Most parents experience the utter frustration that accompanies their toddler’s picky eating habits. You are certainly not alone in this process and you can relax knowing that there is a viable solution that you can begin practicing today.
Teaching your child healthy eating habits while reducing pre-established narrow eating preferences begins with gradually reducing the unhealthy preferred items while slowly incorporating healthier options. Additional strategies involve food pairing, setting expectations, mealtime structure, removing the power struggle, and being a role model.
Altering your child’s eating habits is not an overnight event. It takes a lot of structure, due diligence, consistency, and patience.
Each meal is a new opportunity to incorporate the following integrated expert advice that has been shown to resolve picking eating issues consistently over time.
Every child can be taught to eat healthy, even if they already have poor eating habits. I have experienced this power-struggle with my daughter and was highly motivated to complete my own research on this problem and test the methods laid out below.
Try these 8 strategies for getting your picky eater to eat healthier
1. Start Early
As I will describe in great detail later in this article, tastes are learned. This infers you can either teach your child to eat healthy, natural foods that will satisfy their nutrient requirements. Or you can teach them to eat whatever their little hearts (taste buds) desire.
The latter option will most likely to a lifetime of cookies, pizza, fried foods, and frozen dinners.
If you allow your child to choose from an array of healthy food options at every meal they will inevitably gravitate towards those foods. Most of us eat whatever our parents taught us to eat as children.
When your baby is exposed to plenty of whole grains, legumes, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds during their early years they will develop a taste and preference for these nutritious options.
Mealtime will become a smooth, easy event.
Yes, at some point (typically nearing those teenage years) your child will gravitate towards the usual Westernized convenience foods that their friends are eating. Things like commercial breakfast cereal, hot dogs, soda, potato chips, ice cream, candy, etc.
You cannot control what goes into your child’s mouth at every opportunity. That is not the objective here.
The goal is to provide and teach healthy eating options.
Offer at least three of the healthy food groups mentioned above at each meal. And offer them opportunities to learn why it is important to consume such foods.
There are many books, journals, documentaries, and quality YouTube content available for families trying to incorporate healthy habits into their child’s life.
For more information on the safety and effectiveness of a plant-based, vegan diet for kids click the link to view my earlier post titled, A Full Guide to Safely Raising a Vegan or Plant-based Baby.
2. Set Boundaries and Expectations
It is important to set your mealtime boundaries early. The more consistency you are able to provide for your child the less of a struggle you will experience each time breakfast, lunch, or dinner rolls around.
If you don’t follow the typical three meals per day and two snacks that is perfectly fine. What is important is that you find what time frames work for you and your family and stick to them.
For instance, my 14 month old is still nursing up to 4 times per day. So her appetite for the usual 3 meals per day is relatively low.
I usually offer a large breakfast an hour or two after her morning nursing session, followed by a small lunch and dinner. She doesn’t typically receive snacks because I am still providing plenty of breast milk.
It seems to be helpful to give your child plenty of time between meals to ensure they are good and hungry by the time you present their healthy food options.
If you allow your baby to graze throughout the day, they are more likely to refuse healthy options they are offered at mealtime.
Set the expectation early on that mealtimes are designated around certain time frames and eating outside these time frames should be saved for special occasions.
Don’t get discouraged and revert back to french fries and chicken nuggets if your child refuses the healthy meals. Simply put the food away until they are ready to eat.
It is also important to set mealtime expectations.
For example, if your child is squirming out of their seat, throwing their food, or otherwise nt paying attention to their meal, make it a habit to remove the dish and end mealtime.
Don’t offer them an alternative. You are trying to teach them meal time consistency. If they do not eat what is presented, they can simply have it later when their appetite returns (preferably at the next scheduled mealtime).
Also, don’t get too rigid with these guidelines. Mealtime is supposed to be a relaxing part of the day when families can get together and relax. Building stress to the situation is not going to help you achieve your goal of teaching healthy eating habits.
