Is there any realm of life with your toddler that just works? Because lately, I’m feeling like parenting my two year old is just one big mind f*ck. Whether it’s sleep, getting dressed, or buckling the dang car seat, there’s a power struggle to be had.
But today, let’s focus on one area where I was having some serious frustration, but actually found some things that are working! Food.
My 2 year old won’t eat. My 2 year old won’t eat vegetables. My toddler is suddenly a picky eater. Yes, yes, and yes. All common themes we’ve been experiencing over here too. But as a mama who loves food and emphasizes a balanced plate and family meals, I tried and tried some more. And guess what? My 2 year old is eating so much more!
I’m learning how to play “the game” with her at meal times, and I feel like I’m actually winning. Let’s take back the family dinner, and get that toddler of yours eating something other than cheese and their fourth banana of the day (no, just my kid?).
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My Toddler Won’t Eat! 5 Tips for Picky Toddlers
1. Work with what they do eat
This tip is number one for good reason. I’ve had a lot of success with my 2 year old to eat a greater variety by adding and hiding veggies, proteins, and healthy fats in foods she already loves.
Foods for picky toddlers
Quesadillas: easy to add a new type of meat, bean, or even very finely diced veggies
Soups: There’s nothing N loves more than soup. Will she eat a steamed carrot or sautéed spinach on her own? No chance. But in a soup, she’ll eat just about any veggie. Colors and textures not cutting it? Try a pureed soup. My daughter especially loves the part where you drink straight from the bowl, no spoon required.
Smoothies: The possibilities here are endless. Add greens, carrots, and cucumbers easily to banana, fruit and yogurt smoothies. Add nut butters for added fats and calorie content. You might even freeze them with some popsicle molds, and they’ll think it’s dessert.
Dips: I’ll elaborate more below, but my 2 year old LOVES hummus. I capitalize on this by making other dips that contains beans or veggies and just tell her it’s a new kind of hummus. Do what you gotta do, right?
Yogurt: Yogurt is something you can jazz up with all kinds of good stuff to really make it a meal, but it’s still yogurt. We love adding raw oats, ground flax, frozen blueberries, and honey. I’ve even done savory yogurt with cucumber and a dash of olive oil.
Pasta: take advantage of the fact that pasta almost always has a sauce, or present the sauce as a ‘dip’. Red sauce can hide other veggies really well. So can cheese sauce with some broccoli added in. My toddler even started eating pesto when she got to make it with me (see tip 4) so then I started cutting the pesto with kale and other greens.
Baked Goods: There are so many great recipes out there that hide veggies in quick breads, pancakes and muffins. Think zucchini, carrot, banana, apple, and even some greens!
2. Switch up the presentation
This plays on the fact that your toddler is seeking control and power. Involve them in choosing their plate color or fork. Ask them if they’d like it in a bowl or a plate. Colorful divided plates are always a win in our house. And so are plate sets with favorite characters.
Another way to switch it up? The way you cut or present the actual food. Maybe try doing strips instead of individual bites.
If you’re feeling extra patient? Sit with your child and help them cut each bite, like the way an adult would eat. We got N a set of “real” silverware, but in a toddler-size that she loves.
My daughter will eat 5+ consecutive bites of chicken or steak when she can cut it ‘herself’(or with my help). Ideal for every meal? No. But it’s worth it some nights.
3. Dip Away!
Adding a dip or ‘spread’ option to the meal just changed meal time into an activity. For us this started with hummus (for like every veggie) but now we even give her a little side of salad dressing and she’ll sometimes eat raw veggies or meat dipped in that. She loves ketchup, and you know what, if it means she’ll eat the eggs, I’m okay with that for now.
Other dip ideas:
- Yogurt as a dip for fruit
- Peanut Butter as a dip for fruit
- Ketchup (where appropriate)
- Salad dressing as a dip for meats
- Red Sauce or Meat Sauce as a ‘dip’ for the pasta (also a great place to hide veggies!)
4. Involve them in the Process
This has been another game changer in terms of getting my 2 year old to eat a greater variety. If she got to help make the meal, she is so much more likely to at least give it a try. And I know in our house that’s half the battle. Once she’s tried the food, she usually realizes we’re not actually giving her poison and are recommending it because it’s delicious.
Our learning tower makes involving her so much easier than a regular step stool or chair. She can climb in on her own and is really secure. It seriously makes my life so much easier at meal prep times when I can give her a job and she is at counter height.
How can they help:
- Baking is an easy project to involve them with
- Combining ingredients for a salad, pasta salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, etc.
- Washing veggies that will go in a stir fry or soup
- Putting ingredients into the blender for a smoothie, or maybe you want to keep it a secret what’s in that smoothie, your call here 😉
Another way of involving them in the process is to give them choice. We aim for a fruit, veggie, grain, and protein at each meal. But I usually try to let my verbal toddler pick (when possible). I find that providing two choices only, when I’m prepping her plate, does the trick. For your fruit do you want raspberries or orange? Suddenly she’s given the control she desires, but I’m still getting her to eat a fruit.
