Got a picky eater in your house? Feeding your toddler the same food day in and day out because they just won't eat anything else can be boring as all get out... not to mention stressful for a mom who worries their kiddo isn't eating enough. But good news is here!
Picky eating is absolutely normal for younger kids says Jill Castle, childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School. " It is generally a "phase" that will pass," Castle explains.
OK, so that's good news, but until they're out of the phase, how do you know your picky eater is getting enough nutrients? Here are some easy tips to keep your toddler healthy, even when they're turning their nose up at every meal!
1. Stick to a routine. Castle suggests toddlers and preschoolers have an opportunity to eat every three hours, and she advises sit-down snacks between meals. "Sit at the table, in the kitchen [to eat]," she says. "Do this everyday; close the kitchen until the next feeding time."
This will help a picky eater learn not to graze all day and to eat only when hungry, as well as to stop eating when they're full.
2. Avoid filling them up on juice and milk between meals. This goes hand-in-hand with rule one, and it's a major mistake Danielle Fatemi, a pediatric dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sees parents making. "By limiting juice and milk intake to mealtime, and offering only water between meals, your child is less likely to feel full before meals," she explains. Not to mention with less in their belly, kids will have a bigger appetite, and hopefully be more willing to try something new.
If your child is going through an all liquid phase, don't cave. "Keep offering solids," Castle says. "Offer liquids last. Decrease the amount of liquid offered, so an appetite can build up."
3. Vary the food you're offering. Kid can easily get into food "ruts," where they demand one thing and one thing only. But Castle says feeding into that only creates a vicious cycle. Varying food "helps prevent food boredom and food jags," she says. It also helps keep important food nutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc center stage.
4. Keep a few familiar foods in the meals. While you don't want to cave to their demands, you also don't want them to full reject the meal. Just one or two familiar foods in a meal plan is enough, Castle advises.
5. Let your kids take control! Toddlers especially love to do anything that grown ups do, so take advantage of their enthusiasm to get them excited about new foods. "At the grocery store, have your child pick out one new fruit or vegetable to try that week," Fatemi says. When possible, also encourage them to help you with food prep. And when they get to the table -- let them lead the way. If they get messy or their manners aren't perfect, so what? Clothes can be washed, and you can work on "use your fork" later.
6. Make food fun. "Kids like colorful, fun presentation," Fatemi says. "Try dipping sauces or cut foods into shapes with cookie cutters."
7. Mask flavors, not foods. Castle isn't a big fan of hiding veggies. "Many kids may turn off their favorite food once they find out," she warns. But if you want to try introducing a new food, there's no reason you can't slip it in with their favorite eats -- if you're honest and open about it.
"If your preschooler asks, 'What's in this smoothie?' answer honestly: strawberries, banana and kale," she says. "IF he rejects it, let him help you make the smoothie next time and let him add the ingredients—he may leave out the kale or he may add it."
8. Leave fruits and vegetables (such as cherry tomatoes or grapes) out in a bowl where they will be easily noticed. If they are stored out in the open, Fatemi explains, your child may be more likely to reach for a fruit or a vegetable instead of something unhealthy when they need a snack.
9. Limit distractions during meal times. If your toddler is focused on the TV, phone calls, or loud conversations, they're not focusing on eating a full meal, Fatemi warns. If you keep things calm, you can keep them munching!
10. Follow the basics. Still not sure they're getting enough? Castle says the minimum eating requirements for a toddler are as follows:
Toddlers age 2-3 years: about 2 ounces of meat, 2 cups of dairy, 1 cup of fruits, 1 cup of veggies, 3 ounces of grains, 3 teaspoons of fat. Preschoolers age 4-5 years: 3 ounces of meat, 2.5 cups dairy, 1 cup fruit, 1.5 cups veggies, 4 ounces grains, 4 teaspoons of fat.
"Remember we look at the average intake over a week's time, not a single day or meal," she says. "Fruit and veggies can be interchanged, especially for the picky eater."
The US Department of Agriculture also offers sample meal plans for toddlers that are balanced.
Whatever happens, remember picky eating is normal, and there's no reason to get upset. "Just smile and move on," Castle advises. "There's always another meal or snack just a couple of hours away."
How do you get your picky eater to eat up?
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