Toddlerhood is consistently known as one of the most challenging times in parenthood. If it’s not potty training, it’s the seemingly endless tantrums. If it’s not the fight against naptime, it’s the picky eating. And the latter, in particular, is one that can bring any parent to their wits’ end!
Although it’s a very normal developmental stage for toddlers to go through, there’s no diminishing how hard picky eating can be on parents. Not only is it frustrating when we spend time prepping meals that inevitably end up on the floor, but we want to ensure our kids are getting all the nutrients they need to be healthy and strong. And while there are countless tips online on how to get through it, I’ve found that some of the simplest changes are what encourage my own toddlers to try new foods. And most often, it’s the things that make mealtime more fun!
So if mealtime is a battle for you, here are some fun things YOU can try to get your picky eaters excited about trying new foods!
Plan Meals Together
One of the things that makes toddlerhood so challenging is toddlers’ newfound independence. They want to be involved in everything, from picking out their clothing to deciding when and if they’re going to eat. That’s why one of the best ways to get them excited to try new foods is to include them in meal planning!
For younger toddlers, this may be more difficult. But for young preschoolers that are struggling with pickiness, including them in planning the menu can be just what they need!
Browse recipes together online and see what stands out to them! Work together to make a list of the ingredients you need for each one and follow up the planning session with a shopping trip!
If you have a grocery store that has kiddie carts and you trust them not to run into people’s heels (ouch), then let them push one around and help them gather the ingredients for the meals they helped pick out.
Involve Them in the Prep
When it’s time to prep each meal or snack, again, include them! Kids get excited when they get to be involved in “big people” things! Although they can’t help with things on the stove or using sharp utensils, there are plenty of ways toddlers can help with prep!
Let them wash the produce, retrieve, count or sort the ingredients, mix, or pour! Just letting them be involved with anything that is safe for them, or even just allowing them to watch can get them exciting about the meal! And recent studies have found that when they prep their own food, they’re more likely to eat it!
One great way to do this is to use a toddler tower! Toddler towers allow you to get kids up on your level so that you can teach and include them in what you’re doing! I love the Dadada toddler tower because it has an adjustable platform and ladder positions for the perfect, customized fit!
Montessori knives and small cutting boards are a great way to involve toddlers as well. They’re sharp enough to cut soft things such as bananas, but not sharp enough to hurt your child. Letting them do this not only helps with fine motor development, but can encourage them to eat the food since they’re the ones that got it all ready!
Make It an Experiment/Learning Experience
There are so many opportunities every day that we don’t even realize can be teaching moments. And mealtime is one of them! Whether it’s snack or lunchtime, making it into a fun activity where we explore and learn together can encourage them to try foods they’ve been hesitant about in the past.
If your child doesn’t want to try apples, for example, pull out a video or book on apples and how they grow. Then cut up your own apples in a variety of colors, let them count the seeds, and have them pick which apple variety they like best! Then help them color a picture with the different apples they tasted and have them circle their favorite.
You can also use snack time as a chance to teach sorting or counting! Grab some berries, mix them in a bowl, and have your toddler sort each one into their respective pile. Then have them count how many of each berry they see, encourage them to taste each one, and pick their favorite.
Activities like these can eliminate the stress both you AND your toddler experience that often comes when you try to force them to eat what’s on their plate. Instead, mealtime becomes an enjoyable time where you build memories and learn together!
Make a “Try New Things” Chart
Goals can be a powerful thing, even for young kids. And sticker charts can be great motivators as well! Because what kid doesn’t love stickers, right? Combine the two, and you have a great way to encourage kids to make it THEIR goal to try new foods and to have fun doing it in the process!
To do this, start by making a list together of some foods they can try. Don’t write out every single food you’d like them to try or you might overwhelm them! Start with 10-15 things, then get going on creating your chart!
In the left hand column, list the foods. Then make three additional columns and label each column at the top with “Love it”, “It’s okay”, or “Don’t Love”.
Every day, let them pick something from the list. Once they try it, they can put a sticker under the column to indicate if they loved it or not.
After you work your way through the first list, make a new list together! Every so often, throw in a food they tried in the past that they didn’t love. It can take being exposed to a new food at least 12 times before a child decides how they feel about it. And in many cases, they need even more exposure than that. Just because they don’t enjoy it on day one doesn’t mean they won’t decide they like it later on! So keep throwing it back in there from time to time!
Use Fun Plates/Utensils
Sometimes all you need to get toddlers to eat their food is to change up how you serve it! I recently had a friend share that her daughter wouldn’t eat her lunch, so she decided to get creative! And to her surprise, as soon as she put the food on a charcuterie board, the food was gone!
When I was a kid, I remember loving eating meals at my grandma’s house because she had plates with adorable and fun pictures on them. My sisters and I would always fight over the plate with the little sheep on it, but no matter which plate each of us got, I never remember anyone leaving food uneaten.
So if your child is struggling to eat, maybe changing up what you serve the food on will help!
Using plates and utensils with fun shapes, patterns or characters that interest your kiddos is always a great place to start! If your child loves Winnie the Pooh, for example, find dishes with the characters on them. If they love flowers or the color pink, let them pick utensils and plates that come in those shapes and colors!
My kids also tend to eat their food better if I use plates with dividers! Not only do the dividers make it easy for me to ensure I’m giving them a variety of foods as I fill each section with fruits/grains/dairy etc, but I’ve noticed that my kids eat more when the food is physically divided. And my son actually won’t start eating his meal until there’s something in each section for him to try.