Again, we are not forcing these foods on our children, we are simply offering the best available (and most nutritious) options.
Kids thrive on structure.
This may mean getting the entire family together for several meals each day when applicable. Or it may simply mean making sure yourself or appointed caregiver is providing specific foods to your child during specific times of each day.
Whatever your family’s schedule looks like, make sure you build that much-needed structure within its parameters to help your child grow and learn.
This means creating a predictable routine that your child can follow to learn how to expect when food is coming and how mealtimes are executed.
In our household, we have had to arrange our schedules based on several factors in the past 6 months. We have adjusted from each parent working full-time jobs while also creating this blog and going to school full-time to study nutrition and dietetics.
During that time, we had to rely on a well-suited caregiver to provide Ionna, our 14-month-old, with structured mealtimes and healthful food options.
We expressed our expectations clearly to the caregiver regarding what foods our daughter was to be offered at each meal. She was very good at carrying out our wishes and it was apparent in our child’s development.
Today, we are transitioning to having two full-time workers in the household to only one while I complete my next degree. So during the interim, I am keeping my daughter on the same predictable schedule as the one carried out in day care.
We would also communicate with the caregiver to determine what our daughter was eating and when to ensure she was receiving different foods throughout the day but during the same predictable time frames.
Whatever your family’s situation, it is worth the extra effort to coordinate with each other and caregivers to provide the most ideal amount of structure for your little one. It’ll pay off for years to come.
4. Remove the Power Struggle
Power struggles only occur when there are unreasonable expectations placed on the child during mealtime. Your baby will eat if they are hungry, and perhaps leave some food untouched if they are not.
Again, the goal is not to force the child to eat everything that is offered. Your job is to simply offer healthy options. The child’s job is to decide how much of those items he or she should consume.
It is very tempting to bribe your child with some form of a sweet treat at the end of their meal if they agree to eat everything on their plate.
This will likely teach the child that dessert is the best and most important part of the meal, inevitably putting sweets on a pedestal.
This form of negotiation will also encourage the child to eat more than their body had intended, likely leading to an over consumption of calories.
This is not going to be helpful later on in life when your child is trying to carry out these healthful habits on their own.
Negotiating only makes mealtime more stressful. It will not increase your kid’s appetite.
Remove the expectation that your baby needs to consume everything you prepare and you will inevitably remove the power struggle.
Another great way to reduce the stress and struggles created between parent and child during mealtime is to offer choices.
When your baby has the option between carrots, or green beans, lentils or black beans, and sweet potatoes or brown rice there really isn’t a wrong decision that can be made.
By offering choices you also provide your child with more independence. That is the ultimate goal, after all.
5. Be a Role Model
Kids lead by example. If you are eating potato chips and soda for half your meals, your child will want to do the same.
This holds true for grazing in between meals, as well. If you are constantly snacking throughout the day, your baby will likely want to do the same.
But if you hold yourself to the same stipulations as you hold your child in regards to mealtime structure and healthy food choices, your kiddo will likely follow your lead.
This is a great way to hold yourself accountable with your own diet, as well.
When your baby watches you sit down with them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (perhaps less so for full-time working parents) consuming healthy foods, you will not have to convince them to eat whatever is offered.
This guideline should be upheld for each family member. If you do not want to eat what is prepared you do not have the option to rummage through the kitchen for more preferable options. You simply take it or leave it.
If this is what you expect for your baby, then you should also expect to see your spouse and other children following along.
When baby sees others opting out of whatever is presented at mealtime, this will likely cause confusion and possibly even problem behaviors.
All family members should participate in baby’s learning by adopting similar mealtime habits, and ultimately, eating the meal that has originally been prepared.
There will be a more natural understanding that this is our food, and this is what we will be eating during this meal.
You can teach them how to enjoy a colorful salad, or a nutritious stir fry just as you do.
Leading by example will take the majority of the work out of teaching healthy habits to your child.
