It’s common for parents to proudly watch as their babies excitedly try new foods. Babies will finish their pureed squash then reach for Dad’s dinner plate as well. If only their tiny arms were a little longer.
Then one day that baby who was such a good eater turns into a toddler who pushes away the plate — perhaps onto the floor — with a firm “don’t like it.” For caregivers responsible for feeding their children, this can be a frustrating transition.
Mayo Clinic Children’s Center pediatrician Angela Mattke, M.D., understands. She’s not only guided parents through the picky eating phase common in toddlerhood but also shared a dinner table with her own children.
“I got to experience myself how challenging it can be to have a child who’s a picky eater,” Dr. Mattke says. “And so I had to use all the skills and tools that I had learned from feeding clinics and occupational therapists and other things throughout the years and apply it to my own children.”
How to get kids to try new foods
It’s the caregiver’s job to provide their children with food. It’s the child’s job to decide what or how much to eat. Children might decide not to eat their lunches one day. And that’s OK. Rest assured that as the caregiver, you’ve done your part by offering your child a meal. You don’t have to go back to the kitchen to heat up dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets or pick the raisins out of oatmeal.
“But it doesn’t mean that you, as a parent, can’t be encouraging, offering positive reinforcement,” Dr. Mattke says.
Here are some tips for encouraging new foods.
Celebrate the wins
Dr. Mattke recommends making a big show of excitement with every step the child takes toward trying new foods. They touch the carrot and play with it? You smile, clap and say, “good job!” They hold a new food up to their lips? You offer another celebratory reaction. Kids often repeat the behaviors that earn them attention.
That also means that caregivers must be careful not to react to behaviors they don’t want the child repeating: for example, if the child pushes a plate of pasta on the floor.
“Any attention is positive attention to a toddler,” Dr. Mattke says.
But keep expectations in check. A child won’t necessarily start dinner with a salad after one cheering session.
“It’s not going to be magic,” Dr. Mattke says. “It took us a year and a half to get one of my kids to eat fruit. And he eats every single type now and he’s an adventurous eater.”
Try to keep mealtime positive
Forcing kids to finish everything or even to try everything on their plates can make mealtime stressful for everyone. Try to encourage but not punish kids for what they eat or don’t eat.
One way to take off the pressure is to think about children’s diets over the course of the day or even a week, Dr. Mattke says. Did they have a variety of foods? Did they have some protein and some fruits and vegetables? Trying to get each food group at each meal could create conflict at the dinner table.
“Most parents of toddlers will tell you that mealtime is not very enjoyable because the kids get up and they don’t want to eat,” Dr. Mattke says. “One thing to keep in mind is that some meals are going to be great. And with other meals, they might have two bites.”
Snack time can be nutrition time
We might think of snack time as treat time, but snacks are another opportunity to get in some nutrients.
“In general, kids need to eat about every two or three hours,” Dr. Mattke says. “So they do need snacks a couple of times a day.”
Offer the same foods you would provide at mealtime, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy such as cheese or yogurt. Try to combine carbohydrate, fat and protein. Some examples include:
- Crackers and peanut butter.
- An apple and a cheese stick.
- Yogurt with fruit.
- A trail mix of nuts and dried fruit.
Sit to eat
If you can, have children sit at the table or a designated spot when they have a snack or meal. This helps make eating more intentional. It also encourages children to recognize signs of hunger and fullness instead of eating out of habit.
“Child care and preschools do a really good job of getting kids on these rhythms,” Dr. Mattke says. “When they have snack time, they have a location. They sit down and eat. They don’t walk around with snacks.”
Watch portion sizes
If it seems like children aren’t eating much, remember that their stomachs are much smaller than an adult stomach. A portion of fruits or vegetables for your child is about the size of their clenched fist — you know, the one they’re angerly waving as you try to convince them to try strawberries.
Seeing a full plate of food could be overwhelming to a small child. Instead, start by giving children a little bit of each part of the meal, so maybe a spoonful each of rice and beans and a small tortilla. You can always serve them more when they discover how much they love beans.
Similarly, keep snack sizes in check. A 3-year-old who polishes off a cup of pretzels while watching the latest episode of “Paw Patrol” probably isn’t going to be convinced to try egg salad an hour later.
Serve familiar foods along with new ones
A plate full of unfamiliar foods can be uncomfortable at any age. Try to offer something you know your child will eat along with something new. That doesn’t mean you need to make macaroni and cheese every night. But it might help to have something in the fridge that you can heat up for your child.
