Providing nutritious meals for picky toddlers

Young children between 12 and 24 months of age are notoriously picky eaters. They may only eat a few foods, then abruptly refuse them. Toddlers also have rapidly changing appetites. Although toddlers grow steadily throughout their second year, their growth rates are less dramatic than during the first year, which often is reflected in how much they eat. Children this age may eat robustly one day and very little the next, but they usually eat the right amount to meet their caloric needs.

Toddlers are just beginning to understand that they can make their own decisions. Their need for independence and control often interferes with mealtime and eating. As long as a toddler is growing normally, is active, and appears to be healthy, nutrition is probably not a problem.

There are two basic "rules" for feeding your child:

  • You decide what, when, and where to feed your child.
  • Your child decides how, when, and whether to eat.

More specifically, it can help to:

  • Find at least one food from each food group that your child likes and make sure it is readily available most of the time. Children tend to accept new foods gradually, and you may have to introduce a food many times before your child actually tries it.
  • Model good nutrition for your children. Do not regularly keep less nutritious foods (for example, those that have large amounts of fats or sugar) in the house. If you eat these foods but try to withhold them from your toddler, the child will learn that these foods are highly desirable. The child may sneak these foods, beg for them, or simply view them as wonderful.
  • Limit the amount of fruit juice you give your child. Many beverages sold as juice are mostly water and sugar with a little juice. Even 100% real fruit juice does not have the valuable fiber that whole fruit has.

You can help prevent mealtime battles by planning ahead and being aware of common issues.

  • Provide a variety of nutritious foods for children, at reasonably timed meals and in a proper meal environment (a family gathering place where meals are shared).
  • Allow your child to select which foods to eat from among those you have provided. Let your child decide when he or she is finished eating. Stay out of these decisions.
  • Don't use food as a reward for good behavior.
  • Consider family meals to be pleasant social events that bring the family together, not functional events at which a child feels obligated to eat.
  • Let hunger, not rules or pleading or bargaining, determine what and how much your child eats (within the boundaries of what you make available).

For more information on strategies to help your child eat well, see the topic Healthy Eating for Children.

Last Updated: May 11, 2009

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