How To Get A Picky Toddler To Eat Healthy

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When I had my first child, I learned very quickly how hard it is to get a picky toddler to eat healthy. Now that my second child is no longer a toddler, there are still some strategies I use today to help get a picky toddler to eat healthy.

Solving the problem of getting a picky toddler to eat healthy is never easy, but you can make it easier for yourself with these simple tips.

How To Get A Picky Toddler To Eat Healthy

Do you struggle to get your child to eat healthy, try new things, or even eat at all?  Keep reading for 10 tips to get picky kids to eat healthy and to make your mealtimes easier. 

A little boy eating a healthy meal outside.
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I am by no means an expert at parenting.  In fact, most of the time, I feel very inadequate.  After being a mom for 6 years, there is one thing I figured out for sure: BEING A MOM IS HARD!  They throw me for a curve almost daily; as soon as I think I figured something out, it changes.

I used to be a nanny and had an in-home daycare before I had kids of my own, so I have been around a lot of kids. Mealtimes seem to be a major struggle for so many parents and kids.  If you know my kids, you know this is one area we do NOT struggle with.

My kids will eat anything I put in front of them and a lot of it.  When my oldest son was two, he requested steak and peas for his birthday dinner.  One time I took my daughter to a drive-thru (it was her first time), and when I asked her what she wanted, she said, “Pot roast!” They ask for sauerkraut for breakfast, and they eat vegetables at every meal.  Maybe I just got lucky?! Or maybe it is something I did?

Today, I want to share my 10 tips to get picky kids to eat healthy!

10 tips to get picky kids to eat healthy

#1 don’t make them a separate meal

This is my number one tip! At mealtimes, my kids get whatever I make.  I don’t cater to my kids, this may sound mean, but it is really important.  If you give them the option of having a “kid-friendly” meal that they enjoy more than the healthy meal you prepared, they are not going to eat it.

Life is too busy to make two meals anyway! Make a healthy meal and serve it.  If they don’t eat it, then save it for later.  Don’t offer anything else at this point.  Let them get hungrier, and when they ask for something, offer them the same plate that they didn’t eat earlier.

#2 be a good role model

If mommy and daddy aren’t eating the vegetables, neither will they.  Everyone needs to sit down together and eat the same thing.  I have heard so many moms complain that the reason they can’t cook healthy meals is that their husband is so picky, and in return, the child is picky.

#3 don’t make a huge deal about the meal

It can make it worse if you talk the meal up and tell them how good it is going to be. The more you talk about the meal, the worse it can be for the child. Just serve the meal and talk about the child’s day. Sometimes overthinking it can make it harder for the child.

This post contains affiliate links, which means I make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Get my full disclosure HERE.

#4 serve meals with healthy dips

All kids love sauces and dips, well, at least all the ones I have fed do!  You can make homemade dips or buy healthy ones from the store. Offering a dip can help your picky eater to eat things they have never eaten before.

Try serving BBQ sauce or ketchup with meat and a healthy ranch with veggies.  I will list (and link) some of our favorite healthy dressings below.

#5 let the kids get in on the cooking

Bring the kids into the kitchen and let them help. I have noticed that kids are more likely to eat something if they helped prepare it.  Let them stir and pour the ingredients into the bowl.  Let them help set the table; my daughter loves to do this! 

A little girl helping cook in the kitchen.
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#6 offer an incentive

Yes, I am talking about a bribe!  Of course, this isn’t the best solution, but the goal is to do this in a way that they don’t notice they are being bribed.

If I have a meal planned that I know my kids don’t love, this is usually soup; I offer a dessert if they finish.  Dessert usually consists of applesauce, a piece of fruit, or healthy brownies. As we sit down to dinner, I tell them that if they finish their bowl of soup, they can have a piece of fruit.

#7 serve smaller portions

If you serve your child a huge plate of something they don’t love, they may feel overwhelmed.  Instead, offer small portions so it looks more manageable to the child.

If you are serving something, you know your child loves, then give them more of that and less of the thing you want them to try.  They can always get more if they end up liking it.

#8 don’t do snacks

If you know you are making something for dinner that your child isn’t going to love, then they need to be extra hungry.  Unless they are actually hungry, they won’t be as willing to try.  So often, kids will try to fill up on snacks and not eat much of anything at mealtimes. If they know a snack is coming, they may not eat, knowing they can get full later.

If you have young children or active kids that need snacks, offer healthy ones. Here are a few of our favorite snacks:

  • Avocado with salt- I just cut the avocado in half, sprinkle with salt, and let them eat it right out of the peel.
  • Almonds and raisins
  • Apple and peanut butter
  • Fruit
  • Applesauce

#9 make food fun

Cut the veggies and fruit into cute shapes.

Give your child several different pieces of fruit and vegetables that are different colors.  Let them make a design with them.

One of my kid’s favorite snacks is ants on the log.  They love to help make these, and they really love to eat them—spread peanut butter or almond butter on a piece of celery and top with raisins.

#10 disguise vegetables

I put this one last because it is the last resort.  I rather not have to disguise vegetables and just want my kids to eat them.  If your child refuses, then you can try some of these tricks.

  • Add a handful of spinach to a fruit smoothie. Check out some of our favorite smoothies HERE.
  • You can add shredded zucchini to almost anything!  During the summer months, when I have lots of zucchini, my family eats zucchini everything! You can even add it to meatloaf, and it makes it moist and delicious. No one even noticed I added it.
  • I love to buy cauliflower rice to add to soups, stews, and stir-fries. You can easily add it to mashed potatoes too!

