Why are toddlers picky eaters?

by The Yumble Team



Why are toddlers picky eaters?

For most parents, toddlerhood can feel like an interminable era of “no.” Whether they are refusing to wear a jacket in subzero temperatures, brush their teeth, or eat their dinner, toddlers are often saying “no” and pushing the limits of their parents’ patience. When it comes to food, this can be particularly concerning as the more toddlers refuse (or throw, or spit out) a variety of foods, the more parents worry that their toddlers are not getting the nutrition they need. Here at Yumble, we may not be able to get your toddler to put on their jacket when it’s freezing (but believe us that we’ve been there) but we can provide some advice and reassurance when it comes to understanding why toddlers are picky eaters.

First of all, rest assured that you are not alone. Over 50% of toddlers (age 24 months) are picky eaters. The toddler picky eater level varies wildly, but picky eating of any kind is frustrating and worrisome to parents. So, why is it that a toddler that once ate (almost) everything now only wants tofu and clementines? Or chicken nuggets and carrots? Or plain bagels and only plain bagels? It’s complicated.

Picky eating is not caused by just one thing. It is a combination of developmental, behavioral and environmental factors. Here are four reasons why your toddler may be a picky eater, and what you can do about it.

Why Toddlers are Picky Eaters #1: Your Toddler’s Growth is Slowing Down

After tripling their weight during their first year, your toddler's growth rapidly slows down around 12 months old. This comes with a natural decrease in appetite, which can feel like picky eating to many parents. Toddlers are incredibly good at self-regulation around food (something we lose with age) and will eat when they are hungry and refuse food when they are not.

  • Do: Give your picky eating toddler smaller portions sizes at set meals and snack times. If they are still hungry, they’ll ask for more food.
  • Don’t: Force your picky eater toddler to eat. We all grew up with the “clean plate club,” but research now shows that this can be detrimental to a child’s ability to self regulate their own hunger.

Why Toddlers are Picky Eaters #2: Your Toddler’s Taste Palate is Changing

As your toddler develops the ability to walk and explore their environment, they also develop the “disgust” response to foods, flavors and smells that the body views as potentially dangerous. This is an evolutionary response that serves to protect your toddler but also makes them a pickier eater. Foods that are bitter or sour may cause a strong reaction. But don’t just stick to sweet or bland foods in response!

  • Do: Continue to serve your picky eater toddler a wide variety of foods, and eat them too! If your toddler sees you eating a type of food that their taste buds perceive as “dangerous”, they’ll learn that it’s safe and eventually come around to it. If your toddler is only willing to touch or smell the food the first few times, that’s okay too. The more familiar they get with it, the more likely they are to eat it in the future.
  • Don’t: Make your child try something on their plate as a “thank you” helping. This may cause your picky toddler to dislike the food even more. Studies have shown that parents have to serve a new food up to 14 times before a picky toddler may be willing to try it.

Why Toddlers are Picky Eaters #3: Your Toddler is on a Food Jag

Food jags, though annoying, are an absolutely normal part of development. Your picky toddler may only want to eat chicken nuggets in the shape of dinosaurs now, but they will grow out of it. How long this phase lasts varies from picky eating toddler to toddler, but we promise that it will end! When dealing with a food jag, patience and persistence is key.

  • Do: Continue to serve your picky eater toddler new foods with their preferred foods. For the dino nugget loving toddler? Serve a tablespoon of a new vegetable alongside the nuggets each night. In time your picky toddler will give them a try.
  • Don’t: Introduce new foods when your child may not be hungry. Wait until set family meal times to introduce new foods, that way your toddler will see you eating them too!

Why Toddlers are Picky Eaters #4: Your Toddler is Testing Limits

Toddlers are walking, talking, exploration machines. They also want to test the limits of their environment and their parents. Don’t like those peas with dinner? Let’s throw them at Dad or smash them against the wall! Your toddler may be a picky eater, but they also may be testing your limits and happen to be using food. They want to see what your reaction will be, and how much they can or can’t get away with.

  • Do: For the toddler that loves to test gravity during dinner time, experts recommend limiting the number of spoons made available--two for the toddler (one as back up) and one for you (if you need to intervene). Once all the spoons have made it to the floor, it’s time to eat with their hands.
  • Don’t: React. This piece of parenting advice can be one of the hardest to follow, especially when your child is testing limits in the middle of the grocery store aisle. But the less you react to requests for CANDY NOW MOM or to food flung on the floor, the more likely your toddler is to decrease that behavior.

As always, if you are concerned about your child’s diet and growth, please voice your concerns to your pediatrician at your next appointment. For some toddlers, picky eating is more than just a phase and may be an indicator of something more serious. But for the majority of picky eating toddlers, it is just a phase and you will get through it. We promise.

Sources

Brown, J. E., & Lechtenberg, E. (2017). Nutrition through the life cycle.

Fernando, N. & Potock M. (2015) Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater.

Hayes D. (2018) Coping With Picky Eating Phases. Eatright.org

Podlesak, A. K., Mozer, M. E., Smith-Simpson, S., Lee, S. Y., & Donovan, S. M. (2017). Associations between Parenting Style and Parent and Toddler Mealtime Behaviors. Curr Dev Nutr, 1(6), e000570. doi:10.3945/cdn.117.000570

van der Horst K, Deming DM, Lesniauskas R, Carr BT, Reidy KC. Picky eating: Associations with child eating characteristics and food intake. Appetite. 2016;103:286-293.

Wardle J, Cooke LJ, Gibson EL, Sapochnik M, Sheiham A, Lawson M. Increasing children's acceptance of vegetables; a randomized trial of parent-led exposure. Appetite. 2003;40(2):155-162.