We share my top tips for how to get your toddler to eat new foods and the top tips for feeding picky eaters from a dietitian mom.
In my previous post on the Division of Responsibility, I broke down what this popular feeding structure means and how we can be used to reduce picky eating and help raise a competent intuitive eater.
Division of Responsibility
As a refresher, as parents, our job is to determine:
- What foods are served at a meal or snack
- Where that meal occurs
- When that meal occurs
As children, they’re job is to determine:
- What they eat of the foods that are served
- How much they eat, or if they eat at all
Now let’s break down the facts on how you can get your picky toddler to eat as informed by the division of responsibility with some easy steps and tips.
Dietitian’s Feeding Tips for Picky Eaters
Model Eating Competence.
I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a child to eat something if their role model is not eating it. And if we go even further back to when children are starting solids, I also don’t even think it’s reasonable to expect a child can even learn how to eat solids without a model. Research also suggests that eating together as a family is linked to better academic performance, higher self-esteem and resilience, and lower risk of depression, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and obesity. For these reasons, I strongly suggest always eating as a family at the dinner table. Start with 2 minutes for really little ones, and work your way up to 15 to 20 minutes at the table. What if your kid eats at 5 pm and you and your husband prefer to eat at 7? Move the family schedule around to make meals a priority. I cannot stress how important this one step is, so if you get nothing else out of these recommendations make it be this. If you absolutely can’t make schedules work between you and your partner and the kids, then I suggest switching off with your partner or caregiver to ensure at least one person can eat with children at almost every meal. There will always be instances when you are going out for an event, or dinner and have to let the kid eat alone, and in those situations I suggest at least having a snack with the child (like a mini meal of the same meal components) and then you can finish your meal with your partner or wherever you go.
Eat Family Style
Children like autonomy, and serving a meal family style is a great way to reduce waste and also give your kiddo the opportunity to choose what they want out of what you have offered. If you pre-plate a child’s food, you risk: A) Overwhelming them with too much on their plate which often can result in them not eating at all. B) Putting “unsafe” or “fear foods” on their plate which may upset them and freak them out of eating anything at all. C) Increase the likelihood of waste. Under the recommendations of the division of responsibility, it is imperative that we give our children that control.
Be respectful but don’t cater
Remember, you decide what you’re going to make for dinner, when it’s going to be served, and where it will be served. Not your toddler. You do not need to ever cater to a picky eater, but the suggestion is to build a balanced meal that you enjoy making and eating as a family, and to ensure there is always ONE “safe food” or “fall back food” on the table. A safe food is something that assuming your child is hungry, that they can reliably fill their belly with even if they’re not up for trying something new or eating a food they’re learning to like. Serving a safe food helps our kids trust that we can help satisfy their hunger in a way that makes them feel safe. For a lot of kids, let’s be real, this is the carb food – bread, rice, pasta, fruit, milk etc. But you know your kid best. Make sure there is a lot of this food to go around in case it’s all your picky eater eats.
Aim to Offer Variety
Satter would suggest always making sure that there is some kind of carb, protein, vegetable and fat. I would agree, we want to offer variety of food groups, and let the kids choose from those offerings. As for the meals themselves, you can of course have your family staples and favourites, but I do recommend switching things up and offering a variety of different carbs, proteins, veggies and fruit, so that your kid gets exposure to a variety of foods and you don’t get stuck in a food rut.