Your toddler might also benefit from tasks like setting the table and clearing the table. N loves putting a napkin and fork at each person’s place and helping bring things to the table. She LOVES to serve everyone too, which isn’t always possible or ideal, but if it gets her to eat then it’s worth it.
5. Take them to the source
We’re so lucky to live in an area with lots of farms, and we belong to a CSA (farm share) where we pick up veggies every week and get to pick our own for a variety of crops. My daughter eats so many more veggies because of this. Things she wouldn’t eat prior, but then when she sees the plant it came off of, and can try it in the field, it’s way cooler.
I realize this isn’t possible for everyone or for every food. But even just going picking once for apples, blueberries etc., or going out of your way to visit a farm or friend’s garden will help them make the connection.
Even involving them in the grocery store will help. I see this making a difference for us too. I let N be involved in finding the apples that look good, or the grapes that aren’t brown. I talk about the beautiful colors and how delicious they are going to be. I say how excited I am to take the specific food home and eat it. Keep it positive and exciting.
Save yourself some stress and struggle
Getting your toddler to eat during a meal, and even utilizing some of these strategies definitely takes a lot of energy and patience. I know this because I’m doing it too! Coming to a mutual agreement over what plate she’ll be eating off of can feel like negotiating foreign policy.
There is one suggestion I have that’s 100% for YOU, Mama. Start doing some meal prep. We prep our dinners in bulk for 14 days at a time using Kelly’s Complete Freezer Cooking Bundle. All I have to do is defrost and pop it in the crockpot, oven, or on the grill. This resource makes it so easy and actually possible to achieve. I always felt so overwhelmed by bulk meal prepping before I started using these recipe lists. And with the dinner already done, you can focus all of your energy on getting your toddler to actually eat it.
More specific woes related to ‘My 2 year old won’t eat’?
Toddler won’t eat meat
Try offering meat in meals that they already know and love. For example, add diced ham to mac and cheese, add some chicken to their pasta with butter and parmesan, try a soup with meat in it, or put meat in a quesadilla or grilled cheese.
You can also try the tips I mentioned above like letting them cut off their own bites, or giving them something to dip their meat into.
2 year old won’t eat and only drinks milk
I don’t think there is a super fast or easy solution to this, but my toddler definitely has days like this. I started giving her half the amount of milk I typically do and then offering water after that. It takes a day or two to catch up, but the lack of calories from milk will have her making up for it at meal and snack times.
I also save milk until after meals so she isn’t filling up before or during a meal with milk. During, before and in between meals, try to start a water only, or OJ (diluted heavily with water) in the morning. I may or may not have utilized some white-lying about being out of milk, or the milk being ‘closed’ to get her out of the habit of wanting milk all the time.
Toddler suddenly picky eater
Give them some sense of control
Remember that so much with your toddler is based around power, limit testing, and control. They may not actually dislike the food they used to gobble, but rather are letting us know that they want more choice and control over their meals.
Try to find ways to incorporate choice and control as much as possible with things like plate/bowl color, fork or spoon, which fruit, which veg, etc.
Give them greater independence/tasks at meal times
Foster independence at meal times, another thing toddlers crave. “I do it all by myself!” sound familiar? Incorporating independent tasks like table setting, clearing, cleaning, and prepping may make them more willing to eat the meal that you “are in control of” (which is often how they perceive it).
I’ve mentioned a few times what a difference it makes when I let N cut her own food. Other things like spreading, serving, and stirring also let her feel more independent and successful.
Rule out physiological possibilities
Is something causing them pain or discomfort? Sometimes we as parents can be so quick to blame the developmental stage that we overlook the basics. Some possibilities:
- Molars coming in that make it uncomfortable to eat
- Sore throat making it difficult to swallow
- Lactose Intolerance or other allergy giving them an upset stomach or other discomfort
It’s definitely a good idea to evaluate these possibilities, and possibly bring them up with your pediatrician if you are seriously concerned. Especially in the event of a food intolerance or allergy.
Don’t give up!
We totally still have days where all my 2 year eats are goldfish and yogurt. But with consistency and patience it is getting better over here. All of the tips on this list are things that are really making a difference at our house. Tailor them to your family’s diet, time restraints and tolerance and your toddler will be eating again!
Don’t forget to be patient, and don’t beat yourself up when you throw in the towel and give them the banana (guilty), and above all be a healthy eating role model for your kid. That’s probably the most important thing above all.
Have another tip to add to the list? Comment below! I’d love to learn anything that will help 🙂
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Alli Wittbold is a wife, mama, blogger, and online teacher. She feels passionate about connecting expectant mothers with childbirth class educators, and supporting them to achieve the birth they desire. After having her first baby delivered by a Certified Nurse Midwife, Alli is an advocate for midwifery prenatal care. She has learned so much about labor and delivery by attending and reviewing dozens of birth classes to help mothers learn and explore options. Alli co-authored the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook, resources she is proud to share with as many expectant and new mothers as possible. Read more about Alli.