March 16, 2013

13 Ways to Help Toddlers Overcome Pickiness

Most parents wants their kid to be that kid at the dinner table: the one gamely munching on whatever she's offered, curiously sampling unfamiliar foods, and begging for seconds of carrots and bok choy.

My own son, at almost 24 months, is a fairly agreeable eater (more on how he became one later), but his eating habits and propensities are not in a class of their own. At different points in his life, he has rejected everything from spinach and kale to blueberries, mango, eggs, beans, zucchini, carrots, and even Mozzarella cheese. (Not all cheese. Just Mozzarella.) He is, in belly and taste buds, an altogether typical toddler. As a veggie-obsessed mom, I've had to get pretty creative.

I've written before about preparing kids to accept vegetables before mealtime arrives; in this post I collect a few more preparatory strategies, along with my favorite at-the-table tips, tricks, rules, and games for helping toddlers overcome pickiness and establish balanced eating habits.

The list comes from my own experience, the testimonies of other parents, a lot of reading, and a little science. I'm always looking for new ways to inspire kids to love veggies, so please add yours at the end of the post. Enjoy!

1.) Eat vegetables while pregnant and nursing. Flavors transmit through amniotic fluid and breast milk, so you can prime your baby's palate before food ever passes her lips.

2.) Change a food's shape. If cubed carrots don't inspire your little ones, try sliced carrot rounds, carrot sticks, crinkle-cut carrots, or carrot shreds.

3.) Let kids dip. Kids will eat almost anything they get to dip. in something. Try veggies dipped in hummus, yogurt, guacamole, or herbed butter.

4.) Offer foods at a different time of day. Experiment to find out when hungers and moods strike. (This made a HUGE difference for us. We now offer anything bean-based at lunch.)

5.) Serve foods with flair. Eat with colorful forks. Arrange veggies on fun platters. Stab fruits with a cocktail umbrella. Advertisers use gimmicks like this all the time to win over kids, so it's only fair that we, too, wield a tiny balloon on a toothpick.

6.) Add a little grass-fed butter and sea salt. Saturated fat is not only delicious, it's also important for toddler brain growth.

7.) Don't offer substitutes. It's hard not to cave to (potentially shrill) demands, but it pays to stick to your guns. If ratatouille is for dinner, ratatouille is for dinner. If you serve real, nourishing food and your kids are hungry, they'll eat it. Here's a great article about snacking and appetite.

8.) Let them help you make it (or grow it!) Classic, fun, and effective.

9.) "Hide" vegetables. In cognito veggies work in everything from muffins to casseroles, cookies, quiches, smoothies, sauces, and pasta. Just make sure you tell kids the truth about what's inside their food, so next time you serve zucchini, you can remind them that they liked it last time.

10.) Let them see YOU eat well. Nutritionist Karen Collins with the National Institute of Cancer Research reports that "a review of 60 studies concluded that seeing their parents eat and enjoy vegetables was the most powerful influence in promoting vegetable consumption among kids." Get on it, mamas and papas.

11.) Let them roam from the table. Playing and learning is a toddler's mission in life. If he eats twice as many greens on the floor hammering in pegs than he does in his chair, I say bring on the pegs, and worry about table manners later.

12.) Try it again, and again, and again. Research tells us that ten times is the magic number babies and toddlers need to try a new food before they accept it. No problem. Kids should expect to see vegetables on their plates at every single meal. Make broccoli or sweet potatoes normal breakfast foods in your house. Everybody benefits.

13.) Pat yourself on the back. Despite all your best efforts, some days will still be "toast days." Don't give up, and remind yourself that helping your kids learn to enjoy delicious, nutrient-rich food is a gift that will last the rest of their lives.

Happy munching!


  1. All great ideas, Terita! Thanks for sharing. I love to give my kids a little vinegarette to dip their raw veggies in. Right now, Elliot will eat any vegetable that I cook with olive oil, garlic and perserved lemons. I have never seen him literally shoveling green beans in his mouth like he did tonight. I also find that limiting (or eliminating) snacks, and serving the vegetable first at meal time, all alone, really helps.

  2. Vinaigrette! Such a yummy idea. I'm a little impatient for Darwin to become a better chewer--he'll spend half an hour gnawing on one carrot stick.

    Yes to limiting snacks, and serving meals in "courses." (we often offer fruit last, like a dessert.) Thanks for reading. :)