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How to Get a Toddler to Eat: Everything You Need to Know

Every parent knows the dance of coaxing a toddler to eat. In fact, more than 25% of toddlers and preschoolers are considered “picky eaters” by their parents. Mealtime becomes a delicate balance of finding the right foods to entice their taste buds, employing clever distractions, and sometimes resorting to a bit of playful negotiation — all in the name of ensuring they receive the nourishment they need to grow and thrive. 

So how do we make mealtime less of a struggle and more of a delightful experience? Here’s your comprehensive guide on understanding toddler eating patterns and how to get your toddler to eat and embrace their plate.

Understanding Toddler Eating Habits 

Toddlers have a distinct and evolving relationship with food. Their appetite can change as they transition from the rapid growth phase of infancy. It’s not uncommon for an active eater as a baby to show reduced hunger as a toddler or preschooler. Selective eating can start as early as 12 months but typically reaches its peak between 18 to 24 months, and is commonly referred to as “food neophobia” — the fear of or reluctance to eat new foods. 

Persistence and patience are essential during this phase. Research suggests that a child might need exposure to food 8-15 times before willingly trying it. Continue to offer diverse foods in a no-pressure environment and lead by example by eating those foods yourself.

However, not all picky eating is born from fear — sometimes it’s something much more positive. Their world is bustling with activities, and their constant desire to explore can sometimes overshadow their interest in food. However, these explorations aren’t limited to just the world around them — this includes exploring your reactions to their behavior. Let us explain.

As toddlers grow, they begin to understand that their actions have consequences. This newfound autonomy might lead them to refuse food or engage in behaviors like throwing it to gauge your response. It’s essential to keep reactions during meals as low-key and consistent as possible to avoid reinforcing such behavior.

Toddlers’ fluctuating appetites can also be attributed to growth spurts and mood swings. As they assert their independence, they can be selective and sometimes unpredictable about their food choices. Recognizing and understanding the reasons behind these eating habits can guide parents in enticingly presenting healthy foods.

How to Get Your Toddler to Eat: 9 Things You Can Try

There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to feeding toddlers. These little beings are bursting with newfound independence, and their eating preferences can be as unpredictable as their moods. 

But fret not, parents and caregivers! With some strategic planning and a pinch of creativity, you can make mealtime an anticipated event for your little one. Here are nine tried and tested strategies that experts swear by to ensure a harmonious and nutritious dining experience for your toddler:

1. Make Mealtime Fun

Learning how to get a toddler to eat can be stressful. However, by stepping back and approaching the situation from a different perspective, you can find new avenues to get food into your child’s tummy. After all, engaging a toddler’s senses and imagination is vital to cultivating a positive relationship with food.

Visual Appeal: Using colorful plates and serving utensils can captivate a toddler’s attention. How to make a 1-year old baby eat food can be as simple as making the meal visually appealing. Serving utensils in distinct colors from eating ones helps them distinguish between them. For instance, marking serving utensils with durable vinyl tape can do wonders.

Narrative Engagement: Let them “play” with their food or craft stories about the food characters on their plate, like the brave broccoli’s adventures. Sometimes, it becomes more enticing when a kid eats food with an attached story.

Child-friendly Utensils: Offer child-sized eating utensils. Small spoons and plates with raised edges can help them scoop up their food more efficiently. 

Encourage Tidiness: Yes, learning to eat can get messy. But instead of fretting over spills, turn it into an opportunity. Equip them with paper towels and involve them in the cleanup. Consider placing a drop cloth or old shower curtain on the floor for easier cleaning.

2. Offer Variety

By diversifying the menu and introducing new flavors and textures, you can pique their interest and nourish their growing bodies. Embracing variety is pivotal for both nutrition and cultivating an adventurous palate.

Fresh Twists: Rotate different fruits, vegetables, and protein sources in their meals. That provides them a spectrum of essential nutrients and keeps mealtime fresh and enticing.

