How to Get Your Child Past the Fussy Food Stage

Child refusing to eat her vegetables
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Like testing out the power of the word "no" or refusing to let you change her diaper, being fussy about food is normal for toddlers. As with those other trying behaviors, food fuss will also pass—though your child might need some help on their way to healthy eating.

Parents can think of the "my child won't eat" stage as being a bit similar to the process of teaching a child to put away their toys.

The first time a parent tries to get a child to tidy up, the child might cry and refuse. By consistently and calmly showing a child that their toys go in the toy box, and helping them to place them there, parents can help the child learn what is being asked. Eventually, the child will learn to do it on their own without throwing a tantrum (or at least, with less resistance).

That said, there are key differences between meals and cleaning up. For one thing, parents are usually more concerned about food than tidy toy boxes—it's harder to stay calm when a child refuses to eat.

On top of the worry, parents may feel guilty (or at least responsible) for their child's refusal to eat—whether they cooked the meal or bought it, it's common for parents to wonder if a child won't eat because they're being served the "wrong" food.

While these are natural, emotional responses to the situation, you shouldn't take your child's refusal to eat personally. Turning up their nose at chicken soup likely has more to do with testing limits or being reluctant to try something new.

If you're concerned that your child missing out on essential calories or nutrition, talk to your pediatrician. They may reassure you that a brief period of food fuss usually does not have a long-term effect on a child's health.

In the mean time, there are some steps you can take to mitigate your anxiety and help your child through the fussy stage and on to healthy eating.

Keep In Mind Your Toddlers' Simple Nutritional Needs

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents should regularly offer children a range of healthy foods from the four basic nutritional groups:

  • Meat, fish, poultry, eggs
  • Dairy (milk, cheese)
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Cereal, bread, pasta, rice

Your child doesn't necessarily need to eat from all of those groups at every meal or even every day. According to the AAP’s Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, the goal is that "your child’s diet will balance out over several days."

Remember that toddlers only need 1000 calories a day. Even if your child only eats small portions, they can reach the recommended calorie intake by having three meals and two snacks a day.

Serve it Once, Twice, Fifty Times If Necessary

A child may resist new foods for many reasons. However, just because your toddler spits out avocados the first, second, or third time you serve them doesn't mean they won't one day turn into a guacamole fiend.

Don't be quick to label your child picky, as it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat them like as a kid who won't eat vegetables, they'll probably stop eating them.

Stephanie Gallagher, author of Guide to Kids Cooking, explains the many ways you can warm kids up to vegetables. She suggests starting by making them a part of your child's life and accepting that your child may not eat them at first, but that one day those beans will disappear from their plate.

Serving different foods is important, but there are also other ways to get buy-in from your toddler. Try letting them be part of the cooking process or take them along on your weekly grocery shopping trip.

A great way to expose kids to new foods is to let them use their sense to examine them at the supermarket or in the kitchen. You can sit your toddler in their high chair while you cook and sneak them some of what you're making (especially if you make it seem like a treat— "Yum, yum! Try some green beans!")

Make Meals Happy

Going back to the cleaning up toys analogy, there are other ways to motivate kids to do a particular task. For example, many households in America regularly sing the Barney Clean Up Song.

Little ditties or games motivate toddlers because it turns cleaning up into a fun activity. The same holds true for meal time.

Get creative with special bowls, spoons, and cups that get your little one excited about sitting down at the table (or in their high chair).

Be a Role Model

Having meals together is also a powerful way to make special time for your family and is also an important part of helping your toddler to learn how to eat.

One story that demonstrates this point tells of a mother who was concerned because her toddler wasn't feeding herself and was resistant to trying new foods.

The fact was, the mother would always feed her child alone. She herself never sat down to breakfast or lunch and waited until after the baby was in bed to have dinner with her husband.

Therefore, the toddler never got to see what meal time was supposed to be like: "Oh, that's how we use our spoon. Look at momma trying the sweet potato and loving!"

In addition to including your toddler at family meals, you can start serving them the same foods. However, you may need to make adjustments (such as not adding sauce to veggies or separating out different parts of the meal).

Even if your toddler only eats a few bites of "grown-up" fare along with something mashed up and toddle friendly, you're still getting them used to mature textures and tastes, which will go a long way to helping them get used to eating grown-up meals on a regular basis.

Stock Pile Recipes That Are Good for Kids

We might say "good for kids," but most of the time we really mean "good for the whole family."

Look for simple toddler recipes that let you create healthy meals for everyone at your table using more or less the same ingredients.

You might adapt new recipes to meet the needs of a young toddler who still eats pureed food. You could also introduce your spouse and older children to exciting new foods that happen to already be toddler friendly (they are more nutritionally dense and can be easily made into finger foods).

A Word From Verywell

How long will it take before your child willingly eats a stalk of broccoli or doesn't throw their bowl across the room is anyone's guess. Every kid is different and there's simply know way of knowing for sure.

In some instances, children continue to be picky beyond the toddler years. If your child has allergies, sensory issues, or developmental delays, picky eating is more likely.

For most tots, patience and a positive approach to food is all parents need to get through the nothing-but-beige-food stage. Before you know it, you'll be looking for new recipes together.

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