Make Food taste good
This is so important in this day and age since it feels like a lot of mommy bloggers and wellness influencers are constantly pushing a no sugar, no fat, no salt, no fun lifestyle and extending it onto their kids. Poor kids. Do not be afraid to make your kid’s food (and your food) taste good- and that means adding fat, some salt and sugar. These are just tools in the chef’s toolbox, so do not feel guilty about smart use of any or all of them. While of course, I allow my kid “fun foods” that are packed with sugar and salt and are easy to like regardless, I do try to focus my use of these “add-ins” to what I call more “challenging foods”. So for example, I want my kid to like oatmeal, so I am going to put a little maple syrup on top. I want my kid to like salmon, so I’m going to add a soy brown sugar glaze. I want my kid to like broccoli so I’ll serve it with a cheese sauce on top. Kids crackers and sweet berries are easier for my kid to enjoy as is, so there’s no need for me to doctor them up with more sugar or a fatty dip. Use salt, sugar and fat smartly and your kids will be much more likely to eat and enjoy these naturally nourishing foods.
Remember the division of responsibility rules. You did your part by choosing the foods that would be served, they now have to decide what they eat and how much of it they eat. If they just eat their safe food, and try nothing else, you need to just zip your mouth for now and don’t try to get in there to make it more “healthy” or “balanced”. If something is on the table that they don’t yet “like” or are learning to like, you can simply say, “you don’t have to eat it.” No pressure, no games. Over time, they will let their defence down and be more willing to try something new if the meal-time experience is more pleasant. And the more times they see it, the more likely they are to touch it. The more they touch it, the more likely they are to put it on their plate. The more they put it on their plate, the more likely they are to put it in their mouth. And the more often they put it in their mouth, the more likely they are to eat it and enjoy it. This can be a long game as it can typically take between 8-15 exposures of a food for a child to accept it, but it is absolutely worth the wait. If we pressure, we ruin our chances (potentially for life), so keep the learning experience positive and pressure-free.
Do not praise or react
This is a really tricky one but it’s really really important that we stop making a big deal out of meal-time when your kid does or doesn’t eat something we want them to eat or not eat. If we gasp and cheer the moment our kid puts the carrot in their mouth, they will get suspicious that a carrot is something unusual for them to like. They might not do it again. If we get make a big fuss over them eating “too much” of the cookies on the table, they might recognize that cookies are a big deal and they better eat as many as they can in case mom doesn’t serve them again. Keep your cool. If there is no pressure, we also have to ensure there is no praise. If you must say something when they eat something you’re proud of, try something like: “I love this family time”, or ask them a neutral question about the food like: “what does the tofu taste like to you? Is it crispy, is it soft?” Just don’t make a scene.
Build a Schedule and Reliable Routine (and Stick to it!)
If you have a kid who refuses lunch and 30 minutes later, they are begging for a “snack”, then they get to the dinner table and push their food away, you likely need a more reliable meal and snack schedule. If we want our kids to try something new or eat something other than their “safe food”, they need to get to that meal or snack with an appetite. I recommend ensuring that there are at least a few hours between each meal and snack. If your kid is whining right before a meal because they’re hungry, you can ask them if they’re able to wait 15-20 minutes until dinner is ready. If they cannot, then now is a good time to sit them down for a little appetizer, something that is part of the meal but ready. Cut up veggies and dip is always a really easy option.
Thou Shalt Not Lie (or Hide Vegetables).
There are a lot of books, blogs and suggestions on mommy groups about how to trick your kids into eating their vegetables by hiding them in sauces, muffins, smoothies etc. I am not a fan of this technique. While I am all for making food more nutritious, so of course that means I add vegetables, nut butter and whole grains to my recipes whenever I possibly can, if a child is old enough to ask what is in something, it’s very important that you are transparent and tell them. Children are incredibly smart when it comes to picking out food they don’t like, and by lying to them about the fact that there is spinach in their smoothie, it communicates to them that spinach is something that is so bad, it needs to be hidden. It needs to be lied about. It also makes our children distrust us when it comes to food, and the division of responsibility is all about fostering trust. If a young child asks, tell them what’s in it and why. You can say that the spinach gives it a lovely green colour, or the yogurt makes it creamy and thick. You don’t have to get into the fact that it adds iron, or vitamin C. Communicate in language your kids will understand, but communicate honestly.
Get them Involved.