Adventure on a Plate: Periodically introducing new foods can make dining an exciting expedition for little explorers. Remember, the goal is to make each meal an experience of flavors and nutrients. Sometimes, the secret to how to get kids to eat is rooted in continuous culinary discovery.

3. Introduce New Foods Slowly

Introducing new foods to a child’s diet can be a delicate dance, especially for toddlers just starting to develop their tastes. It’s crucial to blend the unfamiliar with the familiar. Combining new items with tried-and-true favorites can make the transition smoother.

Pairing Strategy: When presenting a new food, accompany it with familiar favorites. This strategy bridges the gap between the known and unknown, making your child’s dining experience more comfortable. It might take multiple exposures before they warm up to a new flavor, so patience and perseverance are essential.

Tasting Ritual: Create a fun ritual around tasting new foods. That could involve letting your child take a “first bite” followed by a fun little dance or song, turning the experience into a game. By making it enjoyable, you can encourage a more positive association with trying new things.

Involve Them in Preparation: When introducing something new, let your toddler be a part of the process. Whether washing the vegetables, stirring a mix, or even watching the food cook, their involvement can pique curiosity and make them more inclined to taste what they’ve “created.”

4. Limit Distractions

A serene and focused environment can significantly impact a child’s dining experience. By minimizing distractions, you can help them concentrate on their meals and the joys of family bonding.

Focused Mealtimes: Keep the dining area dedicated to eating. Switch off electronic devices, set toys aside, and emphasize the importance of mealtime as a family affair. If you’re wondering how to get a toddler to eat with focus, it often starts with cultivating a tranquil atmosphere.

Interactive Conversation: Engage your child in a meaningful conversation during mealtimes. Ask about their day, discuss the food on the plate, or narrate a fun story. That keeps them engaged with the meal and fosters a bond over shared stories and laughter.

Tactile Table Setting: Use placemats, tablecloths, or cutlery with interesting textures or patterns. Letting your child set their own space with these tactile items can be both a fun activity and a way to ground their focus on the meal ahead. By giving them a sensory connection to the mealtime setup, you’re subtly reinforcing the specialness of the dining experience.

5. Stick to a Routine

Routine is more than just a timetable; it’s a foundation for healthy eating habits. By setting consistent meal and snack times, you instill a rhythm that helps toddlers anticipate and appreciate their meals.

Established Schedules: Regular meal and snack times provide structure, allowing your child to recognize and act upon genuine hunger cues. 

6. Offer Small Portions

Serving manageable portions can make mealtime less daunting for your little one and foster a favorable dining experience. Remember, smaller amounts are more approachable; there’s always room for more if they’re still hungry. Starting small can be a practical strategy if you’ve ever wondered how to get a toddler to eat.

Moderation is Key: Begin with modest portions to avoid overwhelming your child and curbing potential waste.

Elevate Snacks: Treat snacks as “mini meals” that pack nutritional value, ensuring they provide nourishment rather than just acting as fillers.

7. Be a Role Model

Your palate and eating choices can significantly shape your toddler’s dietary preferences. Embracing various foods enriches your diet and instills an appreciation for diverse flavors in your child. For those wondering how to get a 2-year old to eat a broad range of foods, modeling this behavior can be the answer.

Diversify Your Plate: Regularly incorporate different foods into your meals, demonstrating the joys of a varied diet.

Observational Learning: Recognize that your child is always watching. Emphasize healthy eating habits, knowing that toddlers often mirror the behaviors they see.

8. Avoid Bribery

Resist the urge to negotiate with treats. Using desserts as bargaining chips can distort a child’s understanding of food values, steering them towards unhealthy associations. It’s one of the challenges when figuring out how to get kids to eat healthily.

Promote Intrinsic Value: Instead of offering treats as rewards, highlight the inherent pleasure and health benefits of enjoying a wholesome meal.

