Picky Toddler? Try these 5 Fun Food Ideas!

For whatever reason, some toddlers are always extremely picky, while others eat anything in front of them. However, even decent eaters will go through phases of pickiness. What is going on? Is there anything parents can do to curb stubbornness?

Toddlers grow and develop at an astounding rate. In fact, from zero to three years old, toddlers make one million neural connections per second (source)! This impressive development rate means toddlers need quality nutrients, but they will go through phases of eating well and being picky.

The trick is discerning what is actually going on in your toddler, being flexible, and encouraging her to eat her favorite healthy foods throughout the day when she is willing to eat them. Don't give in to serving sugary carbs just because your toddler will eat them! Here are a few fun food ideas to try.

1. Smoothie Bowls

Smoothie bowls are easy to prepare, allow your toddler to make her own choices, and pack lots of fruits and veggies in one delicious meal. A smoothie bowl is blended fruits and veggies topped with fun toppings like granola, chia seeds, or fresh fruit slices.

If you want to excite your toddler, you can let her choose from various fruits and veggies you have set out and help put them into the blender. When it's ready, let her put her own toppings on it.

2. Mini Homemade Pizzas

It doesn't take long for toddlers to jump onto the "I love pizza" train. So, one thing you can do with a picky eater is make mini homemade pizzas with pita break or English muffins as the base. Take a few minutes to set everything up before letting your toddler put together his own pizza.

Help him spread tomato sauce on the base and sprinkle shredded cheese on top. Then, offer lots of veggie colors to choose from for extra nutrition, such as chopped peppers, mushrooms, dried tomatoes, olives, or spinach.

As you build your mini pizzas together, talk about the beautiful colors, how good they are for you, and how tasty they are. Your little one will warm up to mini pizzas the more you make them!

3. Quesadillas

Quesadillas are another fun and easy meal to customize! You can set up a few different bowls of chopped veggies, meat, and shredded cheese. Then, give your toddler a bowl and ask her to fill it with anything she wants in her quesadilla.

If she's particularly picky about what she puts into her quesadilla, that's okay! Just showing her what all you put into yours and talking about how good it is (maybe even sharing a bite) every time you have quesadillas will slowly make her more interested in adding other things.

You can even go a step further by adding toppings like guacamole, salsa, chopped lettuce, tomatoes, pico de gallo, sour cream, cheese, or anything else you have!

4. Yogurt Cups

Another fantastic snack is loaded yogurt cups. These are highly customizable, but you need to start by choosing a yogurt that isn't already loaded with sugar. My family purchases plain Greek yogurt and sweetens it with honey or fruit. 

Greek yogurt is packed full of necessary protein and probiotics, so adding nutrition with natural ingredients is simple. You can make a small yogurt bar by setting out prepared fruits, granola, honey, and anything else your wee one might appreciate. Then, let your little one choose all the things he wants without pressure!

5. Chopstick Platter

Chopstick platters are a fun family snack that we began doing when our toddlers were constantly asking for snacks. We didn't want to say no to providing food, but we also didn't want to ruin dinner. 

So, we poured a variety of healthy nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate-covered nuts and fruit on a cookie sheet and put it in the middle of the table. We then equipped each toddler with a pair of chopsticks and told them they could eat as much as they wanted as long as they picked each snack up with chopsticks.

The creativity, concentration, and laughs that followed kicked off a fun tradition that we still do years later!

How to Manage a Picky Toddler's Eating Habits

It's one thing to have some ideas for involving your picky eater in cooking and making their own food choices, but it's quite another to manage a toddler's pickiness day to day. Food and using the bathroom are the only two things a toddler can control, so it makes sense that eating and potty training become struggles.

Angry toddler hates broccoli

However, becoming frustrated, yelling at, or stubbornly outlasting your toddler will only make her more brazen in the future. Instead of making everything food a conflict, step back, cool off, discern what's really going on, and shrug it off.

Here are some common questions parents of picky toddlers ask:

How Can I Get My Picky Eater to Taste New Foods?

One approach is to make food fun by allowing your child to help with meal preparation, as I shared in the five fun food ideas above. You can also try creatively presenting food, like building a house with carrot and celery sticks and using a dip to hold it together.

Studies on five- to seven-year-olds have supported the benefits of involving your child in food preparation (source; source ; source). It's even better if your little one sees you eating healthy or trying new foods regularly (source).

Another effective strategy is to offer lots of healthy foods so that your toddler can choose from several things. If your little one doesn't try something the first few times he sees it, that's okay! Research has found that repeated introductions can increase a child's acceptance of new foods, even if you need to introduce them more than eight times (source).

Is It Normal for My Toddler to Be a Picky Eater?

Yes, it is normal for toddlers to be picky eaters. Research has found that up to 50% of toddlers are considered picky eaters. Still, the definition of "picky eater" is highly subjective, with parents concerned about their child's choosiness being most likely to have a "picky eater" (source).