Kids love control and a lot of picky eating is about control, especially in those early toddler years. When kids are given some autonomy to help out in some way, they’re more likely to want to try. So again, we don’t want to become short order cooks, but we could give a child the choice between two vegetables for dinner. We could also take them grocery shopping and allow them to choose one new fruit to try that week. And there are a lot of tasks you can get them involved in when it comes to meal prep like washing produce, adding ingredients, or stirring things together. You are still creating the boundaries, but you’re giving them the autonomy to safely work within them.
Say Goodbye to Dichotomous Language and Get Descriptive.
We don’t have really any food rules in my house but we do not use the word t-r-e-a-t. Why? What’s so bad about that? Well, just like words like “junk food” vs “healthy food”, children are quick to associate foods like treat and junk with things they’re not supposed to have and that are limited but highly valuable. Meanwhile, they see foods that are called “healthy” as the ones mom and dad really want them to eat. If my son asks for a treat, I don’t repeat the word back, I simply call it what it is – it’s cake, it’s a cookie, it’s ice cream. Yes, of course, foods are not all nutritionally equal but we can make them morally equal by neutralizing our language. A lot of parents also find themselves describing a sweet food or junk food as “yucky” to try to discourage their kid to eat it, and “yummy” when they’re trying to push a green bean on the kid. Kids quickly figure this little game out and again, they learn to distrust us. So instead, describe foods in neutral, but descriptive language. Talk about the broccoli looking like a tree, and the asparagus as snappy, and the strawberry as juicy. Talk about the cupcake as colourful, the ice cream and creamy, and the cookie as chewy. Just don’t call it good and bad.
Do Sit Down Snacks.
Snacks have become basically synonymous with treats or easy foods in toddler speak, but really, we need to think of snacks as mini meals that offer as much balance and nutrition as a meal. I recommend sitting down to eat a snack, just like you would a meal, and including at least 2 or 3 different foods in a smaller serving. Ideally, you’re aiming to get 2 or more of what I call hunger crushing foods – sources of fibre rich carbs, healthy fats and protein. This may also be your time to offer a food that your child hasn’t eaten much of that day. So if your kid ate a lot of fruit at breakfast, offer some crackers and cheese. If they ate a lot of meat at lunch, offer veggies or fruit at snack. Just do it sitting down.
Make Bedtime Snacks Filling, not Thrilling.
There will be days when your kiddo just decides they don’t want to eat anything at meal-time. If this happens at breakfast or lunch, and they ask for a “snack” immediately after they get down from the table, you can remind them that we just had a meal but snack will be happening soon. If this happens at dinner, I know a lot of parents will be worried about sending their kid to bed with no food at all. I know I was the first time I did it because this mama did NOT want a 2 AM wake up. In this case, you can do a bedtime snack but as Satter says, make it filling, not thrilling. So rather than an exciting fun food that your kid might learn to “hold out for” every night like cookies or a popsicle, you can do a mini version of the meal they missed (including the safe food), or something simple and not exciting like milk, peanut butter on bread, pita bread and guacamole, yogurt parfait, veggies and dip etc.
Serve Dessert WITH the Meal.
Alright, now let’s talk about something you’re probably really wondering about – sweets. How do you get your child to stop obsessing over dessert? Well, there are two ways to do this. The first is to put the dessert on the same playing field as the rest of the meal and that means serving it WITH their meal. But unlike the rest of the family style meal which kids should have access to on demand in whatever amounts they are hungry for, the dessert is one portion only. They can eat it first, last, or sometime in the middle of their meal, but once it’s gone, they have to move onto other options on the table. We use this technique for a few reasons. One is that it doesn’t teach them to eat until they have filled up on their meal, only to be served dessert and then eat past fullness in sweets. A competent intuitive eater would ideally eat their meal until satiety and be too full for dessert (and I’ve seen my son do this so I know it’s possible). The other is that we don’t want them putting dessert up on a pedestal and that they must drag themselves through the “yucky” food before they get the gold. It gives dessert far too much power. Now, this approach does not work for all children at all stages of life. I found it worked great with my son up until maybe 18 months, and then the toddler years brought on the tantrums. Some parents in this stage between 2 and 3 find they can’t explain to their toddler that there is only one portion, so they eat their dessert and cry for the rest of the meal-time. Let’s be honest, it’s hard for anyone to feel hunger cues when they’re hysterically crying. So if you’re struggling with meal-time tantrums, maybe try picking this technique up again later on when a child is old enough to understand the one portion rule.
