Picky Little Eater

Dear Dr.Mom

I’m sure you get this one a lot, but my 20 month old won’t eat anything anymore. Well, that’s not exactly true. He will eat yogurt, pb&j, grilled cheese, applesauce, pop tarts, spaghetti, & soft tacos. Yep, that about covers it. He used to eat anything I put in front of him. Peas, carrots, green beans, sweet potatoes, meat, cheese. Now he won’t try anything. I keep offering, but he’s not taking. He’s been going downhill on his eating habits for the past 2 or 3 months. My now 4 year old was never this picky & now he’ll try anything, but I don’t know how to get a 20 month old to try new foods or even eat the good stuff he used to eat.

Any suggestions? Do I just go with it & let him grow out of it? Or will that just develop bad habits?

Thank you!

—-Jami (aka @boycrazedmomma)

Jami, you are right, I do get this question a lot and for good reason. Becoming a “picky eater” and being a toddler, more often than not, go hand in hand. No one really knows why a switch is suddenly turned on (or off) when toddlers near their second birthday, but your formerly eager eater suddenly becomes suspicious of all food items placed in front of him. You are not alone.

I too have been faced with my own picky eater. I was just as distressed as you when mealtime came around. I couldn’t understand why my son, who once happily gobbled up peas and blueberries, suddenly turned his nose to almost everything placed before him. I wrote about being a reluctant member of The Picky Eaters Club, here. I can completely commiserate. Still, there are some things you can do to lessen your worry and foster healthy eating habits in your picky little eater.

Here are some tips on how to get through your son’s picky eating phase with your sanity intact:

  • First and foremost, realize it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. Fortunately, you have an older child who is more adventurous when it comes to food. So, you know, this is really luck of the draw. Some children go through a definite picky phase.
  • Instead of focusing on each meal and what your child does or doesn’t eat at each sitting, look at the big picture. Assess his overall eating habits within one week. You will be surprised to find that he actually does fairly well over the course of the week.
  • Continue to offer a variety of foods at each meal. Be sure there is at least one food that you know he will eat. Encourage him to try everything, even if it is just a taste. As he gets older, he will soon understand the concept of the no thank you bite.
  • Remember that at this age, a lot of this is also about control. Let him have some. When possible, give him choices between two healthy snacks: would you like apple slices or banana circles for a snack?
  • Sometimes, being silly works. Who wants to try some green power balls? (peas). Yes, I used this one on my son. Not magic, but he smiled and at least put one in his mouth.
  • Realize that it can take up to ten times for a child to accept a new food. Of course, it will seem like a hundred times. Don’t give up.
  • You don’t need to become a short order cook. Make what you normally would for your family but if you need to, modify. If he likes spaghetti without the sauce, make his plain with some parmesan cheese on top.
  • When eating, talk about how a variety of foods helps your son’s body to grow so he can run, jump, play, and throw a ball. Remind him that he needs these foods to grow up healthy. He may not get it now, at 20 months old, but soon he will.
  • Keep in mind, he will continue to thrive and grow throughout this “picky” phase. Really, he will.
  • Give him a daily multivitamin to fill in the gaps and put your mind at ease.

Lastly, avoid food battles. As easy as it is to become frustrated and let that pour over onto mealtimes, do your best to make mealtimes peaceful and fun. He will, in all likelihood, outgrow his picky eating phase. In the meantime, do what you can by offering up healthy foods and maintaining a relaxed attitude. Remember, there is only so much you can do, the rest is up to him.

Do you have a picky eater too? What tips can you offer Jami?

24 Responses to Picky Little Eater
  1. Annette
    February 2, 2011 | 2:05 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post Dr. Mom! My little guy is almost 2 and a half, and I get so frustrated that all he seems to want to eat are carbs. All your tips are valuable, but I especially like # 4. Every time my toddler wants a choice, I'm going to let him pick between two healthy snacks…He will eat healthy from time to time…I just have to hide the cookies, chocolate milk, and bread. Thanks for this great advice!

  2. JDaniel4's Mom
    February 2, 2011 | 4:52 am

    Great tips! JDaniel will eat anything and everything. I am so lucky. Now I wish he weren't always hungry.

  3. Rachel
    February 2, 2011 | 5:06 am

    My parents used to call cooked carrots "orange beans," since I liked most kinds of beans. It only worked twice. 😉

  4. Rebecca
    February 2, 2011 | 5:41 am

    Thanks…it's a relief to hear that giving a multivitamin is a good step too. I did this on my own b/c Daughter won't eat her fruits/veggies. I did what they say to do…kept offering…she is getting better, but I feel good b/c at least she's getting something through the vitamin (and the pureed veggies I try to get into everything)!

  5. Jami
    February 2, 2011 | 6:11 am

    Thank you Melissa. I needed to read some of those things. The choices one is a great reminder. I do that with my older son, but I need to remember to do it with the younger one too.

  6. Gigi
    February 2, 2011 | 7:15 am

    You covered all the right things…and then you just say, this too shall pass.

    Because it does.

  7. Making It Work Mom
    February 2, 2011 | 7:48 am

    I have 2 non-picky eaters and 1 picky eater and finally at age 9 he is just starting to come around. He would eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, but no protein. Finally he is starting to eat the protein. Have faith!

  8. Joy@TPMG
    February 2, 2011 | 10:12 am

    These are such great tips! My youngest is so much more pickier than my oldest ever was. I will be happy when this phase ends!

