When Your Perfect Eater Becomes a Picky Eater

Hi there, Mamas!  Things have been pretty exciting at our house lately.  As L is approaching 18 months, she is communicating and talking more than ever!  One of her biggest recent achievements has been learning to shake her head “no”.  I think it started just for fun, but then she realized that we were responding to her; “No?  You don’t want that?”  Over the past week or so she has been utilizing her newly found superpower often, especially at meal times.

From a Perfect to a Picky Eater

I raved not too long ago about how L was such a wonderful eater and how we always got positive comments about her eating.  How could she have changed so drastically in just two short months?  More so than her tastes actually changing, I think it’s her developmental milestones that have been causing issues at meals.  She is learning how to make choices and she knows that she will get a response from Mama and Daddy if she says, “no.”  (Oh, you don’t want that?  Do you want this?  How about this?) 

We were shocked when this food-loving cutie turned into a picky eater!

We were shocked when this food-loving cutie turned into a picky eater!

Turning the Tables

This was such a new phase (plus I think I was a little in denial), that it took me a while to see the problem.  It all became clear when I picked up L after a half-day at work.  My mom was just feeding her lunch.

“She doesn’t seem to like the quesadilla I made,” my mother told me.  (Very odd, as cheese and black beans [both included] are two of her favorite foods.)  “Should I make her some peanut butter toast instead?”


“Not at all,” I replied.  “She needs to eat what is offered.”

Cue the light bulb.  My mom was trying to do what L’s dad and I had been doing for the past week.  We were catering to her – making two or three different entrees so that she would just eat something.

It took going back to my dietitian toolbox to get to the root of the problem.

10 Tips for the Picky Eater in Your Life

“Picky eating” is common for toddlers.  Food is one way that they are able to assert their growing independence.  Additionally, after their first year of rapid growth, children older than 1 are growing at a slower rate, so they don’t need as much food.  Try these tips to expand your little one’s palate and ensure balanced nutrition and healthy growth.

  • Keep the divisions of responsibility.  As the parent, you should decide what, when, and where your child eats.  Your kiddo, as the wonderful self-regulator he/she is, should decide how much or whether to eat.  It may seem scary if your little one isn’t eating at a meal (or even one day) but that won’t impact the long-term health of otherwise healthy kids.  (If your child is losing/not gaining weight, contact their pediatrician.)  Additionally, it may make them hungrier for their next meal or snack and more willing to accept the food offered then.
  • Provide nutritious foods.  As the parent, it is your job to ensure that your kids are getting healthy foods to nourish their growing bodies.  Remember that repetition is important.  It might take a child up to twenty times of tasting a food (not just seeing it) to accept it.  Don’t lose heart!  Try different ways to prepare foods: raw or roasted, seasoned or no added flavors, etc…  See RDN Mama’s article: When “Kid-Friendly” Food Might Not Be
  • Give choices when possible.  It’s not always possible to give your toddler a choice (especially for entrees that take time to prepare).  Let them flex their “independence” muscles by offering them a choice of ready-to-eat sides: Peaches or pears?  Bread or crackers?  Tomatoes or cucumbers?  This will help them feel like they have some control over what they eat.
  • Don’t eliminate favorite foods.  By offering foods your kids like, they may be less scared to try new foods.  Try to always have one food your child already likes each time they eat.  However, if this food is on the less-than-healthy side, you might limit the portion.
  • Keep structured meal and snack times.  Routine is important to kids.  Keeping regular eating times ensures that they are getting enough opportunities to nourish themselves and that they are actually HUNGRY when it’s time to eat.
  • Eat only at the table.  This might be easier said than done, but when out and about, at least make sure to sit; whether it’s a park bench, a picnic blanket, or a table in the food court.  This allows kids to focus on what they’re eating and their internal hunger/fullness cues.
  • Take them grocery shopping with you.  Trust me, I know it can be hard to have an efficient shopping trip with a little one in tow.  But by including them in the shopping, they may be more likely to try different foods.  Eg: Would you like the green zucchini or the purple eggplant?  or Which vegetable do you think looks the neatest?  We can make that for dinner tonight.  Have older kids help you do the cooking.
  • Don’t offer food as a reward.  Offer hugs and kisses instead.  Otherwise, kids learn to eat when they’re happy, sad, stressed, etc., and they override their internal hunger and fullness cues.
  • Keep meal time happy.  No one likes being forced to do something.  Don’t pressure your child to eat or make comments, such as: Wow, your sister is such a big girl!  She ate all her carrots.  Don’t you want to grow up strong, like her?  Let your kids figure out which foods they like on their own.
  • Be a role model.  Nothing will get your kid to try new foods like seeing Mama and Daddy eating them.  Lead by example (no saying, “This is gross!”) and your kids won’t be far behind.

For more on healthy eating behaviors, check out this RDN Mama article.

For more on distracted eating, check out this one.

It’s not always easy to deal with picky eaters.  Hopefully, with these tips (and a little time) meal times will be come less stressful (and even enjoyable) experiences for everyone!

How have you handled a picky eater, Mamas?

For more reading on feeding children, check out Ellyn Satter’s website.


Leave a Reply