How to encourage a picky toddler to eat

Would you like your toddler to be genuinely excited about mealtimes? Of course you would. It’s the biggest struggle most parents face with their little people. Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Your one year-old likes to play a hilarious game with their food. It’s called ‘throw it on the floor, and watch mummy or daddy pick it up with a funny look on their face’.
  • Your two year-old has a meltdown when you offer a variety of colourful foods, and refuses to eat anything but white or beige food.
  • Your three year-old has decided that they don’t like something on their plate before they’ve even tried it, and won’t sit down at the table.

If you can relate to any of these scenarios, congratulations – you’re a parent.

The thing is, we can’t make our children eat. It’s our job to offer them healthy and wholesome food, but it’s up to them whether they eat it or not.

Encouraging a picky toddler to eat doesn’t happen at the table

Getting kids genuinely excited about trying new foods doesn’t have to happen at the meal table. If we move food education away from the table, and expose them to a colourful and exciting world of food in a positive and calm environment, it takes all of the pressure away from our little ones (and the stress from us).

So, here is a list of fun activities to do to encourage a picky toddler to eat that has the added bonus of encouraging them to be a bit more adventurous with food. If you’re anything like most parents, you’re always looking for more play ideas to do with them anyway, particularly on rainy days or during that long gap between the afternoon nap and dinner time.

5 fun ways to encourage a picky toddler to eat

Read books about food

Books are a fabulous way to introduce changes or transitions to our children in a non-confrontational way. Whether you’re about to start potty training your toddler, there’s a new baby coming into the family, or your child is about to start childcare…books help to start a bit of a conversation around it, plus they give us some ideas about how we can make the transition easier.

Introducing new food to our children is no different. Eating is a learning process that can be very overwhelming to little ones. If we think about eating as something we can casually educate our toddlers about, rather than just expecting they’ll eat everything we put in front of them, it can make the whole experience much more enjoyable for everyone.

2. Let them play with their food

Did you know that we use all of our senses when we eat something? That’s why sensory play is so important in helping to reduce picky eating. Here is a list of 5 taste-safe messy baby play ideas that toddlers will also love. They’re really simple, and everything you need to recreate them can be found in the kitchen

Next time you go grocery shopping, spread a tablecloth across the floor and lay all out all of the fruit and veggies for your little ones to touch, explore, lick, and possibly nibble on.

Ask questions such as: What does it feel like? What colour is it? What other fruit or vegetable does it look like? What’s the shape similar to? What does it smell like? What do you think it would smell like?

You can still do this activity with babies and toddlers who don’t talk too much yet. They understand a lot more than we realise, and it’s a great opportunity to expose them to words we use to describe different sensations.

It’s also a lot of fun, and takes the mystery away from what we’re serving them every day. Imagine if someone served you something and you had no idea what was in it, what it looked like in its original form, and how it was prepared. So, next time you sit your little one down on the floor to play, put some veggies in front of them instead of toys (but obviously supervise them. Oh and give the veggies a good wash afterwards!)

3. Get them into the kitchen

Get them into the kitchen at any age. A baby can sit in a high chair beside you and watch while you prepare a meal. Explain everything you’re doing (turning it into a song is optional), and let them touch and play with the fruit and vegetables. Try not to freak out when they lick all the raw veggies, it won’t hurt them. Toddlers really do love to help and be with you whenever they can, so try the following:

  • They can use toddler-safe knives to help prepare fruit for smoothies or fruit salad
  • They can wash and peel vegetables for salads
  • Let them wash some dishes in the sink
  • Measuring and pouring ingredients for baked goods or soups is fun
  • They can help mash avocado for guacamole or banana for pancakes
  • Stirring is always a favourite for little ones

4. Pretend play

It’s adorable when toddlers get to the age of pretend play:

  • Setting up a make-believe café, tea party, or shop can provide lots of opportunity to talk about food in an enjoyable environment.
  • You could set up a greengrocer at home with real produce or toy ones.
  • You could play ‘shops’ at the playground, using the wood chips to represent food or the ‘money’.
  • In the sandpit, you could make cakes, and chat about each ingredient as it goes into the mix.

If your child is still a little young for pretend play, you could obviously spend some time when you can (whilst keeping your sanity) at the supermarket, market, and cafés.

Of course, many toddlers aren’t fans of those places. If you’ve ever felt like running out of the supermarket crying when you take your child shopping, or arrive home from the local market with not a single item from the shopping list (unless feeling utterly traumatised and assuming the foetal position is on the list), then you might want to limit the length of time doing this activity. The last thing we want are negative food experiences!

5. Grow some food at home

You don’t have to have a green thumb, but letting kids grow food is very beneficial. Children love a job. Getting them to water and care for plants gives them an opportunity to be responsible and independent. Discuss the colours, aromas, and of course don’t forget to encourage the kids to taste them and cook with them. If you don’t have the space, you could simply grow some herbs in pots on the kitchen windowsill.

X click to search