How to Introduce New Foods to Your Toddler Without the Stress
May 12, 2021
“I don’t know what happened—Nora used to eat everything I put in front of her and suddenly she only wants bread!”
This is a conversation that has become familiar to me, and likely sounds familiar to many parents out there. In my business as a pediatric dietitian, the number one concern of parents could be summed up in one sentence: “my toddler only wants (fill in the blank).” Sometimes this sentence includes a single food, and sometimes it’s a whole macronutrient group, like carbs. Either way, what I take from it is that we all worry at one time or another that our toddler isn’t getting enough variety.
The story of feeding toddlers often goes like this: up until this point, baby has been doing great with food, joyously picking up whatever veggie you put down and eating all the new foods with gusto. Then around 18 months to 3 years (or earlier or later, all babies are different!), something changes.
I can remember feeling personally offended when my son first showed signs of picky eating. I had done everything I knew of, from breastfeeding to baby-led weaning, to prevent this stage from happening. It’s either terrifying or oddly comforting to know that most toddlers do still encounter picky eating at some point, despite our best attempts.
There are millions of cutesy strategies to help encourage your kiddo to pick up a new food (I love all of the colorful food picks and artful plate arrangements), but one of the most important factors of navigating a picky phase doesn’t necessarily have to do with food at all. As caregivers, we play a huge role in gently guiding our little ones through picky eating phases with their healthy relationship with food still intact.
Ellyn Satter, a feeding therapist and registered dietitian, helped lay the framework for raising kids to have a healthy food relationship with her simple but groundbreaking “ Division of Responsibility in Feeding.” In her framework, Satter provides clear and simple roles in the feeding relationship:
- The caregiver is in charge of what, when and where food is served.
- The child is in charge of how much and even if a food is eaten at any given meal.
This feeding relationship ideally starts at the time solids are first introduced, but it can be implemented at any time. Following these roles requires trusting your kiddo to eat the amount they need, and transforms introducing new foods from a stressful event into a relaxed, everyday occurrence.
It’s our job as parents to anticipate picky eating and maintain business as usual during these times. Continue offering a variety of foods and allow your child to determine what they will eat of the food you’ve put on their plate.
So what happens if your kiddo refuses everything on their plate at lunch time? Don’t sweat it! Snacktime is in just a few hours and the perfect opportunity to try again. It’s important to regularly offer a food you know they’ve accepted in the past alongside new foods—for example, bread with butter or a preferred fruit along with an unfamiliar dinner item. Offering a meal full of new foods may be overwhelming (even for adults!).
It has been such a relief for me to understand that although I have a million jobs as a mom, “getting food into my son” isn’t one of them. Embracing this feeding relationship meant I could take one giant thing off of my to-do list. With the Division of Responsibility in place, my son eventually began eating the foods he used to love again. Now he’s a 4-year-old with a great appetite, but more importantly, a great relationship with food.
If you feel as though your child severely struggles with the number of accepted foods, or has extreme emotional or physical reactions to foods, consult your pediatrician, who may recommend a pediatric dietitian and/or speech language pathologist to identify any issues beyond what is considered developmentally typical picky eating.
For more on implementing a baby-led approach to feeding, check out my book, BLW Baby Food Cookbook: A Stage-by-Stage Approach to Baby-Led Weaning with Confidence.
About the expert:
Laura Morton, MS, RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian, cookbook author and mom to two adventurous toddlers. She shares budget-friendly, real food nutrition info and recipes for babies and toddlers on her blog and in her books. Morton believes that the goal with feeding, as in other areas of parenting, is to cultivate a healthy relationship that lasts a lifetime, and she shares this approach when counseling families locally and virtually. She and her family live in a 100-year-old farmhouse way out in the country, where you will almost always find them running around barefoot. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.