Mealtimes can be really hard with a toddler. When my son first started solids it was a lot of fun to experiment with new and different foods. He used to eat most of them. But now that he’s a toddler, he is going through more of a picky eating phase.
If you were raised as I was, you may have grown up as part of the Clean Plate Club. I remember having to finish everything on my plate in order to get dessert or be excused from the table. This has definitely played a role in my relationship with food. I struggle with listening to my body. It’s a hard habit to break that I do not have to eat every single bite of food on my plate. I don’t want my kids to grow up this same way because it can lead to overeating and prioritizing foods like dessert.
Through reading lots of articles, following informative people on social media, and playing around with this ourselves, I’ve found some tactics that work really well. We take it day-by-day, as one day he might love pasta and then refuse to eat it the next. But I’m trying to provide him with a variety of food options in order to decrease picky eating and promote a healthy relationship with food. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve incorporated that work for us.
Take the pressure off eating.
We are not hyper-focused on his eating during mealtimes. We put the food down in front of him and then eat our own food, talk, and enjoy our time together. I do not say, “try this, it’s really good!” or “just take one bite, you might like it!” He eats what he wants, asks for more of something if he wants it, and lets us know when he’s finished. We don’t praise him for trying new things or eating fruits and vegetables. Sometimes he eats everything on his plate, and other times he rarely eats much at all. But I try to look at the bigger picture and focus on what he’s eating over the course of a day and week, as opposed to every single meal.
Offer a variety of foods.
I try to provide at least three different things on his plate at each meal, especially since I know he probably won’t eat everything. This is a great way to have multiple food groups available. I keep the portions small to try and avoid food waste. Especially if it’s a new food or something he doesn’t usually eat, I only give him one or two pieces of it.
Present food in different ways.
My son used to love watermelon, then all of a sudden he refused to eat it. Then when I cut it up a different way and gave it to him in slices instead of pieces, he loved it! Cutting fruits and vegetables in new ways, or even offering something to dip it in can really pique their curiosity. I have also come to realize that this applies to where he eats and who he is around. Sometimes he will eat something at daycare when he’s with his peers that he refuses to eat at home.
Always offer a safe food.
At every meal, especially when offering something new or a food he hasn’t shown interest in yet, I make sure there is something on his plate that I know he will eat. It’s also important to try to rotate through different safe foods – don’t give a side of mac n’ cheese every night with dinner or it can lead to more pickiness.
Don’t make dessert a reward.
If you’re having dessert, serve it with the meal, as opposed to after dinner. As someone who grew up only getting dessert after finishing my meal, it can become something that is put on a pedestal and create an unhealthy relationship with food. Sometimes we have a cookie, piece of Halloween candy, or another type of dessert with dinner. We put it on the plate with everything else; sometimes it’s the first thing he eats, and other days he doesn’t even touch it.
Understand it can take time to try new foods.
We usually have asparagus at least once a week for dinner. When my son was a baby he would always eat it. Now he usually ignores it. However, after continuing to offer it week after week, he has recently started testing it out to see if he liked it. Remember, it can take many, many exposures to a specific food before a child will try it. However, continue to offer it so they see it frequently.
Keep it simple!
Don’t feel like you have to cook elaborate meals all the time. We are all very busy, and while prepping ahead of time can be a big help, there are going to be days when cooking may not be an option. Lots of moms enjoy doing a charcuterie-style dinner where multiple options are laid out and the kids can choose what they want to eat. It also makes the meal fun!
You’re in charge.
Remember, YOU get to decide what you offer your kids! As long as there is something you know they will eat, don’t get into the habit of getting up and making something different if they don’t like what is being offered.
Trust your child.
We want to empower our children to listen to their bodies so they can develop the skills to know when they are hungry or full. If my son says he’s done eating, we clean him up and move on to the next activity. There’s no point in forcing him to eat more, even if it wasn’t very much food. The amount of food he eats fluctuates, the same way it does for us adults.
This is obviously not a one-size-fits-all, but these steps have really helped our son become less of a picky eater and more open to trying new things. If you’re interested in more information, tips, or recipes, here are some of my favorite Instagram follows: kids.eat.in.color, yummytoddlerfood, plantbasedjuniors, and nutrition.for.littles.