It is a win-win situation: your baby consumes the adequate nutrients needed each day for growth and development, and you get to stay lean and trim (while also improving cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar levels).
6. Meal timing and Frequency
Choosing when to serve certain foods is a delicate strategy because your baby will be more likely to try new foods or be more willing to eat more healthy options when they are hungriest.
For some babies this is early on in the day, and for others this may be midday, or even prior to bedtime.
You will learn your baby’s eating habits by trying different foods at different times of the day.
For instance, if you notice your baby is particularly more likely to consume all of their breakfast than the rest of their meals each day this is when you should be presenting new healthy integrations.
Use these opportunities to incorporate as much healthy nutrition as possible.
To continue using breakfast as an example, let’s say you have been offering your child some form of commercial baby cereal. Now instead of this highly refined option, you may try steel-cut oatmeal one day topped with fresh, organic berries.
By the end of the week your child may grow more and more fond of the oatmeal due to the gradual taste receptor adaptation.
At that point you can progressively add more nutrition to the meal, such as ground seeds and nuts, coconut flakes, or cacao nibs.
You can also use food pairing by presenting a not-so-favorite food with a more favorable option. Like raw veggies with hummus, and fruit or whole grain crackers with minimally processed nut-butters.
Serve small portions of new or less preferred foods. Let them get used to these gradually. Your baby will be more accepting of these items after they are presented several times.
Research shows it may take up to 11 tries of presenting new foods before your kiddo begins to accept them. Don’t get discouraged easily. Keep trying!
7. Involve Them in the Mealtime Process
Recruit the help of your little ones when completing mealtime tasks. Kids love to feel like they can be of some assistance. Meanwhile, they are unknowingly learning crucial life-skills.
Get creative. These tasks don’t have to be elaborate.
For example, you may give them choices in the grocery store to help choose the vegetables and fruits for the week. If they are old enough, you can appoint them the task of choosing a type of produce from each color of the rainbow.
They can also help to bag the groceries, push the self-checkout buttons, and determine which areas of the store to navigate the cart to next.
At home, children can be taught to put away groceries, rinse produce, stir ingredients together, setting the table, and cleaning up after meals.
Not only are your children learning valuable life-skills in this process, but they are also learning to appreciate everything that is involved in creating flavorful, healthy meals for the whole family.
They will not be so quick to dismiss their green beans, for instance, if they were the ones that picked them out at the market, bagged them, washed them, and witnessed them being cooked.
Kids will develop a deeper connection with the foods you offer them when they assist with mealtime preparation.
Again, don’t feel compelled to make separate meals for your child. Prepare one meal for everyone in the family.
This sets the tone that everyone is held to the same expectation of consuming what is available.
Your child will be more apt to try the foods provided to them when they watch others enjoy them simultaneously.
Make mealtime an enjoyable experience. Serve a variety of colors and mix it up. Try serving breakfast for dinner or vice versa.
Cut foods into various fun shapes that your child can engage with. And be sure to incorporate a variety of fun finger foods to give your kiddo the added sensory experience.
8. Watch Snacks & Liquids
Aside from breast milk, water is the only liquid your child requires for sustained health and development.
Fruit juices and milk that does not come from mom provide calories, but very little by means of nutrition. These liquids may even be detrimental to your little one’s health.
The sugar found in whole fruit is perfectly packaged in a way that can be slowly released inside the body allowing for a natural progression of insulin release to usher the sugar into the cells.
Fruit juice, on the other hand does the opposite. The fibrous cell walls of the fruit are compromised during the juice processing.
This act liberates the sugars found within the fruit making them more readily available to be taken up and used by the body. The result is a surge in blood sugar followed by the subsequent insulin release.
Our body’s have a tendency to overshoot the amount of insulin required to adequately control the spike in blood sugar.
This leaves underutilized insulin hanging around in the bloodstream which, ultimately, increases the amount of fat conversion and storage.
Fruit juice can also create dental carries in the same way and degree that soda drinks cause tooth decay.
