I don’t know a parent out there who hasn’t struggled with how to get a picky toddler to eat their dinner…or any meal for that matter. We live in a day where food is plentiful and convenience comes first…often. If you are tired of hearing “I don’t like that”…(insert whiney voice), then you can make a few changes that will help make meal time easier.
Tons of moms including myself find themselves leaving off this, picking out that…until you have two or three kids and then you go nuts and wonder what to do. I want to share some things that are working with three very different eaters ages 1, 3.5, and 5.
Post last updated November, 2019.
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Picky eating reappears, even when you thought you nailed it.
We go through phases where I’m consistent, and then life happens. Some days I’m feeling like a tiger mama watching them down that plate of cucumbers, and other days I’m pulling out my hair wondering why they wont eat them.
I usually always see regression when someone gets sick, when I cook the same foods over and over, or when I have too many sweets around. When that happens, I do some analyzing of why I think things have regressed and I try again. Pick a day when you have the energy, and try out some of these tips to see what works to get your picky eater to eat healthier food!
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How to get a picky toddler to eat their dinner
1. Make them try one bite of each thing on the table.
While I fundamentally know that a super hungry kid will not refuse what’s in front of them, most the time my kids are not that kind of hungry.
The reason I really like the one bite rule is that it’s over relatively quickly for everyone involved…it’s not too much to ask.
I have seen my kids start to like many things that they used to be forced to just try. I’ve also seen them like foods the first try that I almost left off their plate thinking they would fuss about it.
Updated: What age is reasonable to make a picky toddler start trying a bite?
I think that by age 3, there’s no excuse for a kid not to try one bite if you ask. It can be a teeny tiny bite where they are exposed to the flavor. They can be reasoned with more than a 2 year old, and can understand what “being rude” means. My older kids (now 4 and 6) hear often that we try a bite to be polite. Mom worked hard to prepare a nutritious meal.
I really haven’t forced my kids at age 2 to take 1 bite, because honestly…tears, fits, spitting out food, irrational behavior at times just makes it too hard. I encourage them, say “Open up” as I hold a spoon to their mouth, cheer when they do, or simply explain they cannot have seconds of rice until they try one bite of broccoli. (And yes, they understand every word even if they don’t talk yet!)
Many methods out there today tell moms not to force anything ever. I’m fine asking my kid to try a bite, but you have to do what you’re comfortable with. They will try a LOT of new things this way!
2. I don’t ask what they want to eat
This became a necessity when I had two vocal little bodies that wanted different things ALL the time. I’d dread meals and snacks because of all the requests.
Now I don’t ask them what they would like for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. I simply say, “we are having…” . As they have gotten older I’ll offer two options (say banana or apple) because both are good options.
I have started asking them if they’d like x or y cereal each morning, and sometimes I’ll ask them if they would like their bread toasted or not if I’m up for doing possibly both. But for the most part it’s whatever I’ve decided.
3. Try serving dinner in courses
Something I’ve fallen in love with is putting the things that are hardest to eat on their plate first (like vegetables or new things), before anything else. Otherwise they tend to just eat all of their favorite thing and fill up, which makes trying the weird new thing harder.
Usually this looks like me putting the veggies and meat on first, before scooping any rice or noodles or bread. You know what your kid will fill up on, so before that you could have them try something else.
4. Try not to make separate dishes
Making two (or three dinners) is exhausting and nuts. And for a little dictator none the less! I never thought I was cooking two dinners. But…I was leaving stuff off of their plates because I thought they probably wouldn’t eat it. For example, I didn’t want to deal with the whining so I’d leave off the pesto from the noodles.
5. Be reasonable with portion sizes
Updated to add: Here’s an example of how I deal with serving multiple kids one food item, now ages 2, 4, and 6. I give them all a few pieces of broccoli on their plate with chicken. I know the broccoli tastes fine because it’s smeared in butter and sprinkled with salt.
- I don’t pile it on for the kid who doesn’t love them.
- For the kid that does, I put on more and they can eat however much they like.
- Everyone must eat some broccoli. It used to be 1 bite when they were younger, but now it’s a little bit more. This can change base on what the food is, and what size it is.
But the older kids can do better. They must eat at least a few pieces. If they put forth a good effort without whining sometimes we will decrease what we ask them to eat up. I know pretty well if they are “full” or faking it…and do my best to discern. Also, they seem to do better if we “help” them by feeding it to them…sometime’s they’ll ask us to even!
They are not allowed to say “Ew” or make faces because my 2 year old then becomes picky about foods the older ones fuss about. My 2 year old eats it because he likes it, but he’s not he has to yet.