  9. Ameena
    February 2, 2011 | 10:24 am

    My daughter started becoming a picky eater so I just did what my parents did when I was younger – I put food on the table and either she ate it or she didn't. More often than not she would eat it when she realized I wasn't kidding around!

  10. parenting ad absurdum
    February 2, 2011 | 10:41 am

    I had an extremely picky eater – up until he was about 4 1/2, he ate pretty much nothing but waffles and apples. We offered up as much of a variety as we could, but as you say, we didn't engage in food battles (I remember being forced to finish my dinner as a kid and hating it and my parents…). Now at 5 1/2, he's suddenly become a little foodie who will try just about anything! So there is hope :).

  11. Liz
    February 2, 2011 | 11:12 am

    Kate definitely went through this phase but now eats many things (including sushi). Maddie is so restricted for other reasons, that I thank God she wasn't picky on top of that!

  12. Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds
    February 2, 2011 | 11:56 am

    I stopped giving my daughter juice at age 2. She started eating like a champ after that. Apparently, that sugar was making her feel full. She was like feeding an oscillating fan for that whole year from 12 mos. to 2 years of age. Taking away the juice was a miracle for us!

  13. AnnaNova
    February 2, 2011 | 2:10 pm

    my son goes through short phases of being picky and then goes to his old self. I think one of the best ways to get your child help you cook the food. And it doesnt just mean smearing peanut butter on a toast. My son always eats better when he is included into food preparation, i always say "but you made it!!! " if he doesnt seem particularly interested in eating, and it usually helps. He pours, mixes, helps to do dishes and so on. The other day he helped me make cupcakes for his birthday. he poured flour and other dry stuff after i measured and then mixed it, helped me smash bananas, lined the cupcake pan with paper liners, stuff like that. actually, sometimes making a dinner without him whining means involving him somehow. everyone is always happier that way, even though it will take longer to get things accomplished.

  14. Katherine
    February 2, 2011 | 5:35 pm

    I wish I had advice, buy I feel that the pickiness at our house just gets worse with each passing day. Food that my boys would eat fine last week they now refuse to touch. My 8 year old is actually worse than my 4 year old. He actually likes traditionally non-likable food like spinach, brocolli, and brussel sprouts, but won't touch fruit, yogurt, potatoes, or noodles. it drives me crazy. The one thing I stick by though is that I cook for the family, not for individual people.

  15. Cheryl D.
    February 2, 2011 | 8:47 pm

    Really great advice! My daughter tends to be a bit picky, but she's at least willing to try anything, so I think this won't be a life-long issue.

  16. Michele
    February 3, 2011 | 7:21 am

    My daughter was the worst. I started serving our meals family style and that really helped! I always had one thing I know she liked (fruit or a veggie that she loved) and served everything else in clear bowls at the table and let us all serve ourselves. Once she saw us eating certain things, she was a little more interested, plus I think she felt like she had more of a choice in what she got to eat.

    It was more dishes- which sucked- but it made mealtime much more pleasant! I would get very stressed and upset trying to get food into her because she would wake up at night hungry. My getting upset only made her more stubborn, it was a viscous cycle

  17. Lady Jennie
    February 3, 2011 | 7:22 am

    This is good advice. I have pretty picky eaters. Once I made "green eggs and ham" which they thought was hilarious. But green spinach, they're not very impressed with. :-)

  18. Nichole
    February 3, 2011 | 8:22 am

    Great advice, Melissa.
    I try to consider the big picture, but I am guilty of getting sucked into the food battles from time to time. There are days when my daughter refuses nearly everything, including foods that she loved the day before.
    Then there are days when she eats whatever I give her. I know that she's trying to have some power and I keep reminding myself that this isn't a battle that I want to fight.

  19. Betsy at Zen-Mama
    February 3, 2011 | 9:31 am

    My youngest has made me a big time member of the Picky Eaters Club! One thing that kept me going is that he is the healthiest of my three kids! So he must instinctively know something about his body that the rest of us don't know!

  20. Mrs.Mayhem
    February 3, 2011 | 10:01 am

    This is excellent advice. My youngest is so picky, while her older sister will eat anything. I do think temperament is a part of it, or maybe even having a strong gag reflex, because my youngest (even as a baby) would often gag or spit up.

    We insist that the youngest try a bite at dinner. But I try to add something to the meal that I know she likes, even if it is just apple slices. Then every few days, I make a dinner that I know she will eat.

  21. Megan (Best of Fates)
    February 3, 2011 | 12:47 pm

    Until I started reading blogs I had no idea so many kids were so picky, but it can't be a mom's fault, because it seems to be incredibly pervasive!

  22. TheBabyMammaChronicles
    February 5, 2011 | 11:37 am

    Picky eating is so hard!

  23. Not Just Another Jennifer
    February 6, 2011 | 9:10 pm

    I'm in the same boat – our oldest will eat most things and try almost anything. Our 14 mo old is not as easy-going. On the upside, since I've tried not to give her much junk food, it's mostly healthy. But she mostly eats fruit. I do worry about her having too much sugar and not enough protein. But she does like cheese and yogurt so I try to be sure to offer them in conjunction with the fruit.

  24. Jen
    January 3, 2013 | 1:59 pm

    OMG this is ME! My 4 year old is a wonderful eater (loves asparagus and brussel sprouts!!!) but my 2 year old boy eats only carbs. And sometimes, not even that. He will not touch meat, veggies, sauces etc. I just keep offering healthy foods and I do not prepare anything separate for him. He will get hungry enough at some point, I hope, to try some new things. He won’t even eat a Flintstones vitamin. I mean, really? That’s like candy!!!

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