Toddlers can be such funny eaters. Find out why, and how to help them develop healthy eating habits.

mother and child eating
Credit: Grace Haung

When my son was in preschool, he had a pal who was obsessed with pasta. One day, his mother dropped him off for a playdate and warned me that he'd only eat plain noodles with grated Parmesan on the side. I dutifully boiled some penne, yet the kid wouldn't touch it. At pickup time, I confessed to the mom that her son didn't eat a thing all day. "Oh, I forgot to tell you—he only likes fettuccine!" she said.

I guess I should have known that no ordinary pasta would do, since toddlers are famous for their mealtime quirks. Some days, your child will eat as if he hasn't seen food in days; on others, he'll play with his meal or refuse everything, even the toaster waffles he'd eat at every meal if you let him. "A lot of toddlers' food issues are actually just power struggles," says Andrea McCoy, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Temple University's School of Medicine, in Philadelphia. One of the few things kids can control now is what they eat, and they're not shy about making demands. But you don't have to cave in or argue. Instead, encourage healthy eating—and save your sanity—with these solutions to common mealtime dramas.

"My toddler's appetite is either ravenous or nonexistent."

On some days, 2-year-old Addie Picker packs in the calories; the next, she barely eats a thing. "She'll refuse one meal, then eat a lot at the next," says her mom, Lynn, of San Diego.

Why she does it: There's a good reason why kids this age don't eat much: They don't have to. Growth slows during the toddler years, and so do calorie needs. Compared with an infant's development, a toddler's growth is at a snail's pace: Babies add about three inches to their body every three months, while it can take a toddler a year to grow that much.

How to deal: Don't expect your toddler to dine on an adult's schedule. "Many toddlers would rather graze than eat three full meals," says Dr. McCoy. Instead, offer your child five mini meals throughout the day, and avoid letting her fill up on sources of empty calories, like sugary fruit drinks and soda. If she refuses a few meals, don't panic or try to force or bribe her to eat: She won't starve. "Toddlers usually end up getting all the nutrients they need, even when their eating patterns are erratic," says Ellen O'Leary, RD, nutrition coordinator at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"My child always wants the same thing for dinner."

For finicky foodie Sophie Coito, that thing was noodles and butter, and her desperate mom, Jenna, often gave in to the 2-year-old's request.

Why she does it: Blame toddlers' love of repetition and routine: They want to hear the same stories, play with the same toy, and, yes, eat the same foods every day, says Jan Faull, author of Unplugging Power Struggles: Resolving Emotional Battles with Your Kids Ages 2 to 10. "Parents worry that they're raising a picky eater, but food jags are a normal part of development."

How to deal: It's okay to give your child what she wants, but offer her something else as well. So if she's on a french-fries kick, for example, encourage her to branch out by serving some fries alongside other healthier finger foods such as steamed carrots or green beans. She'll usually eat her favorite food and will at least try the others. However, if your toddler really is eating just one thing day after day, talk to your pediatrician, who may recommend a multivitamin.

"Meals are always so messy!"

"It's almost as if he's taunting me," says Stacy Kelley, of Hailey, Idaho, about her son, Whit, 2. "He'll hold up a piece of food, then watch my expression as he drops it on the floor." Another common trick: spilling his milk and running his fingers through the puddles.

Why he does it: At this age, your child spends every waking moment exploring and experimenting—mealtime included. He's dying to know what will happen when he squishes his peas and how long it will take a meatball to fall to the floor. "Children learn by using all their senses," says Faull. "They're fascinated by how food feels, not just how it tastes."

How to deal: Don't punish your child over every thrown, dropped, or squashed bit of food. "If you play the enforcer all the time, he'll end up dreading mealtime," says Faull. Instead, set a good example. And since kids tend to play with their food when they're bored, provide distractions. "A toddler typically finishes eating in only five to 10 minutes," says Faull. If you want him to stay at the table longer than that, let him play with a toy.

"My toddler's afraid of trying new food."

Bizarre but true: Toddlers actually become afraid of new foods, says dietitian Ellen O'Leary. (There's even a name for it: food neophobia.) Many kids happily eat a variety of foods until they turn 2—then stop abruptly. Research suggests it may be an evolutionary response: In prehistoric times, once children were developmentally able to walk, run, and make decisions, eating everything they found would have threatened human survival.

Fortunately, kids tend to get over food neophobia by the time they're 4 or 5 years old. In the meantime, be persistent—your toddler may have refused broccoli the first time around, but she might get curious if she sees you cheerfully eating your own veggies.

Common Mealtime Mistakes

Committing these common food felonies makes it harder to raise a healthy eater.

  • Holding dessert hostage. If you use cake as a reward for eating cauliflower, your toddler learns that dessert must be way better than veggies—and that's all she'll want.
  • Discussing your diet. You know your toddler loves copying you, so do you really want him to start obsessing over calories and fat grams?
  • Not including your child in the conversation. If your toddler has your attention and feels like he belongs, he'll develop social skills and table manners faster.
  • Bargaining. You say, "Just take three bites, then you can watch Dora." Your child will ask, "How big a bite?" and boom—you're trapped in a never-ending negotiation. Instead, offer choices so your child feels some sense of control: Do you want an apple or a pear? Peas or carrots?
  • Leaving the TV on. Kids need to focus on their food—not the tube.

Parents Magazine