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  • Denise Scott

Temperamental Toddlers and Persnickety Preschoolers

(Influencing Your Child's Taste Preferences)

Once your baby is over a year and enters toddlerhood, they often become picky eaters. Foods they previously loved, they now do not want; they may eat the same thing for days, then suddenly will not touch it.

Toddler girl covering mouth and refusing to eat - part of toddler territory!

What’s a parent to do? Sometimes, we just want them to eat…anything!

This article will help you through this phase to keep your sanity, keep them on a healthy diet, and resist the temptation of giving them anything (usually sweets or junk food).

A child’s diet during the first few years can establish life-long eating habits. Parents can train the palate toward healthy foods by what they feed and do not feed their child. Offering the same foods repeatedly can predict later food preferences. Choosing nutritional foods will help to prevent obesity and a multitude of diseases later in life. 

Research shows that repeat exposures, up to 15 to 20 times, may be necessary before a child eats a new or previously rejected food. Patience is key! Serving a variety is helpful, as is pairing a new food with a familiar, preferred food. This method can increase the acceptance of new foods.

Offering new foods for snacks, rather than at mealtime is helpful. Giving a small amount of a new item daily, with an item they already like, for two weeks as a snack, often results in a child tasting and eating the new item. If it is refused or spit out, offer again the following day. If they like it, give more and reward your child with positive feedback, such as singing a song, dancing, or even a sticker. Studies show this method is highly successful.

Food cut into birds and flowers to appeal to kids. Although this looks appealing, it is a lot of work. Presentation is important but it can be simplified using a muffin tin or snack box like these:

A variety of snacks in a compartmentalized tray allows a child to pick and choose. Offering new items with ones a child already eats can increase the likelihood of trying new things.

Snacks in a snack box can also increase the appeal. This combination of pita bread, hummus, boiled eggs, vegetable sticks, and fruit slices provides a healthy meal.

The best predictor of what a child eats is what the parents eat and serve. Children model themselves after their parents’ eating behaviors. What you don’t eat is just as important as what you do eat. Parental influences are most important during the first few years before school, friends, and marketing exert influence. Take a look at your eating habits. If you want your child to eat vegetables, serve and eat more of these, since they are constantly watching and imitating you.

Once a baby becomes a toddler, their weight gain slows significantly. From 1-5, they may only gain 4-6 pounds a year. Not only does their growth slow, but often the appetite also slows since they don't require as many calories. Children are good at eating what they need for their growth and energy. As long as your child continues with the same energy level and is tracking along the growth curve, their decreased appetite is not worrisome. Avoid forcing your child to eat or to eat everything on their plate if they resist. Allow children to feed themselves as early as they are able and put them in charge of how much they eat.

Here are my top twenty suggestions for creating healthy eating habits and improving vegetable intake:

1.Offer new items daily or every other day to increase the variety and watch closely for any food reactions. Serve small portions and allow them to ask for more.

2. Offer lots of variety; you choose the foods but let them decide how much they eat. Variety includes different foods and the same food prepared differently. For example, a potato can be baked, boiled, roasted, or mashed. You create variety by changing the preparation method, appearance, and texture.

Eggs cooked in a variety of ways such as scrambled, fried, boiled, poached, and as an omelet. Changing the preparation method and texture creates variety and offers the same food in a new way.

3. Consider rewarding your child with stickers (not sweets) for trying new foods

4. Continue offering green vegetables. Try new ways, such as steamed, baked, roasted, and in smoothies.

5. Be wary of giving too many snacks or beverages during the two hours before mealtime. A toddler doesn't need more than 2 snacks. Between meals offer water, not juice.

6. Watch the milk intake. More than 16-24 ounces (2-3 cups) daily can lead to constipation and iron deficiency anemia, and fill them up.

7. Repeat exposures don’t have to be daily but should occur several times a week. As mentioned, pairing a new food with an already preferred food increases the chances of accepting the new food.

8. Provide vegetables in as many colors, shapes, and textures as possible. Make a game of who can eat the most colors in a meal.

9. Consider offering milk or water half way through the meal, rather than at the beginning, so they don't fill up on fluid.

10. Keep cut-up vegetable sticks available in the fridge to serve as snacks. Use veggies for dips and spreads, such as carrots with hummus and celery with nut butter.

A tray of veggies and dip. Keeping washed and cut up veggies and fruit in the fridge that is easily accessible can increase intake. Serving veggies at the start of a meal when everyone is hungry may be more appealing than with other food items later.

11. Load up salads, soups, sauces, pizza, scrambled eggs, smoothies, casseroles, and even hamburgers with finely chopped, grated, or pureed veggies. Use veggies in foods your child already likes.

12. Add vegetable noodles such as zucchini noodles to regular noodles or look for vegetable-based pasta.

13. Make vegetarian meals a couple of times a week. (See from 11/2/22 for ideas of inexpensive, mostly plant-based meals).

14. Involve your child in meal preparation. Studies show that when a child helps to prepare the meal, they are more likely to try what they helped to make. Allow your child to play with a few veggies as you prepare them to see, feel, smell, and taste them. Have your child help to choose which veggies to buy at the store.

15. Make muffins, cookies, brownies, and bread with fruit and veggies.

16. Maintain an enjoyable mealtime atmosphere by offering veggies every meal but not pressuring your child to eat them.

17. Forcing a child to eat something is a scary experience for a child. Keep mealtime relaxed, offer variety, but allow your child to choose the amount.

18. Fill half your child’s plate with vegetables and fruit at each meal. That is the recommendation of Consider serving veggies at the beginning of the meal when everyone is their hungriest with veggie sticks and dip, a salad, or soup.

Depiction of a plate of food from showing half of the plate filled with vegetables and fruit, one third with grains, and one fourth with protein.

19. Don’t give up! Repetition and patience are key since taste preferences will continue to evolve. Remember it can take 15 times of offering before a child will eat something.

20. Finally, model in yourself what you desire for your child. Eat what you want them to eat and don’t buy what you want them to avoid.

Take inventory of what you stock in your pantry and fridge. Minimizing exposure now to fewer ultra-processed foods and serving more whole, natural foods is insurance for a healthy future.

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