Offer Unlimited Sweets as a Snack.
This is the alternative method for dealing with sweets, and the one I’ve been using now that I’m in the throes of the terrible twos. Once a week or so offer dessert at a snack in an unlimited amount. This could be putting out a plate of cookies or letting your kids eat as much of their Halloween candy as they want. The key here is that this unlimited sweet sesh is far enough away from the meal that it doesn’t compete with nutritious foods. But it gives the child the message that these foods are no big deal and there is no need to hoard or obsess over them when they’re clearly allowed to eat as much as they want. A child that is allowed fun foods throughout the week will be less likely to obsess over sweets and eat a reasonable amount when they are available. This is a really important skill for life.
Balance Fun Foods with Nutrition.
If you are giving dessert or a snack that is less nutritious more often, you can balance out that fun food with something more nourishing. For example, serving milk with cookies, or yogurt with pie, or cheese with crackers. This will encourage your child to put the fun food and the nutritious food on the same playing field, and also will give you the satisfaction of ensuring there is some kind of nutrition going in throughout the day.
Trust your child to grow into their healthiest, happiest weight.
This is a big topic so I’ll keep it top level. It’s very important to trust this process as it pertains to your child and their weight. Don’t be freaked out if your child eats a lot less or a lot more than other children in his cohort. Children do not need to be put on diets, restricted or force fed. If you are not employing tricks, bribes and pressure, a healthy child WILL eat the right amount of food for their body. You need to trust that. Often a very small child will make parents nervous so parents interfere with eating, which only perpetuates their disinterest in food. And often a very large child will make parents nervous, so they restrict, and the child eats as much as they can when they get the chance. If you are not doing these things and they are still not eating, then it may be worth speaking to your pediatrician about other possible feeding issues including oral motor development, tongue ties, behavioural concerns and developmental delays.
Trouble Shooting Tips For Picky Eaters
What happens if they only eat their safe food?
If you’ve been pressuring your kid to eat “healthy foods” or restricting fun foods in the past, it’s very likely that your kid is going to only eat their safe food or eat dessert first. It’s natural for a child to see the forbidden food be served and try to get as much as they can before you go back to your old pressuring ways. Give it time. Your child will need to learn how to trust that you’re not going to cut them off and you’re not going to force them to try something they’re not yet comfortable with. Remember, keep your cool. Keep putting the vegetables (or whatever food they’re learning to like) on the table but not expecting or insisting they eat it. Keep being neutral when they pick it up, put it on their plate, or put it in their mouth. Keep trying to make the food taste good with salt, sugar, fat- whatever. And expose, expose, expose.
What if I run out of the safe food?
Ideally, try to ensure there is enough of that safe food to go around. But of course, our fridges and pantries are not magically replenishing. I often run out of fruit because my family eats so much of it. So if a safe food is in limited quantity, you may want to offer two safe foods on the table (this could be fruit and cheese, for example).
What if they eat nothing at all?
Don’t panic. It happens. See my tips on offering a filling, not thrilling bedtime snack. And for younger toddlers, this might be the time for their milk. Hunger is naturally suppressed by melatonin, so in my experience, even the nights my kid eats nothing at all, he drinks his milk, sleeps through the night, wakes up at the normal time and just eats a bigger breakfast. You will be surprised how resilient they are.
