Getting Your Picky Toddler to Eat a Well-Balanced Diet

Toddler girl having meal in a restaurant
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As you think about feeding your toddler, try to remember that you don't want food and eating to become a power struggle, regardless of whether you have a picky eater or not. It's normal for toddlers to eat only a few bites of their lunch and dinner and to cycle through periods of showing more or less interest in food.

These periods of eating less or not opting for what adults may consider a "full meal" can make you nervous that your little one isn't getting the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development.

In fact, many toddlers simply eat one good meal each day and then just pick at their other meals. Can that be healthy? Sure. As long as they are gaining weight and growing and developing normally for them. There are some things parents can do to help toddlers tune into and trust their own bodies and to help gently set the stage for more nutrient-rich food choices.

How Much Food Does a Toddler Need?

When it comes to determining how much food your toddler needs, it's best to offer your toddler nutritious choices for meals and snacks and allow them to determine how much they want to eat (if at all). Your child's height, weight, and level of activity can influence how much food they require, but counting calories usually isn't necessary.

Everyone's energy needs change form day to day, including a toddler's energy needs, so monitoring calorie intake or counting calories is not recommended for the majority of kids this age. The exception would be if your pediatrician advised you to count calories because your child needed supplements, tube feedings, or some other medical intervention.

In this case, the calorie counting would never be shared with the child, but rather done separately by the parent and communicated to the healthcare team. Overall, the goal at this age is to teach your child how to trust their body with it comes to their hunger and fullness cues.

Toddler Portion Sizes

There is no, one-size-fits-all portion size for toddlers, just like the same is true for adults. A toddler may eat more than adults around them when it comes to some foods and much less when it comes to others.

An important aspect of serving toddlers meals and snacks is to not overwhelm them with large portions and to let them choose what they want to eat from their plate and how much. Offering smaller portions to start with and then letting them decide if they want more of any of the foods on their plate is a great way to encourage their sense of body autonomy as well.

An example of how to offer a meal to a toddler might include the following: one to two tablespoons of cooked vegetables, 1 ounce of meat, and one tablespoon of cooked rice. Let your toddler try the foods and ask for more of what they enjoy.

You also can let slightly older toddlers serve themselves (with help) from the dishes they would like more of. The purpose of offering smaller amounts at first is to allow your child a chance to try foods without feeling overwhelmed by the amounts.

Again, if your toddler wants to eat more of any of the foods, provide another spoonful or two. The purpose here isn't to restrict food. It's to let your toddler be the guide of which foods they choose and the amounts they eat without outside pressure.

While toddlers should be encouraged to listen to their innate hunger and fullness cues, it can be helpful to offer no more than 16 to 24 ounces of milk and 4 to 6 ounces of fruit juice through each day. The reason for this is that if these drinks are offered in larger quantities, they can start to take the place of solid food in a toddler's diet and that can lead to a decreased nutrient intake as well as decreased exposure to more textures and flavors.

Picky Eaters

Parents often describe their toddlers as being picky eaters, but it is often hard to know if that it is because they eat small amounts at a time or because they like to eat the same things every day.

Fortunately, both can be very normal. To gently encourage a variety of foods, eat meals together whenever you can, so your toddler can see adults eating a variety of foods. Make mealtimes as calm as possible and keep the time at the table positive. Also, be realistic about a toddler's attention span—3 to 5 minutes of sitting is about all that is realistic to expect.

In addition, even younger toddlers can come along for grocery shopping and/or help with food preparation like stirring or watching a meal be prepared. Time around food and observing or helping out can make your toddler feel more engage with different foods and be more excited to try them.

What You Need to Know

Although your child may not eat three well-balanced meals each day, as long as it balances out over a one or two week period, with foods from all of the food groups, then they are likely getting what they need.

Serve a variety of foods, including vegetables and fruits, even if it is just a tablespoon on your child's plate that they don't touch, to offer exposure to variety. And, if your child has some favorite foods already, try offering those foods as part of a meal in which new foods are being offered. Sometimes, having a food that feels familiar and safe on the plate can make trying new foods more appealing.

Before trying a child nutritional supplement such as Pediasure consider speaking with a registered dietician who specializes in pediatrics. While offering liquid supplements is well intentioned, it can get a toddler into the habit of reaching for liquids instead of trying a variety of solids.

A pediatric dietician can help assess if your child needs additional nutrition and how to incorporate it in a way that also boosts solid food variety in the long term and strengthens your child's relationship with food and their body.

Most toddlers don't need to take a vitamin. Again, talk to your pediatrician or a registered dietician if you think your child needs nutritional supplements. And don't make your child "clean their plate" or use food as a reward.

These actions can push a child away from listening to their body cues. If your toddler doesn't seem hungry for meals on a regular basis, take a look at what their snack timing is before a meal. Also, be realistic about how long a toddler will sit at a table to eat a meal.

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  • American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Dietary Recommendations for Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Practitioners. PEDIATRICS Vol. 117 No. 2 February 2006, pp. 544-559.

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. Guide to Your Child's Nutrition. Villard; 1999.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.