If you know your child will accept the mashed potatoes from Sunday’s dinner, keep a child-size portion or two in the fridge. You can offer them along with foods from the family’s dinner on Monday and Tuesday night as well.
Caregivers can model healthy-eating behaviors
Family mealtime is important for building connections and mental health. It’s also an opportunity for adults to be role models: sitting down, eating a variety of foods, practicing flexibility with different food choices and being mindful about food.
Family meals can happen at whatever time works for your family. Some families like to have breakfast together since dinner can get interrupted by kids’ activities and other commitments. A few family meals each week is enough. It doesn’t have to be every day. Family meals have shown to:
- Strengthen family relationships.
- Increase fruit and vegetable and dairy intake.
- Improve children’s school grades.
- Help adolescents have a more positive body image.
- Reduce risk of depression among teens.
- Decrease teen’s screen time.
- Decrease teen use of drugs, alcohol and nicotine.
Give kids some options
Anyone who has ever served a preschooler a peanut butter and jelly on the wrong color of plate knows that kids like choice.
“Give them options that you believe are totally acceptable,” Dr. Mattke says. “Just avoid giving them choices you don’t want them to decline, such as, ‘Do you want blueberries?’ “
- Do you want it on this side of the plate or that side?
- Do you want to try the carrot cooked or raw?
- Do you want it cut up in little pieces?
- Do you want to put it on your plate yourself?
Get kids involved
Yes, meal prep goes smoother when you do it without the “help” of a toddler. But kids love assisting.
“Kids are much more willing to try a different food if they got to be involved with prepping it,” Dr. Mattke says.
You can also give your child age-appropriate tasks to help in the kitchen. Let them sprinkle the cheese on top, choose the vegetable or dump the ingredients you measure into the bowl.
Notice what they like to eat
You might notice that your child prefers — or won’t touch — foods with similar textures or colors. So explain to them how new foods are like their favorites. For example:
- “These are sweet potatoes. They’re orange like carrots.”
- “These are mashed potatoes. They’re soft like yogurt.”
- “These are apple slices. They’re crunchy like chips.”
You can try different preparation styles such as steaming or roasting. You also might find that your child will eat vegetables with cheese or their favorite sauce. Melt some cheddar over broccoli or let your child dip vegetables in barbecue sauce.
Put veggies where kids won’t notice them
One way to get vegetables into kids’ bodies is to put them in foods they’re already eating. That way they also start to get used to the taste, so they might be more likely to eat them later.
“And I think it takes the stress off parents worrying about their kids not getting enough,” Dr. Mattke says. “But I would still say offer vegetables in ways they know about, too, so that they continue to try new things and expand their intentional selection of food.”
Some ways to do this include:
- Blend kale or spinach into a smoothie.
- Blend veggies into a pasta sauce.
- Bake pumpkin or zucchini into muffins or pancakes.
- Puree sweet potato or squash into macaroni and cheese sauce.
- Mash cauliflower or rutabaga into mashed potatoes.
- Add chopped mushrooms to meat sauces or meatballs.
- Layer chopped cauliflower under cheese on a pizza.
When does picky eating become concerning?
Toddlers don’t have much control over their worlds, but what they put in their mouths is one thing they have control over, says Dr. Mattke. That’s why selective eating is an expected phase of child development. As children get older and start school, they tend to accept more foods.
But sometimes selective eating does become concerning. If you can count the number of foods your child eats, it’s worth a mention to the pediatrician. If the child only eats bread, noodles and pretzels, for example, the health care provider might be concerned about vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Only accepting a few foods also can be a sign of a developmental issue.
Do children need a multivitamin?
Pediatricians are commonly asked about multivitamins, Dr. Mattke says.
“If eating a variety of different colored foods and different food groups, most children do not need a multivitamin,” she says.
For children who don’t get three servings of dairy each day, their health care providers might recommend supplementing vitamin D. Children who are vegetarian or vegan also might get a multivitamin. Talk to your child’s health care provider about any concerns.
Picky eating doesn’t have to stress parents
Picking eating behaviors are common for toddlers and these behaviors often resolve as children get older and starts school. But caregivers can encourage their children to try new foods through praise and modeling healthy-eating behaviors themselves. There’s no need to become a short-order cook or endure stressful food battles at the table.
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