5 Ways to Get Your Toddler to Eat Healthy Foods

baby eating fruit that is cut up into small pieces
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It’s an Instagram-worthy moment in the making: The day your baby first tries solid food — and smears it all over everything in (and out of) sight. But what comes next?

“Toddlerhood is prime time for growth spurts and brain development, so we want to make sure to give them the best nutrition possible,” says pediatric dietitian Jennifer Hyland, RD, CSP, LD.

How to get your toddler to eat healthy food

1. Start early

When should you lay the groundwork for that first foray into toddler finger foods? When they are babies. “Introduce a variety of foods in infancy,” says Hyland. “Start offering age-appropriate foods at about 6 months, and wait a couple of days between the introduction of each new food.”

Try different food groups and textures, including meats, dairy (closer to age 1) and healthy fats. That way, your baby is used to different foods — and flavors — by the time they reach toddlerhood.

2. Go cup, or go home

“The volume of a child’s milk intake should go down after their first birthday, so they have more room for solid foods,” Hyland explains. “If kids are still chugging an 8-ounce bottle at every meal, they tend to eat less.”

Transitioning from a bottle to a cup will help reduce the milk consumption so that they take in a more reasonable 4 to 6 ounces of liquid at a time.

3. Strip it

Cut toddler snacks into safe-to-eat-sized pieces to reduce the risk of choking. Hyland recommends keeping that knife active until around age 4.

But the term “bite-sized” no longer means chunks. “We now recommend cutting things into strips,” she notes. “A child’s windpipe is around the size of a pinky finger. Cut food into little pieces of strips that are thinner than that, so it can easily pass through the throat if your child accidentally swallows it whole.”

That advice goes for round foods as well, such as grapes and cherry tomatoes. Cut them lengthwise for safe snacking.

4. Practice makes portion

Long gone are the days of forcing your kid to “clean their plate.” Instead, embrace small portion sizes for their much smaller bodies.

“A tablespoon per age is a good starting point,” says Hyland. “For toddler-sized portions, think two to three crackers, a half a slice of bread, a few bites of chicken or a half to one whole egg.”

If you feel your kids aren’t eating enough, remember that they don’t have to eat a whole plate of broccoli. “Two to three pieces is fine for their age,” she says.

5. If at first you don’t succeed …

Try, try again. Hyland says it can take more than 20 times for your novice eater to accept a new food or flavor. “Even if they don’t eat them, continue to introduce healthy foods.”

To minimize thrown plates and screeches of “NO,” make eating interactive and fun. Let your child help pick out foods at the grocery store or stir when you cook.

And when your toddler suddenly refuses to eat an old favorite, don’t panic or get frustrated. Toddler food jags are perfectly normal and come in waves. If you stay the course, your little one will be back to downing peas in no time.

The best types of foods to feed your toddler

Hyland’s rule of thumb for toddler snacks? “Offer your kids anything and everything that you eat. It doesn’t need to be a perceived toddler food.” She recommends covering all the basic food groups, including:

Vegetables

Offer both well-cooked and raw veggies regularly. Broccoli, carrots, green beans and zucchini are all good options to cook. Raw vegetables should be soft-ish, easy to chew and swallow, and cut thinly, such as skinless and seedless cucumbers or bell peppers, cut appropriately.

Fruits

Offer a variety of soft fruits, preferably fresh. Be cautious of added sugar in applesauce and fruit pouches and choose unsweetened options instead.

Healthy fats

Good quality fat is especially important for brain development in 1- and 2-year-olds. Healthy fats are also good for your toddler’s heart.

Avocado is a great healthy fat to start with since it’s soft. “And early introduction to nut butters is recommended from an allergy standpoint. They are also a great source of healthy fat,” says Hyland. “Try a very thin layer of peanut butter on a piece of bread or cracker, or you can mix or melt peanut butter or almond butter into oatmeal and similar foods.”

Healthy oils that you cook with, such as olive oil, count, too. So does milk. “Most young toddlers can get much of the fat they need from whole milk. Older toddlers — like 2- and 3-year-olds — can transition to low-fat milk and still get a lot of the health benefits,” she says.

Grains

The sky’s the limit when it comes to whole grains, which include whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, quinoa and well-cooked pasta. “I would even put potatoes in the grain category, so potatoes or sweet potatoes are great,” Hyland says. “Mash them or cut them into skinny strips and roast them.”

Proteins

Make sure the protein is cut appropriately. Try ground meats, flaky fish, and scrambled or hard-boiled eggs. If you’re a vegetarian, you could offer tofu strips, hummus or mashed-up beans.

What toddlers should not eat

Not all foods are considered toddler-safe, even in bite-sized strips. Don’t feed your toddler:

  • Honey: Avoid honey until your baby is at least 12 months old. Honey may contain bacteria that can cause a potentially deadly disease called infant botulism.
  • Foods with added sugars: “Per the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 2 should have no added sugar. But it’s challenging because sugar’s in a lot of foods,” says Hyland. “Avoid packaged and processed foods, adding sugar into kids’ foods yourself and giving them juice or any sugar-sweetened beverages.”
  • Certain firm-textured foods: These kinds of foods can up your toddler’s choking risk. Avoid items such as nuts, popcorn, whole candies and tough meats.

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