Food and the Toddler

Picky eating and toddlers go hand-in-hand, right?

When we think of toddlers, culturally speaking, we think of “terrible twos” and picky eaters. Every moment is a fight or ramping up to a tantrum of some sort and there’s a parent in the background praying for this stage to end soon.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

In a nutshell: picky eating is about exerting control over what a toddler puts in their body. It may stem for a genuine dislike for a particular piece of food, an unknown allergy, modeling behavior seen, or just testing to see what they can get away with at mealtime.

With this in mind, a parent can respect a toddler’s need for control, respect their desires, and give them a safe space to experiment without causing food issues down the road.


Note: there are going to be periods of “picky” eating with every child. I am not suggesting that this will stop those moments, but this will help manage those moments so it doesn’t become the norm. Also, consider the personality of your child: some children have a personality that is drawn towards assertive behaviors. Honor that personality type and find ways to work with them to help manage mealtime.

I acknowledge that this post will not help in situations where the child has sensory issues with food. Experts may label it as picky eating for brevity, but that is a separate issue from a child refusing to eat as a means to defy a parent.


Fight for Control

Picky eating primarily comes from a place of a child recognizing that they exert control over their food in a way that matters to the parent or caretaker. When they see that it gets a reaction, for good or bad, out of the parent, they are going to push it to see how far and how important this reaction goes.

I am not suggesting a child consciously recognizes this. Rather, they learn this through all the experimentation they do from birth. They make a connection that fascinates them and so they pull on that thread to see what happens.

When a parent stresses over the importance of food, particularly a certain item that a child has in front of them, a child picks up on this importance in a way they may not have noticed if no fuss was made.

Children, until they are legal adults, have limits to what they can control and their personal autonomy. Food is one of those areas where they can directly control the situation. Toddlers decide if food makes it inside their bodies or not. The parent decides how smoothly this process will go.

When I was a kid I watched the adults in my life trying to feed my picky cousin food at his house. One adult was determined to get food in him and would force the food down which led to a greater fight and bigger mess. Obviously, it did not go well for anyone involved. Yet, every time my cousin came to visit our house he would eat everything placed in front of him. My parents, unlike this adult in his life, decided not to make food an issue for him so he was more than happy to eat everything.

This was a singular anecdotal experience, but since then, every situation I encountered with strangers dealing with their kids in a restaurant has ended similarly. The more of a fuss a parent makes over food with their child, the more food the server had to clean up off the floor once they left. There is a direct correlation between parental stress/need for control over a child’s eating habits and a picky eater.

Toddlers and children of any age need to have supervised control in their lives. Food is one of those areas where they can be safely given that control, provided certain parameters are met which the parent can control.

Releasing Control to the Toddler

As a parent, it’s important to make sure a child is fed. It’s in our foundational job description: fed, bathed, clothed, and place to sleep.

So when a child refuses to eat something, it feels like a failing on our part as a parent. But remember this: you aren’t failing if your child refuses to eat or is picky about their food. It becomes a learning moment for the parent to recognize what is happening and make the necessary adjustments to reasonably accommodate the child.

It goes back to the old adage: choosing your battles. Food, because it’s so necessary for life, is one of those areas where it has to be handled delicately. If there is a concern about what a child isn’t eating, research to see if there’s another way for them to get proper nutrition.

This is one of those times where the best thing a parent can do is make sure well-rounded, healthy meals and snacks are presented to a child and then trust that a child will feed themselves based on what is provided. If certain safety parameters are met: free from choking hazards, the appropriate amount on the plate, a majority of healthy options available; then it will be okay to let your child have complete control over their eating situation.

Jai has moments where he just doesn’t feel like eating. We just ignore those moments and let him walk away from the table after one adult has finished eating and can spend time with him. I always try to make sure some sort of healthy food option is within reach during the day. I have found that Jai’s personality and eating habits are that of a grazer, so a full sit-down meal does not work as well with him as it might with another child. He will still sit and be patient, especially at a restaurant, but he won’t spend the entire time eating like the adults do.

And that’s okay – I am not worried when he doesn’t eat a full meal each time. I feel bad about the waste, but I will usually eat his leftovers or give them to Ash when he gets home. So far, Jai hasn’t become a picky eater. He will reject certain foods, but I do not count that as picky eating but showing preference. I still provide those food options at other points in time on my plate and when he asks to try it, I give him the opportunity to see if he’ll like it this time.

It’s hard as a parent to release control over something as important as food, but it’s the first step in acknowledging the independence and the individuality of a child. If there is a concern, however, from a health standpoint over a child’s eating, then please consult the child’s pediatrician. They may have healthy suggestions to get a child to eat and they may need to run tests to see if there’s an undiagnosed allergy/condition that is effectively preventing them from eating.

Helpful Tips

Here are some tips on how to curb or prevent a picky eater:

  • Do not define a child as a picky eater. There is a lot of baggage that comes with the term both culturally and personally, therefore a picky child will be treated a certain way. Rather, define a child as expressing preferences because that is actually what they are doing. When the definition changes, how it is approached and dealt with changes. Picky eating = shameful eating; preferences = autonomy & decisions.
  • See how eating habits are modeled for the child. If a parent is picky about their food, a child will behave similarly. If the goal is to avoid having a picky eater, the parent may have to adjust their own food issues for a time to model the behavior they want the child to have.
  • Don’t stress over a clean plate. A child will eat only as much as they need to, even if it seems to be very little. What they don’t get in one meal will be made up in another. Offer healthy snacks (nothing sweet or junk-food related) if comfortable in between meals.
  • Food is food. If they have nothing but healthy options available, they will get the nutrition they need even if they make breakfast, lunch, and dinner only peanut butter for a few days (see about sneaking some apples with that peanut butter to help the inevitable stoppage). If they only eat one particular food item, see what can be done to dress it up a bit with other ingredients, but otherwise, let this experiment run its course (speak with their pediatrician if the phase lasts longer than 2 weeks).
  • Issue a “one-bite” rule when trying out new foods. Give the child an opportunity to try a new food once, but do not expect them to clear their plate with this new item.
    • If they take a bite, give them words of encouragement in a happy tone, but don’t overdo it. Positive reinforcement is good, but don’t want them to overeat in search of more positive praise.
    • If they refuse to take one bite, then try again tomorrow or down the road. Do not acknowledge the lack of trying in a tone or verbiage that elicits shame. It isn’t a big deal if they don’t try a new food.
  • Try not to bribe with other foods. Dessert is a great carrot to dangle in front of kids to get them to eat more, but it can lead to overeating and create a reward system related to food. This can increase disordered eating when the child grows older.
  • Don’t make a big deal about mealtime. If a child doesn’t eat a certain amount, that is fine. Don’t acknowledge it and move on. Try to have a reasonable consequence if they come back hungry: no dessert – fine; but offer fruit or vegetables as an alternative rather than “punishing” them for not finishing a plate.
  • Do not make a plate reappear if there was a battle over it at a prior meal. It draws a line in the sand in the next meal time. Accept that they “won” and move on with the next meal. Have an adult eat it if the concern is about waste.
  • If there is a real concern about nutrition, consider making them a healthy but calorie/nutrient-packed snack. I created this “n’ice” cream for Jai when I wanted him to gain weight.
  • Remember this above anything else: you are the adult in the situation and therefore must behave like one to model healthy behaviors for your children.

How did you manage your child’s picky eating? What tips and tricks worked for you? What didn’t work? Leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography

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  1. Pingback: Raising a Lil Foodie | MS//Mommy

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