Do you have a picky eater older child and don’t want to make the same mistakes again with your infant, but don’t know where to start?
Are you a new parent worried you’ll become a short-order cook for your growing family?
If there are two things I’ve learned over the years as a pediatric nutritionist, it’s that picky eating is one of the most frustrating phases of early childhood and that picky eating can be prevented (in many cases).
What can parents do to prevent picky eating in toddlers before picky eating takes root and affects mealtime for years to come?
Expose your child to a variety of flavors and textures so they develop a taste preference for many foods early.
I’ll show you how!
In this article, I’ve listed my top suggestions to set young children up for trying new foods to help prevent picky eating.
12 Ways to Prevent Picky Eating
There are many, many things you can do to encourage your child to try new food. Here’s how to get started even while your young child is in the high chair.
1. Introduce Finger Foods On Time
Most babies are ready to use their fingers to eat at around 8 months old. They move from scraping or raking food off the tray with their whole hand to using their pincer grasp (when the pointer finger and the thumb come together and can pick up a single item of food).
When your baby shows curiosity about the food everyone around him is eating and shows the desire to eat independently, follow his lead and let him dig in. Finger foods are an excellent way to introduce new foods to your toddler. This time of learning and exploration is fun for you both!
2. Avoid Sweets (As Much As Possible) Until Age 2 Years
I know this isn’t easy, but sweets early in life can crowd out nutrition and food variety. Not only that, young children can develop a preference for sweets and show picky eating behavior towards other foods in their diet.
You don’t have to ban sweets from the house. Sweets are often a part of celebrations and special occasions, and sugar is very hard to avoid. Offering sweets to your baby occasionally is a personal decision for your family, but it’s best to keep it to a minimum.
3. Keep Milk Drinking In Check
Limit milk intake to a daily maximum or 16 ounces (2 cups) per day for toddlers.
The calcium in milk can interfere with iron absorption, leaving your child lacking in this nutrient.
It’s tempting to rely on milk for nutrients, especially when you have a picky eater. I made this big mistake when my first-born was a toddler. She was picky and I used milk to compensate for her low food intake. She became anemic.
Milk is a healthy food for children, but this is an example of how too much of a good thing can turn out badly.
4. Follow Responsive Feeding Practices From The Start
Responsive feeding is the foundation of future success with feeding your child. Not only does it set the foundation for mindful eating, it helps you anticipate your child’s hunger and fullness.
Rather than worrying about how to get your toddler to eat, set your attention on being the most in-tuned, attentive feeder you can be.
Why? When kids don’t experience responsive feeding, they themselves can become detached from their appetite, and have a hard time regulating it.
5. Offer Challenging Food Early And Often
When my third child was born, I opened the gates on barbeque sauce, Tabasco, and mustard. Spicy foods like Thai cuisine and Mexican fare were all on the table. Offer your child small tastes and expose your child to a variety of flavors, spices and cuisines.
You can begin as soon as your child is eating solids, or around 8-9 months.
Yes, preventing picky eating starts in the high chair. Have you heard of flavor training? Swipe a smidge of food on your baby’s lips. This is a way to introduce challenging foods like bitter vegetables young so your child can develop a taste preference for these foods.
Steer clear of raw fish and sushi, as well as honey. It’s dangerous to offer raw foods to young children.
6. Keep Offering Food Even If Your Child Rejects It
It’s pretty normal for a young child to turn up his nose when a new food comes to the table, especially if he’s in the picky eating stage. Don’t let that discourage you. Many kids need to see new food several times before they warm up to it.
Don’t give up.
(Research tells us a child needs to experience a new food at least 8 times!)
Remember, your job here is to expose your child to a variety of foods, whether or not you like them yourself.
7. Aim For 50-75 Different Foods By Age 12-15 Months
The more foods in your child’s diet at this age, the easier it will be when he drops foods if he succumbs to typical toddler picky eating.
How do you get started?
- Make a list of nutritious foods from each food group. Foods you’d like to see your child eating.
- Target 10-15 different foods from each food group.
- Set those as the goal foods to introduce to your child.
Why the specific number?
Having a foundation of foods from each food group will give your child variety within and between food groups. This is key to a wide palate and accumulating additional food options down the road.
Check out my Learning to Eat Baby Food Tracker to help you keep track of all the foods your child is tasting.
8. Transition To The Family Table By One Year
Pull your little one up to the table for healthy meals and snacks as often as possible. There, she will commune with family and absorb the valuable lessons that naturally come at the table: manners, communication skills, eating skills, and more.
Your child learns by watching and taking in his environment. Sharing a meal at the table allows him to watch what others eat and teaches him what makes up a healthy meal.
9. Keep The Meal Environment Distraction-Free
More and more, I hear of children who cannot eat unless they have a TV on, a toy at the table or some other distraction tactic.
Distractions do not help your child tune in to his appetite and regulate his eating. In fact, it’s the opposite and may encourage him to be more rigid about his table environment and food preferences.
No toys, no TV.
Just good old-fashioned person-to-person talking and interaction.
10. Honor Food Preferences But Don’t Cater
Research tells us that catering to a child’s food preferences strengthens that food preference. To prevent picky eating, avoid giving into specific food requests at meals.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make, especially with picky eaters, is asking their child what they would like to eat for a meal.
What would you like for breakfast?
What do you want to eat?
You give up control by asking your child open-ended questions and it may actually work against your child’s willingness to try new food.
Instead, I like to give kids a choice between two things. It’s simple and strategic and kids feel empowered. You decide what the choices are, then offer them up to your child, letting him make the final decision.
For example, “Would you like peanut butter or cheese?”
11. Don’t React To Picky Eating
Many kids go through picky eating.
When your child does show signs of picky eating, if you get upset, yell, threaten punish or demonstrate any other emotional reaction to your picky eater, you’ll add fuel to the fire… or potentially damage you and your child’s relationship.
Your best reaction: no reaction at all.
I know this is hard. It might feel like not reacting is giving in to your child
These feeding tactics don’t work and complicate the picture, making many kids more reluctant to eat new foods.
12. Enjoy Food And Feeding
Showing your child a love of food and connecting with her during meals conveys a positive vibe. This can go a long way to reduce struggle and strife at the table.
While feeding your child may not be your all-time favorite thing to do, you must do it, so why not make it as enjoyable as possible for all?
When you’re at your best, you’ve got a better chance at raising a good eater — and that’s the mission we are all on as parents.
How to Prevent Picky Eating in Kids
Use these tips as a daily reminder to curb picky eating behaviors so your family can enjoy family meals together as your child grows into a fearless eater.
The key is to start when your child is very young and to be consistent.
If you’re already dealing with a picky eater, or see the emerging signs in your little one, get my book, Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods. It will help you navigate this tricky stage (and avoid making it worse!)