Fun Food Shapes
Another simple and effective way I’ve found to get my kids to try new foods is to arrange their meals into a fun shape or pattern. Whether it’s decorating pancakes with fruit to make a silly face, making ants on a log with celery, peanut butter, and raisins, or just cutting their sandwiches into their favorite shape with a cookie cutter, sometimes all it takes is a little creativity!
You can even let your child do the decorating themselves. Although we don’t want our kids to only play with their food and not eat it, sometimes letting them have a little fun first can familiarize them with both the ingredients and the textures, and they may be more likely to try it out!
Need some ideas? Check out this list of 15 creative meals for toddlers!
Play with Pretend Food
Imaginative play can be so powerful! It encourages kids to be creative and expands their little minds in some incredible ways. So use this as an opportunity to get them excited about trying new foods themselves!
Set up a play kitchen with some food they can prep for their own baby doll, and as they feed it to them, ask questions about what they’re doing. “Does you baby like that yummy food you made for her? Would you like it if I made you something like that to try? Would you try new things just like your baby does?”
Have a picnic
Although you probably can’t have a picnic every day, especially during wintertime, finding ways like this to make mealtime more of an activity or event can encourage eating. When my daughter was younger, she didn’t eat her peanut butter sandwiches super well. But anytime we’d go for a picnic, she seemed to eat them no problem!
So grab a picnic blanket, head out to your backyard or to the living room, and have a picnic! I personally LOVE our Little Unicorn outdoor blanket because it folds up really well and is easy to bring along with its compact design and carry strap. It also wipes off quick and easy, which is a necessity for toddlers that tend to spill.
Additional Tips for Picky Eaters
As you explore new ways to encourage your little one to eat, try to keep the following tips in mind!
Try your best not to make them something different every time they refuse to eat. Kids are extremely smart, and if they notice they get what they want every time they refuse the foods in front of them, they are not going to explore new foods. Although we don’t want our kids to go hungry, most toddlers and preschoolers will eat if they’re hungry enough. So instead of making their favorite food every time they refuse what you’ve already given them, leave their plate at the table and wait. Oftentimes, they will wander back to their plate once they’re hungry enough. This doesn’t mean starving your kids unless they eat the dinner you made. If you have an extremely stubborn child that won’t give in no matter how hungry they are, don’t just let them not eat! But don’t give in, either, by offering their default favorite food. Instead, offer a nutritious alternative like a fruit or a vegetable, then try again tomorrow.
Keep offering! If your child refuses a food or claims to dislike it, don’t give up after the initial taste test! And don’t give up after attempt 4 or 5 either! Add it to your meal rotation and encourage them to try it again. Remember, it can take upwards of 20 times before a child decides what they truly think of a food.
It’s okay if our kids don’t like EVERYTHING! In my mom’s attempt to keep us from being picky eaters as kids, she’d encourage us to eat everything on our plates. I refused to eat kidney beans because I just didn’t like them. My mom often tells the story of how she wouldn’t let me get down until I ate just one. So I tried it, which resulted in me getting sick right then and there. Although it’s great for kids to eat the foods they’re given, it’s unrealistic to expect them to like everything. As an adult, do you love everything? So how can we expect our own kids to like everything as well.
Don’t force it. Remember, it takes time. Toddlers are often difficult to get along with because they’re starting to test their limits and develop some independence. So forcing them to eat when they don’t want to will only make matters worse. THEY need to be the one to decide they want to try new things. Which is why making the experience fun in whatever way possible and including them in the prep and decisions can make a HUGE difference.
Don’t ever assume they won’t like something. Sometimes we contribute to picky eating because we are picky in what we give them. For example, when my daughter was really young, I almost didn’t offer to put mustard on her sandwich because I figured she wouldn’t like it. Because most kids don’t like mustard, right? Or so I thought. Thankfully, I let her try the mustard because she turned out to be a big fan!
Be cautious with rewards/bribery/punishment. Rewards can be a great thing. But sometimes, in our attempt to offer a reward, we can build unhealthy eating habits as well as cause them unnecessary anxiety. For example, if you tell your child she can only have dessert after she tries everything on her plate, she may force feed herself and eat more than her little stomach can handle in an attempt to earn dessert. Or if you always offer a treat after your son tries something new, he’ll come to expect that every single time. Rewards aren’t always bad, but if you always bribe your child with treats or withhold them when they don’t eat what you require, unhealthy habits are inevitable.
Praise! Never underestimate the power of a little praise! A “great job” or an “I’m so proud of you for trying that” can work wonders and give them a greater desire to continue trying new things.
Try new foods yourself! Your child is not going to want to try new foods if they watch you being overly picky about what you’ll eat. So show them that you’re willing to taste new foods along with them. Even if you don’t love it, simply modeling your willingness to try new things frequently can help kids to do the same.
Try serving a food in a new way. Some kids are extremely sensitive to textures and may not like a food not because of the taste, but because of the way it feels in their mouths! So if your child isn’t loving something, try serving it in a different way. This can create a different texture or experience that they’re more okay with. For example, if your child doesn’t like fresh apple slices, try cooking or blending them!
Reach out for help. If your child is STILL extremely picky even after trying everything you can possibly think of, it may be time to reach out for some professional help! Ask your pediatrician for guidance on what you should do. Sometimes, EXTREME pickiness (as in only eating a single food and refusing everything else) can be a sign of autism. However, do NOT assume that this is the case just because you have an extremely picky toddler (especially if they have no other signs or symptoms). Just reach out to your provider, and work together to figure out a plan!
The picky eating phase can be one of the most challenging phases to go through as a parent. But it doesn’t have to be such a battle! By working with your children instead of fighting back, you not only help them develop healthy eating habits, but often strengthen your own relationship with them in the process as well!