As a baby, your budding foodie happily enjoyed beets, broccoli and bok choy but suddenly your toddler will only recognize two food groups: Cheetos and corn dogs. You're not alone—Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, and author of Baby Bites: Everything You Need to know About Feeding Infants and Toddlers in One Handy Book, says "picky eating is a typical stage of development for most toddlers as they exert their independence in all areas of their life."
Swinney observes that food's usually a "hot button" issue for parents, and the trick is to learn how to navigate your toddler's desire for autonomy. "This picky stage can be no big deal," she says, "or evolve into a real problem, depending on how parents approach it!" Use our tips for convincing your toddler to try new foods and expand her taste buds, even during the finicky phase.
- Remove the pressure. Dish up healthy meals and snacks, but don't stress. Let your child decide how much—if any—to eat. Picky eating can eventually evolve into overweight issues, so don't substitute unhealthy snacks just to get your child to eat something. Also, avoid serving up overly large portions of a favorite item, even if it's healthy. Swinney says that children 2 years old and up can follow the MyPlate guidelines—fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables, then throw in whole grains, plant-based proteins and two to three servings of dairy a day. Younger toddlers, she cautions, need more calories from fat due to their rapid growth and brain development, so don't skimp on heart-healthy fats.
- Early encouragement. Early habits tend to stick, so get your toddler started on a healthy route today. Give your tiny tot plain water to drink, or water with lemon or lime, suggests Academic and Clinical Specialist Dietitian Daina Kalnins, MSc., RD. Getting her palate used to simple water will help you avoid sugary drinks and juices down the road, which can cut into your kid's appetite, ruin her new teeth, and make it easier for her to ignore your attempts to introduce new foods.
- Foods to avoid. Even though you can't seem to get parsnips past your toddler's lips, she seems determined to swallow a variety of dangerous items when your back's turned. At this age, children should always be supervised when eating—and seated during mealtimes. Parties in particular can cause food safety risks, since children tend to run around and pick up foods from trays. "I recommend scanning the room to see what is available within the child's reach and asking the host or hostess to place these foods out of a child's reach," cautions Kalnins. Watch out for round, circular foods that can block the child's windpipe, like whole carrots, fish with bones, popcorn, nuts, fruit with pits and snacks with toothpicks. Cut up hot dogs, grapes and small tomatoes before serving them to your toddler.
- Tastes and textures. Once is not enough—you'll probably need to dish up new foods and flavors up to 10 times before your kid decides she likes it. Prepare each item in a variety of ways, and introduce your toddler to a selection of unusual foods so she's used to trying new things. Kalnins encourages parents to go beyond the standard fruits and veggies, letting toddlers taste kiwis, mangoes, star fruit, different broccolis, snap peas and kale, which can be steamed or even served as chips.
- Seasoning and spices. Kalnins suggests introducing a variety of herbs and spices, stating "chicken or fish prepared one way may not be enjoyed, but adding herbs or certain spices may encourage acceptance."
- Pass on the kid's menu. Most kids menus serve a limited range of the same, bland favorites—grilled cheese, pizza or chicken nuggets. Swinney suggests skipping the kids meals, and letting your budding epicure share the food from your own plate. She may wrinkle her nose at your poached fish at first, but sharing meals with mommy may just become a beloved pastime—and help her palate mature beyond the tired, greasy food that's typically served to munchkins.
Perhaps what matters most isn't the foods you serve, but the way you deal with food in general. Keep your kid involved—whether it's input on the grocery list, what to eat for dinner or how to prepare it. Eating can be educational too; Swinney says, "the grocery store is such a wonderful food classroom with all it's colors, shapes and textures!" Your toddler will love finding a rainbow of vegetables to plop in a salad, or helping you roll out dough for cookies. All of this involvement is critical to raising a foodie—because kids who are involved in the planning and preparation of meals are more likely to eat them.