Dairy milk is no exception. For more in-depth coverage on the harmful effects of dairy consumption during the early years of life and beyond, feel free to visit my previous article titled, Is it Really Healthy, or Safe to Feed Your Children Cow’s Milk?
Just as with food and hunger, if your child refuses a sip of water then they are simply not thirsty.
This does not entail you need to remedy the situation by finding more sugar (fruit juice) or fat (milk) laden options to appeal more to your child’s taste preferences.
Remember, our job is to offer the healthiest choices available, in this case water. It is your child’s job to decide how much of the healthy offering should be consumed.
These alternative liquids will needlessly fill up your baby, leading to a reduced appetite during meal times. Water should be the only offering in between mealtimes to encourage a healthy appetite for nutritious solid foods during meals.
If you still feel compelled to offer your child something other than water or breast milk, unsweetened soy, and nut milk are your most nutritious alternatives.
Snacks between meals may be offered when your child is consuming a healthy portion of nutritious solid foods during each meal.
If you notice your child is choosing to refuse their healthy food options, or entire meals altogether, then dial it back on the snacking.
And if your child is still breastfeeding, as with my daughter, snacks may be replaced altogether until your milk supply is diminished.
What makes a picky eater?
Kids enjoy specific foods more than others just as adults do. It is simply human nature to have dietary preferences that have been shaped over your lifetime.
Some of our taste preferences are predetermined by our genes, what our mother’s consumed while we were in the womb, or even what our mothers ate while we were nursing.
A large extent of our taste preferences, however, are learned. Research shows the only innate preference humans possess is the taste for breast milk.
What does this mean for picky eaters?
It means all other food preferences have been acquired, and can therefor be adapted.
Take salt for instance. There are naturally minute amounts of salt in breast milk. The amount is so small that the baby’s taste receptors do not pick up on the particles to an extent that would alter these innate preferences.
Give the same baby a french fry, for example, and the high concentration of salt on that french fry will immediately become detectable.
The baby may not enjoy the salty french fry the first, or even the fifth time it is exposed to it. But give the baby enough exposure to salty french fries an eventually you will get a baby that chooses fries over broccoli, for instance.
This is due to the much lower salt concentration in broccoli.
The primitive areas of our brain have not caught up with the high concentrations of fat, sugar, and salt in our modern Western fare.
We are wired to respond with a pleasurable dopamine release in our brains each time we come across foods in our environment with these highly concentrated substances.
In a natural environment this would signal that we had just consumed foods that are rich in calories, and thus, we should consume as much as possible to increase the likelihood of our survival.
For most of human history, famine was a constant struggle.
Historically, when we would be lucky enough to find foods with rich calorie density, the amount of dopamine released would signal that these foods are highly beneficial to our survival and we need to consume as much as possible.
The richer the food, the greater the dopamine release. And ultimately, the greater the likelihood we will continue that exact behavior, (i.e. consuming rich foods) until they are either depleted, or we are stuffed.
Fat, sugar, & salt
There is another confounding factor, foods containing high concentrations of fat, sweetness, and salt, or any combination of the three, are not found anywhere in nature.
This creates an irresistible disadvantage for the modern day human living in virtually any developed country.
Let’s take another look at our french fry example.
Fries are essentially potatoes, i.e. starch, which is broken down into glucose (sugar) in the body. There is our sweetness or sugar component of the irresistible triad.
Then, fast food companies soak the potato slices in hot oil. There is the fat component.
Lastly, the french fries are covered in salt before served to the unsuspecting public.
So there you have it. A sweet, fatty, salted anomaly that started off as a perfectly healthy food, a potato.
What does all this have to do with overcoming your picky-eaters bad dietary habits? EVERYTHING!
It’s important that you first understand the fundamental psychology behind your child’s habits so that you can approach them in the most successful manner.
From an evolutionary perspective on human nutrition, it becomes very apparent that we were not designed to have to choose between a whole natural potato and a salted greasy french fry in a convenient, readily available, low-cost package.
