Reader Question: How Do I Handle My Picky 2-Year-Old?

By Rachel Tiemeyer

A friend of mine and reader of the blog emailed me a while back with several great questions about helping her picky eater, as well as incorporating healthy foods into their family’s diet. These are the same questions I was asking, researching, and anxious over only four years ago myself when my first child was a toddler…and subsequently why I started a blog with healthy, kid-friendly recipes. (Note: We began Thriving Home in January 2012, but I moved a lot of my recipes over from my previous blog.) Since my first child, Jack, was a toddler, I’ve been on quite a learning journey as our family has made huge changes to our diet.

I hope the email exchange below with my friend will be encouraging to you as you handle your own picky eaters and make some healthy changes to your family’s diet. I changed the names of her and her child, fyi.

My Friend’s Email

Hi Rach,

Ok, I need some advice…I am so frustrated that I’m mentally blocked. So, Emma will be 2 soon. Her eating habits are poor, and I am totally an enabler.  She decided a while ago that she would not touch fruits or vegetables.  I can “sneak” them in from time to time, and I’ve given her organic fruit pouches (meant for babies) to get something in her.  Otherwise, she essentially eats yogurt (no other cheeses at this point) and carbs…I give her a multi-vitamin, put what we eat in front of her, but she still won’t touch the majority of the food.  And I mean literally, she won’t touch it!

Now we’re at a point where I think I’ve messed this up.  I want her eating more than whole grain carbs and yogurt and expensive fruit pouches from target.  So, what are your thoughts? I know your kids are good eaters, but I think you had issues with Jack from time to time with food pickiness. I don’t want food to be an “issue” in our house, but I want healthy food to be a part of our lives. Another factor is that Emma is very willful (go figure, she is my daughter). I think a lot of her food choices have to do with control right now, too.

On a side note, I’m actually trying to figure out a realistic approach to incorporating more healthy food choices for us ALL – less processed food, more in season food, etc. My main objective is to baby-step my way in so the changes we make become a lifestyle change, not some passing fad.  I know you’ve been working on this in your own family, so I’d love any thoughts at all that you might have.

My Response and Suggestions

Hey Ann,

Wow, I feel honored that you would think to ask me about this.  I must say that I’m in process on this.  But, I do feel like through my reading, experience with a hard-headed first child (he still won’t eat most fruits but has expanded his pallet immensely over the past few years), and advice from friends, I’ve learned a few lessons.

First off, I probably wouldn’t stress out too much about Emma.  I felt much like you a few years ago with Jack, and he’s come such a long way since that time.  I love your idea of a realistic, long-term approach to changing your entire family’s diet.  I also love that you keep offering her what you are eating.  That’s a great place to start.

Here are some other practical ideas that come to mind of how to work toward expanding Emma’s pallet and making slow changes to your family’s diet:

  • I read a book called Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook by Ellyn Satter that transformed the way I think about feeding my kids.  A friend who has her PhD in dietetics suggested it. Satter’s well-researched argument of how to feed your child is called the Division of Responsibility in FeedingThe formula is this: Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding; children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating. The biggest thing I needed to hear was to relax about it all. She says that if I just continue to offer nutritious and tasty foods in a neutral way, over time they will learn to try and like them.
  • Most of the time, I try to follow Satter’s formula for feeding kids.  But, there are times I part ways.  Because Jack is hard headed and because he doesn’t like to try new things, I sometimes (not always) feel it is necessary to ask him to try one bite of something before getting down from the table.  I haven’t had to do this with Hannah (my 2nd child), though, who is much more adventuresome.  My husband and I both feel like it’s a reasonable thing to ask.  When Jack turned four, this all of a sudden got much easier.  But, in the past, we’ve had to send him to time out for it on occasion.  This is one of those areas that I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not.  But, he doesn’t mind trying new things as much now.
  • Having the kids help me plant, care for, and harvest food from our “garden” has been a really cool thing.  We planted lettuce, herbs, and tomatoes in our mulch bed in back over the past few years.  Both kids have loved trying the things they helped to grow.  I’ve always read about this, but I’m here to say it worked for the most part.  (Neither of them want to try tomatoes, though.)
  • When we go to our grocery store, I often go to the bulk food section.  We look at all the different kinds of beans, legumes, grains, nuts and dried fruits.  I let them pick out something new to try.  We’ve tried all the nuts, barley, oatmeal, different kinds of beans, dried papaya, and cous cous.  The kids are begging me to try quinoa and lentils next.  Isn’t that funny?  It’s been a neat way for them to choose their food.  They don’t like it all, but they have been willing to try it.  Another idea is you could take them to the farmer’s market to each pick out a veg or fruit for the family.
  • While I make dinner, I often have them cut up veggies for me.  Something about getting to use a knife (plastic or butter knife) and a cutting board, motivates them both to try the vegetable.  That’s how they first ate a salad.  I also have them snap green beans.

easy kid activities at home

  • I’ve noticed that if my kids are really hungry they are MUCH more likely to try something new.  So, if at all possible, I would work at cutting out snacking…especially before dinner.  Sometimes, if they are super hungry, I tell them they can have their vegetable while they wait. (Frozen peas is one of our favorite pre-dinner snacks; I learned that one from my mom.)
  • I let the kids cook with me from time to time.  I’m sure you do, too.  This has been another BIG reason they try things.
  • Since my hobby is looking at recipes and cooking, I invite the kids to look through my food magazines, a blog with me or recipe books and find a recipe they’d like to try.
  • I try to fix things they like for breakfast and lunch and then make dinner the time we try something new.  I always try to have a few things at a meal that I know they will like, and then encourage them to try one bite of the new thing (usually, if it seems reasonable).  This makes for a less stressful day for me, since my husband is at least home to help me with the discontent eaters at dinnertime. Ha, ha.

I hope some of these suggestions are helpful or spur some of your own ideas.  You’re super creative, so I know you’ll find the right balance and tricks for Emma.  Persevere, my friend!  You’re a great mom.

Same to all you other mamas of picky little ones out there! Don’t give up. Continue to be creative and to persevere in some of these tips, and I think you’ll reap great benefits in your child’s life over time. I know I have seen the “fruit” already in my kids’ palettes!

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3 replies
  1. Rebecca says:

    Wow I definitely needed this! My son is such a picky eater and i have such a hard time getting him to eat anything. Ironically, the one thing he actually does eat is fruit! But getting him to eat anything else is like pulling teeth. I’ll have to check out the “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family” book you recommended. It sounds like a great read.

  2. Rachel says:

    Rebecca, her website is really great. It might have all the information you need on there and will save you some $. Man, if your kiddo will eat fruit, you’ve won half the battle! 🙂 Strangely enough, my oldest likes vegetables but not fruit.


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