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My daughter has always been easy when it comes to food. She devours everything—spicy foods, collard greens, you name it. My son on the other hand developed a relationship with food that I couldn’t quite figure out, and at times gave into—leaving me wondering if I was raising a picky eater.

About a month ago my son ate mushrooms raw on a salad and cooked on pizza over the course of a week. When I again introduced them a few days later sautéed in butter and herbs, he pushed them away and said they looked “disgusting”—a term I was getting accustomed to hearing. I acknowledge that mushrooms are not the most visually appealing food, but decided it was time to help him out of his picky eater phase and encourage him to be more adventurous with food. I began to look for solutions beyond the stale and futile “there won’t be any treats if you don’t eat your dinner” routine.

While we’re a low-screen time household, I admit to turning to screens for assistance. No, I didn’t turn on the television during mealtime, nor did I promise it as a reward. Instead, I searched for a fun resource to get him excited about food. That resource came in the form of Waffles + Mochi (a new Netflix TV series hosted by Michelle Obama). To my delight, an entire episode dedicated to mushrooms piqued his interest in the woody fungi.

Knowing I couldn’t rely entirely on the former first lady and cute puppets to make my son as adventurous an eater as my daughter, I turned to expert advice, and can triumphantly say that he’s now on his way to catching up with his big sister’s food habits.

After putting a few of these expert tips to the test and keeping a close eye on what worked—and didn’t—I’m sharing the winners here in hopes that they’ll help mealtime at your home go a little smoother and contribute to healthy eating habits for your toddler.

Before you dive in, keep in mind that most experts—including my children’s pediatrician—will agree that children will not starve themselves. And according to an article by Harvard Health Publishing, “parents need to start early to prevent picky eating, preferably before their child turns 2” to avoid children from sticking to a fastidious trajectory.

DON’TS

Don’t Categorize Your Child’s Eating Behavior

It may sound ironic to say this in an article about “picky eaters," but instead of focusing on your child’s negative food tendencies, focus on the solution. And whatever you do, do not call them a “picky eater” in their presence. That will likely lead to more of that behavior (because you can’t outsmart kids, that's for sure!).

Don’t Force Your Toddler to Eat

Doing so may lead to your child associating mealtime with anxiety and frustration, and possibly developing an unhealthy relationship with food.

Don’t Offer Sweet Incentives

Offering dessert as a reward for finishing a meal only places more emphasis on how much better treats are than the healthy foods you are encouraging them to eat.

Don’t Punish Toddlers for Not Eating

It’s frustrating when your child refuses to eat, but before letting your emotions get the best of you, remember that keeping calm and making mealtime an enjoyable experience is much more likely to lead to a positive experience for you and your toddler.

Don’t Offer Alternative Meals

Offering your child a different meal may lead to this expectation and will certainly not encourage them to try new foods.

DO’s

Make Mealtime Fun

Include your little ones in meal preparation. And try making the food itself fun—fun shapes, and "party foods" like fruit and veggie kabobs are a big hit with toddlers!

Offer Balanced Meals

While you don’t have to worry that your child did not finish ALL of one food group at mealtime, a balanced diet is important. Try using fun divider plates that will encourage your toddler to eat up to reveal their favorite character/theme.

Be Patient When Introducing New Foods

Toddlers often need to try a new food several times to figure out if they like it or not. If your child likes a new food prepared a certain way, stick to that for a while before introducing it in different ways. And if your child does not like a food, let a little time pass before offering it again.

Adhere to a Regular Meal and Snack Routine

Just like a bedtime routine helps your child know what to expect at the end of each day and recognize when their body needs rest, the same goes for meal routines—they assist your toddler in identifying their body’s hunger cues and learning your family’s meal schedule.

Minimize Distractions

Implement the rule of staying seated during meals and remove anything that can be distracting, such as screens and toys at the table. Let the delicious meal and family time be the focus.

—Candace Nagy

Mother. Writer. Lover of history and nature. Read more by Candace here.

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