My Baby Who Used To Eat (Almost) Anything Is Suddenly Turning Into a Picky Eater. What Did Go Wrong?
Updated: Mar 8
Did I do something wrong? I kept asking myself when my son turned 15 months old and suddenly stopped eating most of the healthy things he used to like as a baby. He's always been one of the most agreeable babies when it comes to eating. For the most part he was very adventurous about food as a baby, eating pretty much anything I would put in front of him. I was completely clueless about what had changed and why he was suddenly turning into a picky eater.
We started solids with him when he was around 6 months old, and had shown all the readiness signs. We did baby-led feeding from the start, we followed the division of responsibility in feeding, we never forced him to eat, and we have been exposing him to a very wide variety of foods. So what had gone wrong? Why suddenly had my baby who used to love beans and blackberries, now only eats crackers and pasta?
He is my first baby, and at that time little did I know that baby’s eating gets quite quirky as they become a toddler. This is very common, completely normal, and age appropriate for children to become more or less picky about food between ages 2-6 (though it can start at 1 year old).
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After loving to eat as a baby, now the almost-toddler or toddler starts to be skeptical about new food (even if they have eaten it before), they eat less or nothing at mealtimes, and say “no to food they end up eating five minutes later. Tell me if this sounds familiar, your kiddo refuses meals, begs for crackers right after, and then has a tantrum when you refuse. After the storm, they act like nothing has ever happened and like you better than ever.
My son is now almost 3, and he still has his very selective days, weeks, or months when it comes to food. But overall he is a good eater. He eats a decent variety of foods, and for the most part he enjoys coming to family meals and behaves well there. My daughter’s first birthday is this week, and I am already anticipating this stage with her. It’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen, not if.
For this reason I want to bring some clarity on what normal toddler eating looks like, and the best strategies to navigate this phase with our littles ones. Hopefully I can reduce the self-imposed pressure we parents create when it comes to feeding. And I want to share all this good information with you. So hang in there! At the end of this post, I promise you’ll feel a lot more CONFIDENT in how to handle this stage with your growing baby.
“Average” or “Typical” Age Related Picky Eating
As babies turn to toddlers they start to become their own person and to have a need for more independence and autonomy in many areas of life including eating. In addition, toddlers aren’t growing as rapidly as babies so while your child may have eaten a lot as an older baby, they might not be as hungry now. And they also may be much more sensitive to new foods due to a normal phase called neophobia. This fear of new foods, which usually spikes between 2-6 (though it can start at 1 year old), can cause them to refuse foods they once loved and foods you think they will love. A toddler’s newfound use of the word “no”, their ups and down in appetite, and desire to exercise control within the eating environment can at times create a challenging feeding dynamic between parent and child.
What it looks like:
Your child likes to come to family meals and behaves well there.
While limited in their food preferences, your child will eat at least 30 different foods on a consistent basis.
Your child eats from a variety of food groups (at least one item from each food group).
Your child eats one or two food items, ignores food they don’t want to eat, and eats a food one day but not the next.
Your child goes through food swings, or only wanting a few select foods on repeat for days or weeks at a time.
Your child watches you eat new food (or food they think is new), touches it, puts in their mouth, and takes it back out again.
Your child eats inconsistent amounts (i.e. a lot at one meal or on a given day and then only small amounts at the next meal/day).
Your child is able to tolerate food they like and dislike on their plate
You might serve as many as 15 to 20 meals or countless meals before they eat.
Your child will gradually add new foods to their list of preferred foods.
Try to remember that this “average” and almost expected picky eating during toddlerhood and early childhood is a normal phase of development that will, in all likelihood, eventually pass. Children who have average picky eating will usually outgrow it with little to no long-term impact on their nutritional, social, or emotional health.
Extreme Picky Eating
Experts are still trying to agree on how to refer to this type of picky eating. Some of the names used include feeding disorder, failure to thrive, infantile anorexia (outdated term), problem feeder, ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder), feeding aversion, selective, extreme picky, fussy, or finicky eating, and selective eating disorder. For the sake of this article, I will use the term “extreme” picky eating when comparing it to “average” picky eating.
Studies suggest that between one and two-thirds of parents will describe their young child as “picky” at some point. Most will grow out of it and expand their tastes, but about 10-15% of children will become “persistent” picky eaters and many in that group exhibit what we call “extreme” picky eating.
Your child may exhibit such extreme forms of picky eating if it’s affecting their social, emotional, or physical development and causing family conflict or worry. These children are unable to sustain their weight, meet their nutritional needs, and present interference with their psychosocial functioning.
What it looks like:
Your child does not want to come to family meals and behaves poorly there.
Your child will eat less than 20 different foods on a consistent basis.
Your child may refuse whole food groups.
May stop eating a food they previously liked and not reacquire it
Your child seems to have sensory aversions to different types and textures of food.
Your child gets upset if they see anything but their preferred food.