Stay Consistent: Ensure that rules around treats are clear and consistent, preventing mixed messages about food.

9. Stay Patient

A child’s taste can be a moving target. How to get a toddler to eat varied dishes often requires perseverance. Flexibility and patience are pivotal as they navigate through varying food preferences. 

When a kid eats food they initially resisted, it’s a testament to the value of patience and repeated exposure. However, familiar favorites can be a comforting touchpoint amidst this evolving journey.

Introduce, Then Reintroduce: Understand that today’s declined dish might be tomorrow’s favorite. Be open to reintroducing foods they’ve previously dismissed.

Familiar Favorites: Always include a few of their beloved foods on the plate, offering a sense of familiarity and comfort as they explore new flavors.

Above all, remember the importance of dialogue. Ask your child, “How can I make this taste better?” Their insights, however articulated, might surprise you. Meals should be empowering, not a power struggle. 

Adopting a family-style approach, where they pick from offered dishes, can also instill a sense of agency in them. The journey of discovering how to get a toddler to eat is filled with trials, but with patience and perseverance, it’s paved with rewarding moments.

What to Feed a 2-Year-Old 

Fruits and vegetables are cornerstones of a 2-year-old’s diet, supplying vital vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Introducing a varied assortment is beneficial to help them explore new flavors and textures. Although dried fruits like raisins are nutritious, serve them during meals to protect against potential tooth decay.

Starchy foods like bread, rice, and pasta are energy and nutrient powerhouses. It’s essential to balance wholegrain options like wholegrain bread or whole wheat pasta, particularly for those under 2. 

Whole grains, while nutritious, can be filling, so ensure children get a well-rounded intake of calories and nutrients. After the age of 2, you can gradually increase their whole grain consumption.

Proteins are essential building blocks for growth. Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, and meats are prime sources. Aim to provide at least two daily protein portions sourced from vegetables or animal-based products. 

Oily fish, like salmon, offers numerous benefits, but it’s crucial to serve in moderation due to certain pollutants. If your child doesn’t consume meat or fish, focus on iron-rich alternatives like fortified cereals, green veggies, beans, and lentils.

Fats, especially for those under the age of 2, offer much-needed energy and house specific essential vitamins. Rich sources include whole milk, cheese, and oily fish. After age 2, you can start transitioning to lower-fat dairy products, given they maintain a well-rounded diet.

By age 5, children can usually adapt to an adult-like diet with three meals a day. Monitor saturated fat intake and choose healthier cooking methods, such as grilling. Lean meat cuts, skinless poultry, and meat alternatives like beans or lentils are great choices. Make sure to monitor their snacking as well! For children over 2, use lower-fat dairy products and minimize cooking oil, choosing healthier options like olive or avocado oil.

For a diverse and balanced diet, serve whole grain pancakes, fruit kabobs, veggie wraps, and lentil soups. Snacks like yogurt dips, nut butter, or cottage cheese ensure they receive the proper blend of protein, fats, and carbs.

Go Au Pair’s Path to Toddler Mealtime Triumphs 

Go Au Pair ensures rigorous training for our au pairs across multiple facets of childcare. That includes understanding the dietary needs of toddlers and strategies to introduce new foods and techniques to make mealtime engaging and stress-free.

Moreover, from diverse backgrounds, au pairs can introduce children to various international cuisines, expanding their palates. Their approach to food is often rooted in their culture, which can offer fresh perspectives and solutions to common mealtime challenges.

For parents wondering, “How do I get my toddler to eat?” the answer might not just be about the “how,” but also the “who.” With their unique skills and cultural insights, an au pair can turn mealtimes from a battleground to a playground.

Discover how an au pair can support your family’s mealtime needs and provide an enriching cultural experience at Go Au Pair.

Michael Green


Michael has been Go Au Pair's Digital Marketing Specialist and Webmaster for over 5 years, with over a decade of marketing and content creation experience.

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