10 Feeding Challenges for Babies and Toddlers—and How to Solve Them

If you’re struggling to get your child to eat much of anything, you’re not alone. We asked nutrition experts for tips on overcoming 10 common feeding challenges in babies and toddlers.

Toddler boy feeding himself

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As most parents can attest, very few kids will readily eat everything on their plate. Most little ones go through phases of pickiness and food challenges, making it a struggle to brainstorm dinner ideas. Here, we discuss the 10 most common feeding challenges you’ll likely face (if you haven’t already) with your baby or toddler, with expert-backed solutions for each one. 

1. Your little one used to enjoy healthy foods but now refuses them.

It's not the end of the world if your toddler swears off certain food groups for a while. "They will outgrow this," says Jatinder Bhatia, M.D., a pediatrician and nutritionist at the Medical College of Georgia. In the meantime, try these options for combatting picky eating:

  • Give kids the foods they like for meals.
  • Take advantage of snack time to diversify their diet with fruit, veggies, yogurt, and if allergies are not a problem, peanut butter.
  • Make a ho-hum cup of yogurt more attractive by adding sprinkles, or stir chocolate syrup or Ovaltine into their cup of milk.
  • You can also try to expand their limited menu with more nutritious alternatives. For instance, serve sweet potatoes instead of garden-variety Idahos.

2. Your baby eats solids but shows less interest in formula.

You should address this issue with your pediatrician to make sure your child is growing steadily. "Babies get energy from solids, but until they're 1 year old, they need formula or breast milk to satisfy all their nutrient requirements," explains Dr. Bhatia. He suggests trying to boost formula consumption by introducing sippy cups; the novelty may increase a toddler’s interest in drinking. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests introducing a sippy cup around six to nine months, since most little ones are developmentally ready at that age. Once they can drink from it properly, choose a sippy with their favorite character to entice them to drink more formula. 

If your little one is drastically limiting breast milk or formula, try offering a bottle before meals instead of along with the meal. This could be a way to encourage your toddler to drink a few extra ounces each day. 

3. Your baby shows little interest in solid foods, often spitting out items with any sort of texture. 

Chewing-and-spewing is not an unusual habit. But it is frustrating—not to mention messy. Why does your baby do it? They may be adjusting to unfamiliar cuisine; research shows that it can take 10 to 15 introductions to a new food before a baby will eat it. Or this may be a way of showing their autonomy.

Still rejecting a new food after 15 tries? Your child simply may not like what you're feeding them. "If your baby is doing it every time, they’re telling you, 'I don't like it. Give me something else,'" says Dr. Bhatia.

Continue to offer a variety of nutritious foods, and capitalize on what your baby likes. In other words, if they prefer foods with a softer consistency, let them have that bowl of oatmeal with a banana. But keep serving up more solid fare, and give your baby a chance to adapt.

4. Your kids have distinct food preferences, and it’s hard to get something on the table that everyone will eat.

The last thing any busy parent wants—or needs—is to feel like a short-order cook in their own kitchen. If you plan ahead, you may be able to brainstorm a meal that covers everyone's preferences.

Combat different desires with a selection of foods or items that each person can customize, like tacos, pasta (offer a variety of sauces and toppings), or home-made pizza. Joy Bauer, New York City nutritionist and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Total Nutrition, says you can't always make everyone happy with a single meal, and in that case, there's nothing wrong with offering alternatives—as long as they don't require a lot of effort in the kitchen. If your child doesn't like the family meal, they can choose a hassle-free alternative like soup, cereal, yogurt, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

5. Your toddler is highly averse to meat, so you’re worried they're not getting enough protein.

Toddlers can be very picky about a lot of different things—not just food. But “food becomes a battleground because parents often have preconceived ideas about what kinds of foods toddlers should be eating," explains Stephen Daniels, M.D., a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on nutrition.

Take a step back; as long as your child is continuing to grow and develop normally, they’re fine. They’re still getting protein in other foods, even with a limited palate. If your little one loves less healthy meats like hot dogs, try substitutes that are lower in fat and nitrates, such as turkey dogs or soy dogs.

