By: Melissa Mitri, RD
Melissa is a health writer with over 12 years of experience in the field of nutrition. She specializes in helping women move away from restrictive habits that lead to vicious yo-yo weight cycles. Melissa enjoys writing about health, nutrition, and fitness with the goal of simplifying complex health topics for the reader.
The toddler years are one of rapid growth and development. It is an exciting time in a child’s life - when they are taking in everything around them and are immensely curious. To support that rapid growth, proper toddler nutrition and varied, balanced meals are essential.
Many parents may assume their child will be excited to try new foods, only to quickly realize that they have no interest in anything new. Toddlers often want to stick to familiar foods and are hesitant to try new ones. They don’t like change, they like to have control and independence or they may just want to play.
It is important to remember that this is not your fault as the parent and this behavior around food during the toddler years is normal. However, there are ways to encourage your toddler to try new foods, support their independence, and help them to establish lifelong healthy eating habits.
Toddlers have unique nutritional needs. A varied diet is essential and provides a wide array of health-promoting nutrients, however it is very common for toddlers to be picky eaters and be unwilling to try new foods. Many different types of foods and textures are introduced during this time. A few critical nutrients for toddlers include protein, calcium, vitamin D, and iron.
Your toddler may flat out refuse what you offer or even throw their food. This can add stress and pressure to meal times and can make it seem like you’re doing something wrong. But, with a few simple practices, you can make mealtime more of a breeze instead of a stressful time.
Toddler Eating Environment
The eating environment can play a role in your toddler’s willingness to try new foods. Create a comfortable environment where they have space to experiment with their food. Set a calm, relaxed tone during mealtimes so they don’t feel forced to try anything they don’t want to. Toddlers need that sense of control and independence.
If a toddler feels pressured, they likely will act out by refusing to try anything. Creating a peaceful atmosphere where food is offered to them without pressure can increase the likelihood they will try new foods.
It’s also helpful to eat the same food as your toddler and have them see you eat it. When you are sitting with them and eating casually, enjoying your food, it makes a new food less intimidating. And most importantly, food should be fun. Toddlers love to play, so when food can be seen as a fun activity or even a game, all the better.
Setting a meal schedule also helps with structure and gives your toddler expectations. For example, if they are asking for treats again and their next meal is scheduled within the hour, you can gently remind them that they will be having a delicious meal very soon. Toddlers thrive on structure and when they have a consistent meal routine, they feel more at ease.
How to offer new foods
Toddlers like to have a sense of independence and control, and one way of exerting this independence is through their meals. Telling them they have to try something may push them further away because they don’t feel like they have a choice. Similarly, if they are told they have to eat something in order to get dessert, this may make it less likely they will try it.
Instead, always offer that new food right next to a familiar food. Treat the new food the same as other foods in front of them will give them that sense of control back. In a sense, all of their foods are created equal and there are no “good” or “bad” food labels. Instead of labeling, a more effective way of promoting more nutritious choices is relating it back to how that food will make them feel. For example, it will give them energy so they can play longer, or make them strong so they can climb higher on the playground.
When first offering new foods, it’s important to do so one food at a time. Offer the new food in very small quantities, alongside other familiar foods in their meal, so it’s not intimidating. Allow them to make the choice whether they try it or not. If they don’t try it, try not to get upset or show your disappointment. Instead, the next time you offer that food, try to offer it in a different way - for example chopped differently or cooked instead of raw.
Make it fun - make it a contest to see who can take a bigger bite or who can scoop it up the fastest without dropping it. If a toddler views something as a fun game, they will get more excited about it.
As you are offering new foods, here are some more toddler meal ideas for picky eaters.
Be patient and keep trying
This is not always an easy process, and it’s important to be patient with yourself and your toddler. Know that it may take multiple attempts to get your toddler to try one new food. Consistent trial and error will eventually lead to a more varied diet.
Just because your little one has not eaten a particular food in months, that doesn’t mean they never will. They go through phases of loving a particular food every day, to not wanting it for 6 months. Keep offering it in different ways, shapes, or forms. This is all normal and expected.
Supplementing when needed
You may be trying everything and are still finding it difficult to increase the variety in your child’s diet. If this is the case, supplementing with a nutritious formula such as Else Toddler formula can give you peace of mind. Else Toddler formula provides gentle toddler nutrition with only 4 main ingredients. Plus, your toddler will love the taste.
Feeding your toddler is not always easy. But, practicing patience and finding ways to make it fun will make the process a lot more enjoyable. Remember that you are doing an amazing job, and by continuously encouraging your toddler to try nutritious foods, you are setting them up for healthy lifelong habits.
The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.