Having a picky eater can be so tough for parents! We all dream of feeding our little ones a wide variety of healthy foods that are gobbled up at every meal. Then reality hits. We thought we did all the right things, but our toddler just isn’t responding to food the way we thought they would.
If you can relate, you’ll love this interview with Kate at High Chair Chronicles as she shares the journey she’s on with her picky eater. When his eating issues caused his weight percentile to plummet from 50% to less than 1%, she sought help through feeding therapy.
What she’s learned will help any parent who is struggling to get their little one to eat better. Even if you’re not concerned for your child’s health but you’d like them to widen the variety of foods they eat, you will find helpful information in this interview!
Can you start by telling us a little bit about your story and how you got started on the journey of learning how to help picky eaters?
I have a two and a half year old boy who has never really liked eating from the time we introduced solid food. I wasn’t too worried about it at first because I kept hearing the phrase “food before one is just for fun,” meaning that babies under one year old should just be exploring different foods and flavors and not be pressured to eat, since they are still getting most of their nutrition from milk and/or formula.
But by the time our son was 15 months, he still didn’t enjoy food and only ate a few things. He gagged and threw up while eating. There were weeks where he refused to eat altogether and just drank breast milk, which was not enough for a very active little boy. He went from the 50th percentile to 0.5 percentile and wasn’t gaining weight for several months.
I bet you were concerned! Where did you find help?
Just like any mom, I started frantically Googling how to get my son to eat. I found out about feeding therapy and the connection between the sensory system and eating. It was so eye-opening.
I realized that what my son was experiencing was more extreme than a “typical” picky eater and that there WAS a way to get help.
We started doing feeding therapy both online and in person with an occupational therapist. We also changed the way we approach mealtimes and the introduction of new foods, and it has made a huge difference to my son’s eating.
It’s been a year-long journey and we still have a LONG way to go. But our son is gaining weight, enjoying meals, slowly opening up to trying more and more new foods.
I started my blog over a year ago when I realized that so many parents and pediatricians don’t know how to deal with extremely picky eating. A lot of times it is more than “just a phase” and parents don’t know that they can get help. There is so much they can do, both on their own at home and with a professional.
I am hoping to reach as many parents as possible to share what I have learned on our son’s picky eating journey and help their children have a positive, healthy relationship with food.
What are considered “normal” eating behaviors for a toddler? How do we know when to be concerned or to seek help?
Most toddlers are picky eaters in one way or another. It is totally normal to eat foods one day and then refuse them the next day. Or to eat a lot one day and then eat barely anything the next. It is normal to throw food on the floor. It is normal for toddlers to suddenly refuse their favorite food, or to refuse to try new foods. It is normal to prefer packaged snacks over fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods.
But if your mama instinct says something is wrong, pay attention.
Is your child doing any of these things?
- Gagging at different textures or even at the sight of some foods
- Stressing out during every meal
- Refusing to even touch the foods on his on her plate to move them aside
- Getting irrationally upset about seeing some foods on her plate
- Getting upset about a piece of food touching his fork or his finger
- Not gaining weight
- Or are you stressed out about every meal, not knowing what to feed your child?
Those are all valid reasons to check in with a pediatrician about whether your child needs to get help. Early Intervention (see link below) is an amazing program in the US that children under 3 might qualify for. If they do not qualify for early intervention, then occupational therapy might still be a good option for many families. If you’re looking for an occupational therapist to help specifically with picky eating, look for someone who is specialized in speech therapy and sensory disorders since they might be more able to help with eating issues.
If occupational therapy is not an option, there is a ton of information out there online. Many occupational therapists and parents of picky eaters have blogs and Instagram accounts with helpful tips that you can piece together to help you with trying new approaches to help your child learn to eat better.
Even if a child has a “normal” level of pickiness, is healthy, gaining weight, and meeting all their developmental milestones, there is so much that you can do to try to increase the variety of foods that they eat.
Do you have a step by step guide for introducing toddlers to new foods?
Wouldn’t a step by step guide be nice? I haven’t found a one-size-fits all solution. When others ask me what to do because their child “doesn’t eat anything,” I give them the following advice:
- Make a thorough list of EVERY SINGLE FOOD your child eats, doesn’t eat, and used to eat. Then see if there is a pattern of flavors, textures, or colors that your child prefers. This might give you ideas of new foods you can try with your child. For more instructions on this and a printable worksheet, see the Picky Eater Foods Worksheet below.
- Start doing sensory play with your child regularly. This doesn’t have to be elaborate sensory bins. Just use every opportunity you can to get your child touching, seeing, and smelling different textures. Some of my favorite ways to do this is to get my son to “help” me in the kitchen. He helps me sort, wash, stir, and cut food with a toddler-safe knife. This also helps him get exposure to foods in a safe, no-pressure way. I have a program called 52 Weeks of Sensory (see link below), which provides a variety of sensory activities for a whole year with a focus on picky eater toddlers.
- Consistently expose your kids to all kinds of foods. Put a small piece of a new food on their plate even if you know they are not going to eat it. See if you can get them to interact with the food in any way, such as touching it, moving it to the side, even playing with it at the table.
