Is it normal for toddlers to be fussy eaters?

Trish Booth
Family Medicine
Children from ages 18 months to 3 years eat less than they did. This is a normal and healthy change because their growth slows down. It also happens at the same time as normal negativism. As part of their striving for independence, toddlers want to make food choices and feed themselves. If given poor choices, such as a lot of sweets, they may not choose enough healthy foods. If they drink a lot of juice or milk, they are often not hungry enough to eat much solid food. Toddlers also reject foods they have eaten in the past. Limiting choices to healthy foods means a toddler always makes a good choice.

At times parents can feel overwhelmed by a toddler’s eating habits. When a child rejects food they have prepared, parents can overreact and attempt to force feed or trick the child into eating more than he wants. Force feeding can result in injuries to the mouth or back of the throat.

If a child’s first encounter with cooked peas results in the all the peas remaining on the plate, this doesn’t mean that peas should be permanently off the menu. Research shows that a child may need to be exposed to a food 10 times or more before accepting them. Parents also should not remove healthy foods, like broccoli or green beans, from a child’s diet because they themselves don’t like them. Children will often adapt to the foods made available to them.

Young children have more taste buds than adults, so foods can taste stronger to them. This can sometimes seem to narrow their food preferences. Parents may think, “My child only eats chicken nuggets and fries,” or “She hates vegetables.” Though it’s true that toddlers often demonstrate "picky eating," parents should not give up on encouraging them to try and accept new foods.

One way to help small children accept a varied diet is to eat a varied diet yourself. Research suggests that adults’ vegetable consumption should serve as a model for younger diners. That is, adults should load up their own plates with a variety of vegetables, and snack on items like carrot sticks and apple slices between meals, so that children will be more likely to follow suit. Children often mimic adults’ behaviors, including the unhealthy ones. A mom who only drinks diet soda for dinner, or a dad who insists that his 3-year-old eat asparagus but never puts it on his own plate, may send confusing messages. Involving children in the food shopping, menu selection, and preparation of meals is another way to encourage them to enjoy a variety of foods.

Hang in there. Once they become teenagers, they will be eating you out of house and home!
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.