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6. Limit sweets
Peter would bring home treats daily from the hospital, like a sweet muffin or an extra danish or whatever. Of course, our kids loved it! Then one day it hit me the reason they didn’t want fruit was because it wasn’t sweet!
I’m fine with my kids having some sugar. But I will tell you that when I stopped handing it out multiple times a day they started eating fruit again and asking for it. It took about two to three days for them to stop holding out for treats and then they started asking for a banana or apple.
This is one of my top culprits, probably because I love sweets! So that’s why you will find me sneaking a bowl of ice cream during nap time so I don’t have to share 😉 C’mon, you’ve done that too.
7. Keep making new dishes and flavors.
The worst thing is to only make “picky eater dishes”. Keep trying something new, and to ease the pain you can always have at least 1 thing you know they’ll eat. (For me, those safe foods are rice, broccoli, and any meat.) So, when making a new dish sometimes I’ll try to have something familiar too.
I’m finding the more I make some things (not all things!), the more they start to eat it without complaint or eat more bites of it. I’ll even say, “We are going to be having this more often, so get used to seeing it more”.
I know my kids may never want a full plate of curry, or soup with beans inside, but they have gotten a little better about trying things the more times they have seen it. That’s why I’m trying not to give up making interesting food rather than just easy kid food.
8. Watch how much milk you offer
My second child loved milk SO much. She has also always been the pickiest eater of all 3 kids, even as a baby. And the most stubborn. We would give her milk and too little food because she wanted milk. It was our way of not dealing with the picky eater thing. From a tiny age knew that she could just wait it out and get her milk.
We started offering her water. And dealing with some increased whines. Then we found she started trying foods she never would eat because she was actually starting to get hungry. If your kids are just surviving on milk and you want to change that, you can decrease their milk!
Now, it’s less of a snacking beverage like it used to be here. We have milk after dinner, with cereal, and with any dessert. They ask why all the time and I tell them “milk fills you up and you need to be hungry for…(whatever meal is next). It really helps!
9. Don’t let them watch shows with picky eaters in them
Our kids used to watch Caillou until I noticed that their whining increased a ton, copying intonations from the show. I also noticed that they had scenes pointing out that a kid didn’t like a certain vegetable or food. When you are working on getting your kids to not be picky, letting them watch shows with picky eaters in them is going to make your life worse!
10. Let kids help cook if possible
I don’t always do this but it really helps! They see what all the foods are, they help hand me things, and they later recognize what everything is in their food. I don’t know if it gets them more excited or just prepped about whats coming. Either way, I’ve noticed the more involved they are with helping me get ingredients out, the less weird they think dinner is.
Check out healthychildren.org for more practical tips.
11. Make the kids ask you for a snack
For now while they are all under 5 I have had to make the rule that they can’t open the fridge or pantry. My 2.5 year old was just opening it all the time grabbing things. She can ask me for a cheese stick, and go get it out of the fridge if I say yes. But she cannot just go look around for something scrumptious 20 times a day.
Toddlers are just not capable of making good dietary choices. My kids would eat goldfish and graham crackers all day long if I let them.
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A more polite way to say, “I don’t like that”
It’s pretty embarrassing to take the picky eater kid (we’ve all had at least one, yes?) somewhere for dinner and have them blurt out “eww yucky”. To solve that issue, we have them say something a little different.
I learned it from Peter’s family. Our kids are not allowed to say “I don’t like that”. When they tell me that they have to apologize and I tell them they can say “It’s not my favorite”.
This may seem like a small thing but it’s HUGE! When we go places, especially when someone else is cooking it’s so much less embarrassing to hear “this is not my favorite” rather than “eww, I don’t like this”.
Make a bedtime snack plan
At our house it looks like this: They tried a few required bites and “weren’t hungry”. An hour goes by and they want cereal. So then I realize they could have eaten much more at dinner but didn’t want to…knowing they’d get cereal.
The only way we could break this was to make sure they ate certain things on their plates before being allowing a bedtime snack, or dinner would just be waiting for them as their bedtime snack.
I’ve noticed when our kids know beforehand that they have to have 3 more bites of something or no bedtime snack, they’ll often find the courage to eat those 3 bites.
Should you let them go to bed hungry?
If you are like me you are thinking, what if they don’t sleep as well?! I have found they still sleep through the night. We have been woken up around 5 am with a hungry toddler, but to be honest a piece of bread and butter or a bottle of milk took care of that and it rarely happened for us.
But, if sleep is top priority or you just are not comfortable with this, then use other strategies.