- Food chaining. Take a food that your child enjoys, and slowly make small changes to it over time to get your child to eat a new food. Create a sort of “food chain” from their preferred food to a new food. For example, if your child eats plain buttered pasta, try adding a touch of marinara sauce to one piece of pasta. A few days later, add a bit more. With time, they might be eating saucy pasta, and even transitioning to chunky saucy pasta made with canned diced tomatoes. From there, maybe they’ll try a small piece of freshly diced tomatoes and then cherry tomatoes. I have more examples about this in my post linked below, Feeding French Fries to Picky Eaters.
- Try to think of fun ways to introduce a new food to your toddler. A child might feel pressured to eat at the table and might be stubborn and refuse to eat because of that. So try to make mealtimes fun. Take the pressure off and let your child play with the food on their plate. Or pack a picnic and eat it outside or on the living room floor. Or give them new foods while they are playing or taking a walk. I have lots of ideas in my blog post below, How to Feed a Toddler Who Refuses to Eat.
The important thing to remember is that this whole process takes a long time. Months, even years. It requires patience and understanding that this is difficult for your child and they are not just being “stubborn.” You will have moments where you feel like you’re taking steps back.
But it is so worth doing to help your child learn to eat better, have a more positive relationship with food, and possibly even learn to like healthier food as a result!
My little one will decide whether or not to try a food by smelling it. It seems her sense of smell is the one that we need to work most with. How do I help her?
Each child’s sensory system is unique. Some kids don’t like to eat foods with certain textures, colors, or shapes. Others don’t like foods with certain smells.
Do more sensory activities with your child! There are a ton of ideas online and on Pinterest. Think of ways to add some scents into the sensory activities, such as adding essential oils, fresh flowers, scented play dough, scented markers, or foods into their sensory bins. Make smelling things a fun activity you do together. Ask your daughter to help you in the kitchen and smell the ingredients as you’re cooking.
Don’t make “bad” faces or say things smell bad. Instead use descriptive words, such as “strong, sour, sweet, meaty, doughy, fruity, etc.”
How do we get a picky eater to eat veggies, when they won’t eat any of the foods we’re told to hide them in, like smoothies, soup, tortillas, or eggs?
Try pancakes, muffins, breads, and meatballs.
Just kidding! Mostly.
I look at eating vegetables as a two-pronged approach. One is trying to increase the nutritional value of every food that my son eats by adding vegetables in his preferred foods, if possible. But the other is getting him to eat vegetables on their own.
We are still working on our son to eat more vegetables, but he is eating 3-4 vegetables regularly now and even prefers them over most other foods!
The “traditional” vegetables that most kids eat, such as steamed carrots, butternut squash, peas, and broccoli did not work for my son. His first vegetables were cucumbers, raw bell peppers, and tomatoes.
He definitely preferred the crunchy and juicy vegetables over softer, mushy textures.
So find out which textures, colors, and flavors your child prefers and start with those. From there, try to branch out into similar foods and textures. For example, if your child likes cucumber, try thin strips of raw zucchini, sliced cabbage, jicama, the crunchy parts of romaine lettuce, or bell pepper, since those are all crunchy vegetables. (Of course, do this only if your child is old enough to bite off, chew, and swallow pieces of food.)
The way I got my son to try a cucumber for the first time was by giving it to him while he was sitting on my lap and we were reading a book. His senses were busy listening, touching, and looking, so he was less shocked by the flavor and texture that he was feeling in his mouth. I wrote more about it in my blog post below, How I Got My Child to Eat His First Vegetable.
Other times he tried new vegetables when we were sitting at the table and playing with our foods.
The other thing I always remind parents is to never single out “vegetables” as something that a child HAS to eat. We talk about vegetables in a descriptive way, like we talk about other foods: “it’s green, red, crunchy, juicy, sour, warm, soft, crispy, salty, etc.,” but we don’t make vegetables a “thing.”
Thank you, Kate!
This interview was so helpful and informative. Thanks so much for all the suggestions you made, and for sharing your journey with us! I can’t wait to try some of these ideas with my picky eater.
There’s one more thing I want to mention on this topic. I used the term “picky eater” in this post so we would all know and understand that we’re talking about little ones who are very selective in the foods they eat. However, please don’t use this term in front of your little one! Rather than discourage them with that label, encourage them by saying things like, “I know you love to eat!” or “You sure ate a good breakfast today!”
Also, I love that Kate mentioned labeling foods by color or texture. This helps little ones avoid thinking of foods as “yucky” or even “veggies”. Great ideas, Kate!
Check Out These Resources
Here are the links referenced in the interview.
Early Intervention. Find services and supports available for your child. Speech therapy, physical therapy and more may be available if they qualify. Also, look up lists of early childhood milestones for every age to see if your child is on track.
For more on early intervention and making sure your little one is hitting their milestones, see my interview with a Pediatric Developmental Therapist.
Picky Eater Foods Worksheet. Use this to make lists of what your child will and will not eat. This helps you look for patterns of what you can work on with them.
52 Weeks of Sensory. A whole year of sensory activities for your child, with a focus on helping the picky eater. I love this idea!
And check out these posts on Kate’s blog that provide more detail for some of the things she discussed in the interview. I love her writing style and her many suggestions for helping the picky eater!
Did you find this as helpful as I did? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and then pin it for later!