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When your baby started solids, chances are, he was a happy, adventurous eater—willing to taste anything you put on his plate. Getting toddlers to eat however is an entirely different ball game.
One week your toddler seems to be eating enough, while the next, he takes two bites and declares “I’m not hungry.”
Or maybe your toddler never seems to be hungry or refuses to eat altogether—meal after meal or even for several days at a time.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most toddlers are picky eaters and it’s completely normal.
Still, if you’re worried that your toddler isn’t eating enough and getting the nutrition he needs, there are some possible reasons behind his picky eating behaviors, and some ways to encourage him to eat.
1. Look at what your toddler is eating
Your toddler might not eat what you serve for dinner, but chances are he’s eating something throughout the day so it’s important to look at what that is and how often he’s eating.
If your toddler is loading up on snacks like crackers, chips and cookies, he’s probably not going to be hungry at meals.
Filling up on processed, packaged snacks can also crowd out calories and opportunities to serve up healthy, whole foods like fruits and vegetables. The same goes for juice or too much milk.
Also, feeding toddlers processed snacks that are high in sugar and sodium trains their taste buds to prefer those foods so when it comes time to eating real food, they refuse to.
2. Offer tiny amounts for a tiny toddler
When it comes to getting toddlers to eat, it’s also important to look at portion sizes.
Instead of overwhelming your toddler with an entire plate, or even a kid-sized portion of vegetables, try serving a tiny amount, such as a broccoli floret, a bean, or a piece of a shredded carrot.
It sounds silly, but serving small amounts is often a no-pressure ways for toddlers to eat.
But don’t expect success on the first try either. Studies show it can take serving small portions of the same food 15 to 20 times before kids will even take a bite, so stay consistent and be patient.
3. Take advantage of snack time
If your toddler loves to snack, take advantage of those opportunities to serve up the same healthy, whole foods you want them to eat at meal time.
Snacks should fill the void between meals, but if these mini-meals are the only way your toddler will eat until his appetite eventually improves, so be it.
4. Let your toddler decide when he’s hungry
Bribing, pleading, negotiating and other pressure tactics don’t work long-term and only create power struggles at the dinner table.
When we constantly beg toddlers, “just take one more bite,” or “you can’t leave until you eat,” they never have the opportunity to recognize when they’re hungry, when they’re satisfied, and when they’ve had too much.
Just think about how many adults overeat or are emotional eaters because they never learned this lesson.
Eating meals with your toddler should be a positive experience, so serve healthy foods at meals and snacks, in age-appropriate portion sizes (see the AAP’s helpful guide) and let your child decide what—and how much—he wants to eat.
“Kids usually eat as much as they need. Your child’s brain will make sure they eat enough calories,” Cynthia L.E. Gellner, a pediatrician at the University of Utah said in this interview.
5. Add a dip
Not only do toddlers love finger foods they can dip in a sauce or dressing, but offering a dip makes plain ‘ol fruits and vegetables more palatable and interesting.
Pair cut up vegetables with hummus, a bean dip or a guacamole. Or serve apple slices with yogurt or peanut butter.
6. Let toddlers play with their food
Smelling food, pushing food around their plates or playing with their food are all considered poor table manners, but allowing it can encourage toddlers to eat.
In fact, kids who play with their food are more likely to try new flavors and a wider variety of foods, a July 2015 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests.
Encourage your toddler to touch, smell, and play with his food. Talk about the shapes, colors, texture and aroma of the foods on his plate.
If he takes a bite, that’s great, but the goal is to let him explore his food without feeling pressure to eat.
7. Don’t give up
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen parents make is labeling their toddlers picky eaters the second they refuse to eat.
Once they believe that to be true, they become desperate to get their kids to eat anything so they turn to easy, quick, processed foods and frozen kid-friendly meals.
I totally understand this is a real frustration for most parents.
Sometimes you’re so fed up with the picky eating behaviors or you’re tired from a long day that making something you know your kid will eat is your saving grace until bedtime.
Although this can be a quick fix, over time, it actually reinforces picky eating because kids don’t have the opportunity to eat real, healthy, whole foods.
Consistency is key, so do your best to offer healthy foods and the right portion sizes as much as possible. Let your toddler feed himself—whether he wants a small bite, the whole meal or nothing at all.
8. Talk to your toddler’s pediatrician
Just because most toddlers are picky eaters doesn’t mean your toddler’s picky eating is normal.
Some toddlers may have sensory issues or feeding problems that should be addressed by a doctor or specialist.
Put a call into your pediatrician to talk about your concerns and next steps.