I’ll be the first to admit that when I’m super tired, like after our third was born this year, I just gave them cereal before bed at night because well #cantdeal and #didntmakedinneragain.
You can’t make them like a food, but a hungry kid will eat what you provide them
I’m always thinking about the kids I lived with in the Dominican Republic who had barely enough to eat. They were never picky. They didn’t complain that they ate the same food every day (rice, beans, chicken, eggs, bananas).
I think that with so much food around (and good food) it’s really easy to get picky. When there are no other options, and they know it, they’ll learn to eat it. Way easier said than done though!
Tips for getting kids to eat more veggies
Here’s how we have been able to get a decent amount of veggies in our kids (and it has gotten much easier as they have gotten older…pretty sure my daughter wouldn’t swallow a veggie soft or pureed for the first 2 years of her life).
Also, I’d like to note that you can still have a picky kid who likes to eat fruits and vegetables…I have one!
He will happily eat any fruit or veggie he is used to that he likes. But he’s still picky. They are actually totally different (but related) issues. So we are working on trying new things and eating some of what we are served without complaining. Easier said than done!
1. Find one vegetable they like and buy tons of it
Right now it’s mini cucumbers for some weird reason, and steamed broccoli for dinner most nights of the week. For a while, my 2 year old decided peas were good, so I’d just steam them for snacks and put them in a bowl.
2. Put fruits and veggies by them when they watch a show
I know, weird, but I swear they’ll eat anything when they watch shows so I’m rolling with it. Plus, if they’ve snacked on veggies and fruit, I don’t feel any pressure to get some down them at meal times.
3. Bring only fruits and veggies cut up for short outings
This works really well when my kids are at the park and they are so hungry, but I only have cut up apples and strawberries with me. I’ve seen them go for things they wouldn’t normally this way, like celery and peanut butter.
4. Hide veggies in things
My favorite thing right now is adding about 1 huge handful of spinach to our pancake recipe which I blend with a Blendtec (enough to make it really green). The kids love the color change and heck, its doused in syrup so they don’t taste the spinach anyway. Here’s 16 more hidden spinach recipes you can try!
5. Try adding peanut butter or a dipping sauce to get your picky toddler to eat more veggies
If it’s any help, this is how I’ve dealt with celery. My four year old will eat it with peanut butter fine. My two year old just licks off the peanut butter. I got her to eat the celery by only putting a little on hers (knowing she would lick it off and want more).
Then I told her to get more peanut butter she had to first eat the celery piece too. I don’t think she believed me because she didn’t do it. And didn’t get any more peanut butter. But the next day same routine happened and she ate them together.
How we do snacks
My kids would love to snack ALL day, especially on crackers or bread! When I allow it, they don’t want the lunch I make or dinner because they are full.
So, on good food days, they can have any fruit or vegetable they want in between meals. Often times I’ll make a smoothie and set it on the table for later. Be prepared they won’t want it at first. I tell them, “this is what you can have when you are ready”
Buying healthier kid snacks
Let me say there is a time and a place where convenient individually packaged kid snacks are AMAZING. There are days where I can’t handle dealing with food and handing them a food bar or bag of Goldfish just helps my sanity.
But our most healthy food days are when I have no convenient carbs in my pantry, (aka crackers, pretzels, veggie straws). When it’s not there, I’m forced to offer them what I do have. Here are some things I try to buy each week, and they know they can always eat when hungry:
- cheese sticks
- peanut butter
Help for moms with picky eaters who are strong willed
I wish I could explain why some kids put up more of a fight than others. I think kids are dealt a certain personality, because there’s no other way to answer why my same approach to 3 kids has looked so different. Some eat whatever, and others fight it hard!
Set house rules.
My best advice for picky eaters is to sort of set your house rules that you follow so they adhere to those “rules”. For us, those things are always trying one bite, no dessert unless you finish what we asked you to eat, and you can always have a fruit or veggie if you are actually hungry. (This is a great litmus test to see if they are hungry or bored).
Give them 2 good options.
Strong willed kids need to have a sense of control. You can give them that with 2 good options, like “You can have a cheese stick or strawberries”. Or, “You can have applesauce or wait till dinner”. Come read my whole post on 15 tips for parenting a strong willed child.
Every kid is different, and you know your picky eater best!
Remember that every kid is different! I have seen three very different eaters in our family. They don’t all comply or want to try new things as readily. All 3 have gone through picky stages.
Just remember no hungry kid will refuse good food, and that you are a great mother if you even care enough to work on this. You got this! What frustrates you at meal times, or what is working really well? Leave me a comment and I’ll be sure to respond.
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