got some of their favorite products that can help too.
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First, it’s important to remember that “picky eating” is a broad term, and it’s defined differently by parents and pediatricians, according to Dr. Jaime Friedman, a pediatrician and director of marketing at Children’s Primary Care Medical Group in San Diego, California. One of the biggest concerns for caregivers is worrying if their babe is getting enough food. This tends to be the most exaggerated during the toddler years, age 1 to 3.
However, it’s not abnormal for tots to eat less during this developmental stage, Friedman explains. “Toddlers often have a decreased appetite and can go an entire day without eating very much,” she reassures. To help you relax, consider some funny (and ahem, punny) bibs from Bella Tunno that will make you chuckle (and, you know, catch the food your toddler drops!).
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With early bedtimes for toddlers and kiddos, eating as a family for dinner may not always work itself out. However, try to have meals with your kids as often as you can. Not only does it provide a memory-making experience for everyone, but it allows your tot to watch you eat. It might not seem important, but it’s fundamental in teaching them new skills. Also, Simone Emery, an occupational therapist and nutritionist in Australia, says it can help them understand their brain and tummy signals.
“As caregivers, we need to allow them to continue to understand the messages they get from their body — the messages of ‘full’ and ‘hungry,’” she explains. “When a child constantly grazes on food, we inadvertently deny them the experience of eating a meal to feel satisfied. So, eating with someone else for allocated mealtimes can help children tune in to their bodies.”
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Think back on your last mealtime and describe the scene. Was the dog barking at a neighbor walking by? The news channel blaring in the living room? Your partner talking (loudly) on a work call? Though it’s not always possible to have a calm, predictable environment, research has shown that structured mealtime practices are associated with lower levels of food pickiness, according to Amanda Blechman, the director of health and scientific affairs at Happy Family Organics.
In an ideal world, Blechman explains, this includes sitting down in a designated spot to eat, avoiding TV and other distractions while eating and having a regular meal and snack opportunities (as opposed to all-day grazing).
In addition to a high chair, you can also lay down a silicone mat at their spot (and in their color of choice) so they know that’s where they will also sit to eat.
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If you love to keep a clean house and you want to try to cut out picky eating, you may need to take some deep breaths at mealtime. While it can be incredibly messy to involve your toddler and kiddo in the process of serving themselves, it encourages their autonomy and helps them learn to make solo decisions. In turn, this cuts back on picky eating, explains Dr. Katja Rowell, a family doctor, a feeding specialist and the author of The Feeding Doctor.
“A toddler is less likely to throw food that they put on their plate. A preschooler who picked a berry or mixed the stir-fry sauce is more likely to try and enjoy those foods,” she says. “Let them spread whipped cream cheese or hummus, dip berries into yogurt or cream.”
And if they enjoy any sauces, such as ketchup, teriyaki or hot sauce, have that available at eating times. “Research shows that sauces and dips help kids eat more variety,” she continues. “I think of them as training wheels; my daughter put ketchup on every meat and even mashed potatoes for a few years.”
And remember: Allowing them to feed and serve themselves can start as young as 6 months. It’s one of the principles of baby-led weaning and gives your child the chance to learn how to use a spoon and a fork and take bites as they want and need.
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The first few weeks — OK, months — of introducing your baby to foods is a fun experience. Sure, it’s messy, but it creates adorable photos — and memories. Though babies will pretty much try anything and react in hilarious ways, as they grow older into toddlers, they may start saying no to foods they once loved. As a parent, you can take note of the foods they do like and use them as a mechanism to introduce new items.
Say your toddler is really into macaroni and cheese right now, but lately, they’ve been anti-spinach. Friedman recommends using a divided plate like this one, serving some of the macaroni and cheese and putting some spinach on the side. “Don’t pressure them to eat it; just give it to them and move on. If they don’t eat it, that’s OK. Especially at dinnertime,” she says. “Most toddlers will eat a good breakfast, lunch and snacks so often they just aren’t hungry for dinner. Furthermore, they need to learn how to recognize their own hunger cues.”
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You know the saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”? It applies to trying to tempt your picky eater to give foods a second (and third, and 10th) chance. The best way to do this is to avoid serving the same food in the same way too often, Emery explains.
For example, Emery says if your kid is into puffs right now, try serving them with cucumber sticks and diced strawberries for morning tea. Then, at a family dinner later in the week, serve them with cubes of grilled chicken, steamed beans and mashed potato. “This ensures that your child gets the snack they love alongside the foods they are learning about,” she says.
Part of taking the pressure out of trying new foods is making it, well, sort of a free-for-all. Cover them in a smock, and let them play and explore their food. It could get messy, but it’ll help them discover and entice them to keep nibbling.
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Rather than meal planning everything your toddler and preschool-aged children are going to eat, involve them in the process! Friedman suggests letting them pick which fruits or vegetables they want and then make it fun for them. You can cut them into cute shapes, make them into designs on their plate or decorate them with tasty sauces they like. Bonus points if you buy a super-fun (and adorable!) plate like this one that gets them pumped for mealtime. (Of course, just make sure nothing is cut into a shape that’s a choking hazard!)
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Another way to combat picky eating is making them your little sous chef. If they’re always removed from the process of preparing food, they don’t have the opportunity to learn or experience nibbles in a new way. You can use a stepping stool designed for toddlers to get them in on the action, and even buy them a cutting board, tot-safe knives and, of course, an apron, says Stephanie Middleberg, the nutrition ambassador for Ready, Set, Food!. Give them the opportunity to crack eggs, wash vegetables, mix together ingredients and, with your help, chop up fruit. She practices this with her own kiddos, and while it may not always result in them eating more food, it does help create a positive experience with mealtime.
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As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind,” which is why Middleberg says to leave a plate of goodies out at all times. This could be crudité, fruit kabobs or cut-up fruit out on the kitchen table with fun dips. “You will be surprised what your children are willing to try when they’re hungry,” she adds.
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Blechman explains children are so observant — especially during those early years — and they pick up on everything. This provides parents an excellent opportunity to model healthy food attitudes and mealtime behaviors, so you set an example for your little one to mimic. In addition to having meals as a family, you should also eat (and enjoy) nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and lean proteins.
“It’s also important to remember that lots of foods can fit into a healthy, balanced eating pattern,” she continues. “When you label foods as ‘junk” or put treats on a pedestal, this only makes children want them more. Positive eating behaviors include a positive attitude towards food.”
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Textures can be intimidating for toddlers, especially if they’re new. And over time, they may develop their own preferences for how food feels. Though it may not sound that appetizing to you, if it helps them to eat, prepare food how they like it, Rowell says. “Kids who like ‘crunch’ may enjoy freeze-dried fruits and veggies or frozen sweet potato fries cooked in an air fryer. Air fryer cooking adds a crunch that helps many kids branch out to new foods,” she explains.
You can also serve little cups of plain frozen berries or mixed veggies if they are old enough for that and not a choking hazard. It doesn’t always matter exactly how it’s served; it just matters that they give it a chance.
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When you head to the grocery store or the farmers market, leaving your kids at home with a caregiver can be easier (and definitely faster). Every once in a while, when you have the time and energy, bring them along for the experience, Middleberg says. If they’re old enough, they can grab a kid-friendly cart (or you can bring one) and let them explore new foods in the produce section. While you’re there, talk about what the food does for their body (makes them strong, makes them run faster, etc.) so they learn along the way.