What if dessert is their “safe” food and they just want more?
If you choose to serve dessert with the meal, keep in mind that this should not be the safe food since we need to stick to the one serving of dessert rule so it doesn’t crowd out other nutritious foods.
Shouldn’t we teach our kids that sugar is bad for them?
Children are born with a neutral attitude towards food. If we start saying things like “sugar is poison” or “candy is bad for you”, kids will start thinking that all foods that are “bad” actually taste really good, and they develop a skewed relationship with food. Keep language neutral and just call a food what it is. It’s not a treat, it’s not bad, it’s a cookie, it’s a lollipop, it’s cake. Next.
How much should my kid eat?
However much they need to eat for their unique needs. A lot of people will give you specifics about how many tablespoons of food per month or year of life. But how much your child needs is so highly variable between children and within children (between days) that I find these guidelines just stress parents out more and force them into restriction or pressuring behaviours. I prefer to serve food family style so that kids can therefore choose what they want to put on their plate and you can limit waste. If you’re pre-portioning your child’s meal, give the child one or two pieces of each thing, and let them ask or motion for more.
What if my child is overweight or underweight?
It does not matter the current size of your child, the recommendations here are the same. Do not pressure the child to eat or restrict foods, and their weight will fall where it’s supposed to. And yes, even overweight children should have access to fun foods and desserts a few times a week without it being used as a bribe. Restriction and pressure will do the opposite of what you intend and will only make a smaller child eat less and a larger child eat more than what their body actually needs.
What about the “no thank you bite” or “one polite bite”?
I get why parents use this but it’s actually against the tenets of the division of responsibility. It teaches children that they are not allowed to trust their body when it says “no” because they have to do something for an adult. We want to teach our kids to be able to trust their inner gage when it tells them something isn’t right, and this extends beyond food to other areas of life. Instead of the one bite rule, teach your kids you respect them to listen and trust their body. You can teach them if they do not want to eat something to say, “no thank you, I’m still learning to like beans”.
If they don’t eat anything I offered, should I make them a separate meal?
If you have offered the safe food and they still are not interested in eating, consider that they may genuinely not be hungry and you can try again at snack time. You don’t want to “cater” to each child by making separate meals when they don’t eat what is originally served, or they may learn that they just have to hold out on dinner to get the mac and cheese or pizza they really want. Stay strong and trust that if you did your part (offered the food), you have to let them do theirs.
What if my kid sees a favourite food on the table while they’re having lunch and he starts screaming that he just wants the banana?
I put this question in there because this is what my kid does all the time so I figure I’m not alone. Remember, you are the adult, you decide what foods are being served and if you didn’t choose banana as the “safe food” or as an option for that particular meal, you don’t have to give in. I don’t. You can simply say: “We can have the banana for snack this afternoon/ tomorrow, but right now, we’re having cherries and you’ve still got lots of foods on the table to choose from.” Whatever it is that they’re crying about, make sure that you do put it into the rotation often enough that it doesn’t become a novelty. So for example, my son knows there are rainbow sprinkles in the cupboard and sometimes he will ask for sprinkles on his food. I know he likes sprinkles, so a few times a week I will pre-emptively add them to his meal. You want to be pre-emptive about these things so they don’t get into the habit of having to throw a tantrum to get foods they like, then you give in, and then they learn that screaming at the table is how you get what you want.
Any other non pressure tips to get my toddler to eat new foods?
There are a lot of fun ways to encourage kids to try new foods without having to resort to food rules and pressure.
- New fun utensils
- Cutting food into fun shapes with a cookie cutter
- Serve it in a fun bento box, or in a colourful container they like
- Talking about the food on the table without pressure like, “show me which food is green?”
- Just keep putting it on the table- period!
Do you have specific questions about how to get your toddler to eat? Any other picky eating dilemmas you want addressed? Leave me a comment below and let me know if you try these tips and how they work for you!
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Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.