If you're worried, you can try to boost the amount of protein in your toddler’s  diet with peanut butter and different types of beans. But whatever you do, don't make a fuss or your child will dig in their heels. 

6. Your toddler eats relatively healthy snacks—like fruit, crackers, peanut butter, and cheese—but won’t sit and eat meals. 

Because toddlers have small appetites (and tummies), snacks have an important place in a child's day. "A snack between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and dinner is 100% appropriate," says Bauer.

But if your child snacks around the clock, they won't be hungry at mealtime. And while a child who eats a lot of healthy snacks will be just as well off nutritionally as the child who eats well at mealtime, you want to teach your child to develop good eating habits and to appreciate the pleasures of a family meal.

To keep snacks from gobbling up your child's appetite for dinner, pay attention not only to frequency but to serving sizes. Bauer suggests offering four crackers with peanut butter or string cheese and a bunch of grapes or two large handfuls of multigrain Cheerios. "If your little one claims they’re hungry an hour after that snack is over, offer only cut-up vegetables. Then you'll find out who's really hungry—and who's just eating out of habit," she adds.

7. Your toddler’s after-school or post-daycare snack is interfering with meals.

Create a list of healthy, easy-to-fix snacks to offer your children specifically during those hungry after-school hours. For example, pop some sugar snap peas in the microwave or give them baby carrots and cucumbers with a light salad dressing for dipping, suggests Bauer. Here are some other healthy tips:

  • Consider apple slices with some peanut butter, almonds, or one stick of part-skim string cheese.
  • Avoid starchy foods that will fill the kids up without providing much nutrition.
  • Stick with water as opposed to liquid calories like juice.

8. Your child refuses to experiment outside of baby food.

While baby food is not bad for your child, they will certainly need a lot of it, especially as they approach toddlerhood. But simply stocking up on baby food is not the solution.

Try to determine why your baby won't expand their gustatory horizons, advises Dr. Bhatia. Is it a question of taste and texture? Or is it a fear of the unfamiliar? Some children resist new experiences, be it a strange dish or a change in their regular routine. In either case, you need to be patient and persistent. Keep offering a variety of foods. But if the problem persists, you may want to consult a child psychologist with expertise in eating and behavior.

9. Your child will only eat candy, sweets, and other junk.

Cake and candy shouldn't be a regular part of your child's diet, says Dr. Daniels. Having these foods once a week or so is plenty. Also, using sweets as a reward for finishing a meal is generally a bad idea. "This sets up a situation where some foods—often less healthy ones—are placed on a pedestal," explains Dr. Daniels. "And cues other than hunger become more important."

First, you're going to need to change your definition of dessert. Instead of candy or cookies, offer fruit, low-fat pudding, or angel food cake for dessert. Snacks can include pretzels, butter-free popcorn, and fruit smoothies, and can be just as satisfying as cookies. Phasing out the treats your child is used to won't be easy, and will require you to be firm and consistent. It will be easier if the unhealthy stuff simply isn't around.

If your child won't eat their meal without the promised dessert, don't make it a big deal. Your job is to offer a variety of healthy foods. Your child can decide how much they’re going to eat. Eventually,  hunger—rather than the promise of dessert—should be enough motivation to eat meals.

10. You’re nursing your child, but you can’t seem to change your own poor eating habits. 

To put the brakes on mindless eating, pre-plan your meals as much as possible. "If you wait until it's time to eat or you're hungry, you'll just grab whatever is around," observes Bauer. "Put some thought into it. Resolve to have three staple meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and regular snacks, and shop accordingly.”

A good guideline: Don't let more than four or five hours go by without a meal or a snack, advises Bauer. And don't forget to drink; nursing parents need plenty of fluids—at least eight cups a day, much of which should be water.

Preparing your meals doesn't have to be time-consuming. Breakfast can be a bowl of Cheerios with skim milk and a banana. A turkey or ham sandwich on whole-wheat bread with carrots and chips will be a satisfying lunch, followed by grilled fish with sweet potatoes and spinach for dinner.

For snacks, stock up on healthy staples such as rice cakes, cheese, crackers, and fruit. And feel free to indulge in a dish of ice cream after dinner. You're still eating for two!

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