When a child is presented with these two foods, 99.9% of the time, the french fries are the obvious choice.
You are not doing your child any favors by giving them “what they want”. We are here as parents to provide them with what they need.
Giving in to your child’s every satisfiable desire is why we are looking at the largest childhood obesity epidemic in human history.
If your child is just reaching that exciting 6-month milestone when you will first incorporate solids into their diet, the solution to this problem is pretty straight forward:
DON’T OFFER THESE ARTIFICIALLY RICH FOODS TO YOUR CHILD IN THE FIRST PLACE!
Not only do these foods increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune problems, allergies, cancer, and dementia later in life, they also contain very little by means of nutrition.
If your child has passed that six-month milestone and they have already been introduced to these highly palatable, unnatural foods, don’t sweat, there is always time to teach healthy habits.
In fact, it takes on average 30 to 90 days to reset the human palate. Salt tends to take the longest, nearing closer to the 90-day duration, but it varies from person to person.
What is also encouraging is that this act of cleansing one’s palate is not linear. In other words, the first few days will constitute the majority of your uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
Yes, I said withdrawal, as these foods are, in fact addicting. They activate the exact same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine, heroin, alcohol, etc.
For more information on the interesting addictive effects food has on our body, be sure to read my later article titled How to Overcome Food Addiction & Binge Eating with a Plant-based Diet.
Now, for the remainder of the 30-90 day junk food abstinence, the uncomfortable mental and physical adjustments are more subtle, and thus, much easier to overcome.
So, you may have to suffer through a few months of tough-love with your child, but by the time it’s over you will be on the much less resisted path to compliant healthy eating.
Is your child never going to touch junk food again after this 90-day cleanse? No, of course not. These toxic foods are unfortunately ubiquitous in most societies around the world. Kids will inevitably get their hands on this stuff.
But, will gladly eat the healthier options when presented with them day after day, year after year? You bet!
Reducing mealtime anxiety
There are common mealtime mindsets or expectations that can cloud our judgement as parents when trying to adapt a picky-eater to new or healthier foods.
These expectations can be detrimental to the task at hand, and that task is simply to provide our child with healthy food options.
This last statement is crucial because it is NOT our job to decide how much of those healthy foods should be consumed during a given meal by our child.
The human body is a finely tuned machine that will dial up or dial down the hunger drive to accommodate for our cell’s and tissue’s metabolic needs.
Your child’s metabolic mechanisms are no exception. Your kiddo will eat when their body gives them the signal that they require nutrients at that particular time.
I promise your baby will not starve if they do not eat whatever is placed in front of them at mealtime. It simply means they are not hungry because all of their metabolic needs have been met at that point in time.
A common mealtime expectation parents hold is that their child must eat the foods you have lovingly prepared for that meal or else they will not receive enough “_____________”.
You can fill in the blank with any of the following:
You can approach each mealtime assured knowing that your child has already met their dietary requirement for “____________” because they have chosen to dismiss some, or all of the food you have prepared.
This is not a catastrophe. Your child will simply eat what is needed and leave what is not.
If your child has been on a hunger strike for the past 5 days and dismisses yet another healthy dish because they refuse to eat anything but chicken nuggets, according to the experts, this is totally OKAY!
Waiting them out is always a safe, primary strategy as long as your child does not have any of the following symptoms:
- weight loss
- failure to thrive
- sore throat
Your toddler’s appetite will inevitably decrease between one and two years of age because they are putting on less weight than they did in the first year.
Children only gain between 4-5 pounds between their first and second year of life.
As long as baby continues to gain weight gradually and continues to hit those typical milestones, you have nothing to worry about.
And don’t forget: for all you breastfeeding momma’s, your baby is still receiving about 1/3 of their calories and nutrients from your breast milk.
So again, if baby decides whatever you have prepared for lunch is just not something they are interested in don’t take it personally. Just store it in the fridge to try again with the next meal.