Picky Eaters: Part One

Conversation With Toddler

Toddler: Food?

Me: Ok, yogurt?

Toddler: No, cracker!

Me: How about Fruit?

Toddler: No! Juice!

Me: Do you want enchiladas? (leftovers from yesterday)

Toddler: No, cookies!!!!

Me: Avocado?

Toddler: Yeah!!!! With chips???

Me: Okay… (good thing they are multigrain chips)

I’m sure you can relate to the conversation with my toddler. It happens almost every meal and snack time. Sometimes we find a compromise, other times my toddler stares at his food for 15-30 minutes until dinner is over.  I usually save his food in the fridge just in case he changes his mind. I don’t think it tastes as good cold, but then again, I don’t think fish crackers soaked in water taste good either. My toddler seems to like both.

My favorite food struggle just happened last week when I made Swedish meatballs (recipe coming soon). My son loves meatballs and carrots but decided to only eat 1 carrot and drink a whole cup of water. Two hours later in bed, he was hungry. So, I brought his bowl of meatballs upstairs and fed him in bed.  A few days later when he was trying to prolong the bedtime routine he asked for meatballs. Sorry buddy… not this time (he actually ate dinner that night). Sometimes he really is hungry, other times he’s just trying to pull shenanigans. I like to think I’m smarter than a toddler most days.

Every kid can appear to be a picky eater at various ages and stages of their life. I would be rich if I got paid every time I heard the following phrase.

“My child use to eat everything, now they eat nothing.”

Now that I have a toddler I get to practice what I’ve preached over the years, to other parents. Before now I’ve just told other parents what I’ve learned from the textbooks. It's been fun at times and frustrating at other times.  So, I'll jump right in with the first few research based tricks I've tried in an attempt to get my toddler to eat health.

Gardening With Children

I've always liked trying to grow things in little containers either on my apartment balcony or kitchen window. Last year, I finally got to plant a larger scale garden in planter boxes in my yard. We planted tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini and cucumbers. I can’t tell you how many times my son would eat the vegetables as we picked them in the garden but wanted nothing to do with them once we came inside. Most of the pictures I have of my son eating raw vegetables are in our backyard. As we continued to harvest from our garden, my son started connecting mealtime foods to the garden. It didn’t change overnight, but was increasingly better as the summer passed.  Then one day at the grocery store a few months after our garden died, I bought bell peppers at the grocery store. They almost didn’t make it home because my son tried to eat them at the store just like he remembered doing in the garden. My heart soared!!! I almost didn’t want to stop him except that I didn’t want to carry a half eaten bell pepper through the checkout line.  

Fact: Frequency of eating homegrown produce is associated with higher intake among parents and children

Bell Peppers straight from the garden.

Bell Peppers straight from the garden.

Show by Example

This tactic is tried and true in research and in my home. Although it may seem like a no-brainer that kids will eat what parents eat, sometimes we forget the easy stuff. It baffles me how many times I’ve heard the following conversation.

Parent: “My child won’t eat broccoli.”

Me: “Do you like broccoli?”

Parent: “No, I’ve never liked broccoli.” Or “Yes, but their dad doesn’t like it.”

Me: “Mystery solved! When you start liking broccoli and eating it often, your child will be more inclined to eat it.”

It’s not like the first week you start eating broccoli, your child is going to be begging you for more broccoli though. It’s a long road of consistency and continuing to expose them to the foods you want them to eat. I will admit that our spousal disagreements are frequently about food, and didn’t start until we had a child.

“Don’t feed him that!”

“Don’t eat that in front of the kids!”

“Where did he get that?”

“It’s all your fault he’s not eating dinner!”

“No, he can’t have a treat!”

I’m sure it’s difficult being married to a dietitian. Sorry husband…

Whenever I’m trying to get my toddler to eat something, I grab my husband and make him eat it with our son. I would say almost 90% of the time the issue is solved and my son starts gobbling up the food. The other 10% usually means my son isn’t hungry in the first place or something else is interfering with mealtime (like poop time, nap time, play time, etc).

I’ve also watched the opposite happen. I am eating the same food as I’m feeding my son and he is just staring at it. Husband walks in and makes something different for lunch. My cause is lost and my son ends up eating half of my husband’s food. Hmmm… ?

Fact: Parent’s eating habits are strongly related to children’s eating habits.

Who would have guessed that feeding a child could be so challenging?  This is the start of my picky eaters series to show you what happens in my family when I try to get them to eat healthy.  One thing I have learned is that just because research says something works in MOST people doesn't mean it ALWAYS works. That being said, its a great place to start, and is more likely to be effective than something else. 

Action Items

  • What kind of eating example are you setting for your children?
  • What can you change about your own eating habits that would improve the example you set for your kids?
  • What can you do today to get your kids involved in gardening? Maybe an herb garden, container garden, or a large scale garden?


Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility

Parents’ Feeding Jobs:

  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
  • Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
  • Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
  • Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.

Children’s eating jobs:

Turn a Food Fight into a Party: 26 Tips to Conquer Picky Eating

PDF Version

Every kid can appear to be a picky eater at various ages and stages of their life. I would be rich if I got paid every time I heard the phrase, “My child used to eat everything, now they eat nothing.”

Add To Cart