Doctor Talk: Why Is My Toddler Such A Picky Eater?

The “Picky” Toddler Appetite

By Bill Long, MD

Parents often will describe their toddlers as becoming “picky” eaters. This could mean one of a couple of things, as there are several types of “picky” eating.

The first (and the most common) type is that toddlers just “pick” when they want to eat, and when they don’t want to eat.  They do this based on their natural hunger cues, and NOT necessarily on a schedule.  Since toddlers don’t have a rigorous school or work schedule, they don’t NEED to eat at each and every scheduled meal time.  We need to remember this.

The second kind of “picky” is the toddler who eats, but has a very limited selection of foods he/she will eat.  This is common in children with developmental problems such as autism, prematurity, and children with severe problems with textures in the mouth.  The following advice will not apply to those children with those special conditions.

However, in otherwise “normal” children, more often than not, we, as parents, MAKE our children “picky” eaters.

It’s a natural reaction to worry when our toddlers don’t want to eat.  But when our kids are that FIRST kind of “picky” and they don’t want to eat, we must remember two things:

  • DON’T play with, coax, argue, or try to convince your child to eat.
  • DON’T go to the cupboard or fridge to get them something else to eat or drink so “at least they have something.”

When we DO the above things, our children (with their toddler logic) think these thoughts:

  • When I don’t eat, mom and dad pay MUCH more attention to me.  I love that!  I’m might want to do that more often!
  • If I keep refusing to eat, I will get more attention AND eventually I will get what I want.  I love that too!  This is great!

The “key” to keeping our kids from becoming the second kind of “picky” is to follow these general principles:

  • Offer your toddler a variety of foods at every meal and snack.
  • If your child has no other developmental or medical conditions, he or she will know when they are hungry, and when to eat or not, based on normal hunger cues. Don’t force the issue.
  • Give them enough, but limited time to eat at each meal/snack.
  • Make meal times  (breakfast, lunch, dinner) family times—eat together.
  • NEVER coax, cajole, or FORCE your toddler to eat.
  • Show POSITIVE attention when your toddler eats well, and when they don’t eat well, stay relatively quiet, and put the food away when the meal time is over.
  • Toddlers will go through phases when they stop eating one or more foods they had eaten before.  Be patient and keep trying those foods again.
  • NEVER make meal times a battleground.  Meals should be positive experiences for the family.