Is your toddler a picky eater? These 8 tips will help

Be in charge of what your picky eater eats but let her be in charge of how she eats it, says a pediatrician

Picky toddler eating a strawberry

We’ve all been there. It can be quite frustrating when your child is a picky eater. Children around age three start to have a mindset about the order of things in their world. This includes their food. Any alternative is unacceptable.

There’s often a tendency to panic when a picky eater falls low on the growth charts. I’ve consulted with thousands of parents who are concerned that their child may be undernourished. They worry that this may compromise their child’s optimal growth.

The good news

Here’s the good news: Being a toddler and a picky eater often go hand in hand. There are developmental reasons why your three-year-old pokes at their food. After a rapid growth spurt during their “terrific twos”, toddlers gain weight more slowly. So, of course, they need less food.

They also won’t sit still for long, including meal times. Snacking throughout the day is more compatible with their busy lifestyles. As parents, our job is to buy the right food, prepare it nutritiously and serve it creatively. Leave the rest up to the kids. The picky eater stage is usually one that passes or at least mellows over time.

Filling those nutritional gaps in your picky eater

Look for foods that are nutrient dense. They pack the most nutrition per calorie, per volume. This is very important especially when feeding picky eaters because tiny children have tiny tummies. At any age, the size of our stomach is the size of our fist. Theoretically, you want to feed children a fist-full of nutrient dense food per meal.

Also remember, the brain grows fastest during the first five years. So, you are feeding a little fathead! Unless advised by your pediatrician, low-fat diets are a no-no for children. Instead, think of a smart-fat diet. The brain is 60% fat.

8 tips to get your little picky eater to eat

Here are a few tips for getting your picky toddler to eat more nutrient-dense foods include:

1. Fill your fridge and pantry with good options

Some of my favorites are wild salmon; eggs [healthy fats and protein for a measly 75 calories]; avocado [the fattest fruit on the planet; remember you’re feeding your fathead]; nut butters; olive oil; ghee; sweet potatoes; tofu; cottage cheese; yoghurt [whole milk, organic, plain]; lentils; and blueberries. Between three and four years of age, children can begin to comprehend which foods are the most nutritious and why. We would often say to our children, “Eat the food that makes you grow first and then you can have your fun food.”

2. Make nutrient-dense foods relevant to your child’s interests

I like calling them “grow foods” and kids start asking for them that way. But you can call them “football foods,” “lacrosse foods,” or “dance foods” and emphasize the fact that these foods will help your child excel in his or her preferred interests.

3. Don’t be wimpy

Many parents today will say, “Oh honey, you don’t like deviled eggs? I’ll make some mac and cheese out of the box for you.” It may not be immediate but a hungry child will eat what they’re served if they don’t have a choice.

4. Try the sipping solution

If your picky eater would rather drink than eat, don’t despair. One of the top feeding strategies that I have found over my decades in pediatric practice, that corrects the most nutritional deficiencies in most children, is what I call the sipping solution. Making a daily smoothie has been our family nutritional adventure for many decades. They are a great way to sneak in nutritious foods.

If you’re looking for shortcuts, please resist the urge to feed your child smoothie powders such as sports or protein powders that are made for adults. Look for grow food powders developed especially for little ones, that are clinically studied and pediatrician-developed to help children achieve optimal growth.

5. Involve your kids in the process

I must have heard, “Doctor, he won’t eat his vegetables” a thousand times. Yet, the picky  child keeps right on growing. Vegetables require some creative marketing for a picky eater, as they seem to be the most contested food in households with young children. Plant a garden with your child. Let them help care for the plants, harvest the ripe vegetables, and wash and prepare them. They will probably be much more interested in eating what they helped to grow.

How much vegetables do toddlers need? Although kids should be offered three to five servings of veggies a day, for children under five, each serving need be only a tablespoon for each year of age. In other words, a two-year-old should ideally consume two tablespoons of vegetables three to five times a day.

6. Try a nibble tray for your picky eater

A child’s demeanor often parallels her eating patterns. Parents often notice that a toddler’s behaviour deteriorates toward the end of the morning or mid-afternoon. Notice the connection? Behaviour is at its worst, the longer they go without food. Grazing minimizes blood-sugar swings and lessens the resulting undesirable behavior.

Our sixth child, Matthew, was a picky eater. We were so busy with our other children that we couldn’t hover around making sure he ate every bite of his veggies. Our fun solution was to fill an ice cube tray or muffin tin with nutritious nibbles. We gave each food a fun name such as banana wheels and cheese on trees (lightly steamed broccoli florets dipped in cheese). Toddlers love to dip their food. So, in five of the nibble compartments, add guacamole; plain, organic full-fat yogurt, cheese sauce, hummus and olive oil. By the end of the day, the nibble tray was empty, Matthew’s tummy was full. We were in charge of what he ate, and he was in charge of how he ate it.

7. Invite a playmate for lunch

If your child is going through a picky eater stage, invite over a friend who is the same age or slightly older whom you know “likes to eat.” Your child will catch on. Group feeding lets the other kids set the example.

8. Respect tiny tummies

Keep food servings small. Because a young child’s stomach is tiny, dole out small portions at first. Refill the plate when your child asks for more. This less-is-more meal plan is not only more successful with the picky eater; it also has the added benefit of stabilizing blood-sugar levels, which in turn minimizes mood swings. As most parents know, a hungry kid is generally not a happy kid.

And finally, use what we call “the bite rule” to encourage the picky eater: “Take one bite, two bites…” [however far you think you can push it without force-feeding]. The bite rule at least gets your child to taste new food while giving her some control over the feeding. As much as you possibly can, let your child – and his appetite – set the pace for meals.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Bill Sears
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 50 years.The father of 8 children, he and his wife Martha have written more than 45 books including “The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood,” and hundreds of articles on parenting, childcare, nutrition, and healthy aging. He is the co-founder of the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute for training health coaches, and he runs the health and parenting website


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here