Ask Dr. Sears: Picky Eater

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Ask Dr. Sears: Picky Eater

Q. Our 2½ -year-old is such a picky eater —  I’ve run out of ideas of what to feed him. Help!

A. My wife Martha and I have also wondered why most toddlers go through this stage. Now — having fed eight one-time picky eaters! — we understand that it’s simply part of being a toddler. There are several reasons why children between 1 and 3 pick and poke at their food. First, toddlers eat less because their rate of growth slows. Second, they don’t like to sit still for anything — and that definitely includes meals. Third, very young children often binge on one food at a time. They may eat a lot of veggies one day, then not touch them for another three days while they overdose on fruit. Between ages 1 and 3, toddlers need between 1,100 and 1,300 calories daily, but they may not eat this amount every single day. That’s why you should shoot for a balanced week rather than a balanced meal.

Now that you understand your toddler a little better, here are some tips for feeding a picky eater, straight from the Sears’ family kitchen:



  • Offer a nibble tray. Toddlers like to graze on nutritious nibbles throughout the day. In fact, eating a number of mini-meals is more physiologically correct than eating three big meals. That’s because grazing steadies the blood sugar, thereby helping to keep your toddler’s moods on an even keel (or at least a more even keel!). Use an ice cube tray or a muffin tin and put bite-sized portions of nutritious foods in each compartment. Call these finger foods playful names that your toddler enjoys, such as:

    — Apple moons (sliced thin)

    — Banana wheels

    — Avocado boats (a quarter of an avocado)

    — Broccoli trees (steamed broccoli florets)

    — Cheese blocks

    — Canoe eggs (hard-boiled egg wedges)

    — Little Os (O-shaped cereal)

    — Carrot sticks (cooked and sliced thin)

    Place this nibble tray on a child-sized table and encourage your toddler to make frequent pit stops. Require him to sit and eat rather than carry food around the house.


  • Dip it. Toddlers love to dip, so reserve a couple of compartments in the nibble tray for nutritious dips. Try:

    — Guacamole (without the spices)

    — Healthy salad dressing

    — Yogurt

    — Ketchup (fruit concentrate-sweetened)

    — Cheese (great as a dip for broccoli)


  • Drink it. Many busy toddlers would rather drink their meals than eat them. Make a smoothie using milk or juice, frozen fruit, yogurt, peanut butter, and a multivitamin or multi-mineral protein powder (use one-third the amount in an adult serving), and whatever else your toddler needs but won’t eat. It’s amazing what toddlers will take through a straw that they’d never dream of eating from a plate.


  • Top it. Since young children love toppings, a trick we’ve often used is putting nutritious, tasty favorites on top of new and less desirable foods. Top toppings include melted cheese, guacamole, yogurt, tomato sauce, applesauce, peanut butter, and light cream cheese.


  • Make veggie art. A time-tested winner in the Sears’ kitchen are zucchini pancakes – whole-grain pancakes with pea “eyes,” a carrot “nose,” shredded cheese “hair,” and a green bean “smile.” Let your child help you in the kitchen; children are more likely to eat what they help create.


  • Keep servings small. Ever wonder why toddlers seldom clean their plates? More often than not, it’s because a: toddler’s tummy is about the size of his fist. If you put your child’s fist next to the usual plateful of food you offer him, it’s easy to see the mismatch. So frequent, small meals are more in keeping not only with his temperament, but also the size of his stomach.


  • Try group feeding. Invite some slightly older children over for a party and serve toddlers’ favorite foods. Seeing how much his friends love to eat may be just the peer pressure your child needs to help him end his picky-eater stage.


In short, feeding toddlers is a combination of wise nutrition and imaginative marketing. Your job is simply to buy nutritious food, prepare it healthfully (steamed rather than boiled and baked rather than fried, for example), and serve it creatively. The rest is up to your child.