Picky Eaters

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Harvard Medical School
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Picky Eaters

Guiding Your Child Through The Early Years
Growth and Nutrition
Picky Eaters
Picky Eaters
Learn how to combat picky eating.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Picky Eaters

Toddlers and preschoolers are notoriously picky eaters. Since children at this age are very energetic, it's logical to think that they need to eat more than when they were babies to fuel all this activity. Surprisingly, just the opposite is true. In the first year of life, babies undergo an amazing amount of growth (tripling their birth weight), which demands a lot of food to keep up. Toddlers and preschoolers don't need as much food because they grow at a much slower rate. It's common to notice a decrease in appetite starting around a child's first birthday.

Remember that most children eat enough to grow and stay healthy as long as sufficient food calories are available to them. Toddlers need about 1,000 calories per day. You may find that one day your toddler eats more than you expect, while the next day he seems to eat next to nothing. You don't need to count calories. Your toddler has a good sense of his own energy needs, and he will eat enough to keep himself healthy and active. Your job is simply to provide a variety of nutritious food choices.

  • At meal times, put a toddler-sized portion (usually about one-quarter of an adult-sized portion) of what's being served on his plate). Large servings may overwhelm a child and cause him to eat less. It is better to serve smaller quantities and let him ask for more.
  • Let him pick and choose what and how much he wants to eat from his plate.
  • If he refuses to eat anything, that's OK — he'll be hungry for his next meal or snack.
  • Don't let your child fill up on liquids, or he will have no appetite for other foods. A child only needs 10 to 16 ounces of milk per day to get enough calcium and other important nutrients. Too much juice can cause diarrhea or tooth decay and may lead to obesity later in life. Offer your child water instead of juice when he is thirsty.
  • Avoid bargaining ("If you eat your vegetables, you'll get a cookie.") or insisting ("Just one more bite."). Studies have shown that these techniques can actually backfire and make your toddler eat even less.
  • When your toddler says he's done with his meal, let him get down from the table, but don't offer his favorite "treats" to make up for what he didn't eat of his meal. He will not starve.

Introducing new foods can be a particular challenge.

  • Try serving a very small portion of the new food next to something you know your toddler likes.
  • Don't force your child to try it, and don't make an issue out of it.
  • Set a good example and let him see you enjoying the new food.
  • Don't get discouraged — you may need to introduce a new food as many as 10 or more times before your child will accept it.

It often helps to get your toddler involved with grocery shopping and meal preparations.

  • Show your child different types of foods, especially fruits and vegetables, at the grocery store. Point out their shapes and colors.
  • Let him help you decide what to make for dinner. Give him a few suggestions and let him choose one. For example, do NOT ask if he wants a vegetable with dinner (he'd probably say no). Instead, ask specifically if he would like peas or green beans for dinner. This way he gets to choose and even has some control about the meal, but he also gets the message that green vegetables are going to be a part of the upcoming meal.
  • Let him pick which cup or plate he'd like to use at the table.

Above all, remember that you are still in charge of the menu — don't change the menu just because your toddler turns up his nose at the choices being offered. Don't become a short-order cook. Although it can be challenging, it is important to establish good eating habits during the toddler and preschool years to avoid later battles at the dinner table (and battle fatigue when you feel like you are cooking two or three separate meals each night).

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Last updated May 29, 2011

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