Your child struggles to add new foods to their list of preferred foods.
Your child may lose weight or drop percentiles on the growth chart due to not eating enough.
You get aggravated and find yourself trying to get them to eat.
If you identify red flags for extreme picky eating and suspect your kiddo’s picky eating is interfering with their physical, emotional, or social health and/or your family’s, you should consult with your child’s pediatrician to investigate any possible underlying issues. If your child is three or younger they might qualify for Early Intervention through state-funded programming.
Now I want to give you a few strategies and tips that are applicable to both types of picky eating I have discussed.
Follow Division Of Responsibility In Feeding
The best way to raise a good eater is by following the division of responsibility (or DoR) in feeding. As a parent you do your job in providing a wide variety of food, structure, support, and opportunities for your child to learn to like new foods. Then you trust your little one to do their job with eating, moving, and growing. Your child chooses how much and whether to eat from what you provide. The DoR in feeding encourages you to take leadership with feeding while giving your child autonomy with eating.
Eat with Your Child. Don’t Just feed them! (Have Family Meals As Often As Possible)
Your almost-toddler or toddler needs routine and structure with food the same way as with everything else in their life. They also need to have control as they have an increasing need for independence and autonomy at this age. To provide structure, have family meals and sit-down snacks. To give your kiddo control, let them decide what and how much to eat from what you offer to them.
A family meal is when you all sit facing one another and share the same food. You don’t need a table (a blanket on the floor will do), and the food doesn’t have to be fancy. Cooking from scratch, defrosting in the microwave, take out, or eating at a restaurant all count. Nutrition is important but family meals are much more about the fellowship with one another than about what you’re eating.
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Avoid Unwise Feeding Decisions
Picky eating can put a lot of pressure on us parents to make some decisions in feeding that aren’t the wisest. And although we have the best of intentions, the actions below may actually make our little one’s pickiness worse. So try to avoid these common feeding mistakes:
Limiting their menu to the foods they accept. How are they going to learn to eat what you eat?
Not offering any preferred food. Try pairing one food you know they will eat with new food or food they dislike. This makes the process of learning to like new foods less intimidating.
Playing games or using the TV to get them to eat. This may work a few times but not in the long run. Our goal is to raise independent eaters, and creating “feeding crutches” will not help them get there.
Keeping them at the table when they show they are done in the hopes they will eat more. Most toddlers will be able to sit down for a meal for about 10 minutes, some stay at the table for even less time and they are able to eat what they need. Forcing them to stay at the table longer won’t make them eat more, they will behave badly, and they will learn to dislike family meals.
Short-order cooking or asking them what they want to eat. They don’t know what they want to eat until it is in front of them (and maybe not even then). If you want to include them in the decision making of what to eat, give them two clear choices like “do you want a banana or an apple”. That way they participate but you’re still in control of what they are eating.
Offering food outside designated meal or snack times to tap them off since they didn't eat much. They need to learn to eat with the family. Plus this is grazing and when they sit down for their meal they will not be hungry. If they say they are hungry after not eating a meal or snack, you can let them know that they will have a chance to eat in a little bit when you offer the next meal or snack.
Waiting to feed them until they tell you they are hungry. They are too busy to know they are hungry until they fall apart or have a tantrum. Then they will be too upset to eat.
Using food to calm things down. Instead, give attention, a hug, or a nap. Sticking to the meals plus snacks schedule helps you avoid feeding for emotional reasons.
Your Child Won’t Be Picky Forever
Hang in there, mama! Your little one will eat what the rest of the family eats, but it has to be their idea. If you follow the division of responsibility in feeding, even your extremely skeptical child can learn to eat most of the foods that you enjoy.
All children at this age are skeptical of unfamiliar food and take time to learn to enjoy it. Some children are especially skeptical, slow to warm up, react negatively to unfamiliar food, take longer to learn, and have more to learn. You can help your child enjoy a range of foods by providing repeated food exposure along with a positive mealtime environment.
You Child Picky Eating Is Not Your Fault
No matter where your child falls on the spectrum of “average” to “extreme,” you need to know that you are not to blame for their child’s feeding issues. Their food refusal isn't' your fault, but it is your responsibility to raise your child to be comfortable with all kinds of food.
You do yourself and your child a favor by lighting up and enjoying family meals. If you think your child feeding issues go beyond the “average” picky eating, know that feeding therapy programs are designed to support families with such struggles and to equip them with the tools necessary to aid in extreme picky eating using an empathetic and educated approach.
I hope this post has helped you to feel more empowered with any uncertainty about how to handle your picky eater. To the next best step for your little one and your family!
Happy Eating and Feeding,
Looking for more resources to help you raise a healthy and happy little eater? Try our FREE FOOD LIBRARY for inspiration of first foods to offer to your baby!
As always, discuss any concerns with your pediatrician. This post and this site is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. The materials and services provided by this site are for informational purposes only.