So, to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy, don't make picky eating a big deal; don't talk about it around your child. Then, ensure your toddler has plenty of nutritious food available throughout the day: protein, iron, calcium, vitamins, and fiber.

It's crucial to avoid pressuring your toddler to eat or even using food as a reward or punishment. These can create negative associations with food, leading to further picky eating behaviors. Instead, offer a variety of healthy foods each meal and let your child decide which ones to eat.

If that means sugar or low-nutrition foods need to leave your home, it may be worth doing.

What Are Some Common Reasons Why Toddlers Are Picky Eaters?

There are several reasons why toddlers may be picky eaters. One common reason is a natural preference for sweet or salty foods. Toddlers have more taste buds than adults and may be more sensitive to certain tastes (source).

Another reason may be a fear of new foods, which, believe it or not, is a natural part of a child's development. Toddlers may also become extremely picky if they go through a growth spurt or experience teething pain, especially when cutting molars. You may see your toddler picking out the sweet stuff or eating less during these times.

Should I Be Concerned If My Toddler Is Not Eating Enough?

If your toddler is not eating enough, speak with your pediatrician. While picky eating is common among toddlers, it's essential that your child gets all the necessary nutrients for healthy growth and development.

You'll know your toddler isn't eating enough if they are refusing food, complaining of stomach pain, having diarrhea, or losing weight. This could be an illness, underlying health condition, or nutritional deficiency. Your pediatrician will likely recommend testing or give a referral to a specialist.

However, if your toddler simply eats like a bird some days and eats well on others, this is normal. If you're also worried about sleeping patterns, read The Ultimate Guide to One-Year-Old Sleep: Tips and Tricks for Busy Parents.

How Can I Make Mealtime More Enjoyable for My Picky Eater?

Making mealtime more enjoyable for your picky eater can be done by involving your toddler in meal preparation, presenting food in creative ways, or creating fun mealtime activities.

We talked about involving your toddler in meal preparation above. Presenting food creatively can be as simple as making a smiley face or as complex as making a garden on a plate. You can also try any of the following activities during meals:

  • listening to music or an audiobook

  • asking questions

  • making funny faces

  • sharing ideas for the weekend

  • talking about good or cool things everyone did today

Just avoid making meals a time of pressure, annoyance, or frustration. Praise your toddler for trying new foods, even if she doesn't like them.

Are There Any Foods That I Should Avoid Feeding My Picky Eater?

Some foods, like bitter vegetables (kale and Brussels sprouts), may be more challenging for picky eaters to accept. However, you should continue offering various healthy foods, even if your tiny tot initially refuses them.

You should also avoid serving potential choking hazards, like whole grapes, cherry tomatoes, or nuts, though you could cut them down to a better size until your child is old enough to eat them safely.

How Can I Ensure My Picky Eater Is Getting All the Necessary Nutrients?

Ensuring that your picky eater of any age gets necessary nutrients is quite the challenge, especially if you are feeding foster children who are not accustomed to eating fresh produce.

Moonkie food storage containers with various healthy foods in them

The main thing is to avoid making food a battle. Make sure every meal has something the child likes as well as healthy additions. That may mean lunch looks like mac n' cheese with a side salad, orange slices, and a piece of grilled chicken, but at least your child will see something they like on their plate.

Always provide food and make a range of healthy options available. For foster kids, you may try putting a bowl of healthy fruits, nuts, and vegetables on the counter that may be eaten anytime.

If you are concerned about your child's nutrition, speak with your pediatrician. They may recommend a daily multivitamin or additional testing to ensure your child gets all the necessary nutrients.

Should I Force My Picky Eater to Eat Foods They Don't Like?

As mentioned above, picky eating can also be a way for a toddler to assert their independence and control (i.e., get into a power struggle with you). If you feed that by getting frustrated, "laying down the law," or punishing your toddler, you only fuel the flames.

It's better to not give them a foothold, so simply shrug it off and ensure they have food that they will eat available on their plate at each meal. For older kids giving you attitude, you can tub the food they didn't touch (put it into a container) and serve it again each meal until they eat it (recooking a fresh batch if needed).

This method really hits home when everyone else is eating out or enjoying something special, and the kid with an attitude is sitting with leftovers. To be clear, this is only to make a point about respecting those who offer food, even if it's something they don't like. It would be different if a child politely asked not to eat that food after trying a bite.

Nonetheless, you should never use this method with children who have had an eating disorder or food insecurity in the past. For advice on that, reach out to a counselor, social worker, or pediatrician.

If you have more questions about raising a toddler and how toddlers develop, check out 25 Questions First-time Parents Ask About Their Toddler's Development!

In a Nutshell

Picky eaters certainly give parents headaches, but this phase will pass for many toddlers. One thing is for sure: starting healthy foods now is easier and better in the long run than trying to tackle it in preschool or beyond.

By keeping your cool, consistently providing healthy foods, and offering new foods often, your toddler will likely follow your example and become a little foodie! 

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