Picky eating toddler: a survivor’s guide

Me reading 'You Have to Fucking Eat'

As a parent I believe there to be few things more torturous than a picky eating toddler. In fact, I am HORRIFIED that I am writing this article, but as soon as I got started, all this STUFF came out and I realised I needed to get it out and share what we’ve learnt along the way. My name is Hannah and I am the mother of a picky eating toddler.

A promising start

I have been devoted to the well-rounded diet of Frankie, even since I was pregnant. “I’ll eat it all!” I proclaimed (even some of the oooh scary death foods like runny eggs), knowing I was setting Frankie up for a life with well-rounded taste buds.

When she started eating, I went partly baby-led from the off, and loved the spectacle of my tiny baby brandishing a stick of cucumber or cheese while other babies ate sweet potato puree. I cooked up a storm and she never refused anything (Annabel Karmel, I owe you one). Meat, veggies, garlic, spices, it was all fair game. My child ate ANYTHING.

My child a picky eating toddler? I don’t think so!

I think that’s why I didn’t really admit it when she started to become picky. Because of ‘phases’ (that is another whole article FYI), I just let fussy periods go. Oh how I LAUGHED at this ridiculous article about crazy toddler eating habits. If only I knew….

But the truth is, one of Frankie’s most frustrating foibles is the turning on and off of being a good eater. It’s a special kind of torture, your kid eating everything under the sun one minute and spitting out everything you give them the next.

So much plays into it – for us it’s mostly about when she’s teething (fair enough I know I know a crushing headache will put you off your grub just a tad), and a bit about independence. Whatever it is, just as we relax into giving her pretty much anything to eat, sharing our dinners, whipping up whatever we can find, emptying all of the ‘just in case’ baby food out of the cupboards because we are safe in the knowledge she will eat anything, she suddenly refuses all normal food

We’ve just been through a particularly painful food refusal phase. Janis always handles it much better than I do, it is something that stresses me to the absolute max. Out came the jars, the trying of different textures and slowly re-introducing things. The getting overconfident after a successful bolognaise gobbling, attempting a home-made pasta dish the next day and having it completely refused.

We’ve also tried….

  • Different levels of toasting for bread (HOW DO DAYCARE DO IT? LET’S LOOK AT THE TOAST TOMORROW AND TRY THAT).
  • Different toppings on bread.
  • Different kinds of vegetables, cut different ways (maybe a STICK of carrot is better than a circle?).
  • Trying things cold.
  • Trying things hot.
  • Trying things only off my plate.
  • Feeding her ourselves (shovelling it in as fast as we can to fool her into eating as much as humanly possible before she realises).
  • Leaving her to it. With more than one spoon.

To add insult to injury, at daycare, she apparently eats everything. Apparently, she even steals the other kids’ food. At daycare, she eats sandwiches. I have never seen her eat a sandwich. She looks at me like I’m fucking batshit if I present her with anything between two pieces of bread, no matter how minute and perfect I make them. At best she prizes them open and eats the filling and at worst it just ends up on the floor with a look that’s a mixture of defiance and disbelief that I would even try it.

So. What have we done about it?

Terrified we were slowly making the problem worse, I became very alert to any toddler feeding stories I came across online (amazing how many there are when you are looking for them).

You don’t have to eat it, but that’s all there is.

I started with this fantastic article, and aside from the pudding with dinner theory, I immediately championed the approach of ‘you don’t have to eat it’. It is amazing what this has done for my psyche (yes, this is ALL ABOUT ME). It is really fair enough for Frankie to not expect to be served 75 different things until she gets what she likes. We do offer her ‘dessert’ fruit in her overall meal and so sometimes if she doesn’t eat the main meal, fruit for dinner is what she gets.

Sometimes kids just don’t want to eat.

I have long been a fan of The Nutrition Guru and The Chef. Tara’s (the Guru) approach to feeding her child (and nutrition in general) is sensible, refreshing and comforting. She taught me that it is totally normal for a child to eat two bowlfuls one day and barely a few mouthfuls the next. Relaxing and allowing your child to dictate when they are done is totally liberating. It is REALLY hard to accept at first but once you can resist the urge, it is really obvious on the days when they just don’t fancy much (or you have bought too much peace with cheese stick and rice cakes for them to be hungry) – and after all, aren’t we all like that sometimes?

Vegetables are my nemesis.

Tara has also taught me my next phase of operation Frankie feeding. How to get her to eat vegetables. I am just so upset that she only eats peas and sweetcorn, or vegetables hidden in stuff. Tara suggests a phased approach where the offending food item is on a special plate every day for a week so they get used to it, while as parents we eat the item and model that. The bottom of this article has an AWESOME list of extra tips that make so much sense when it comes to understanding picky eaters.

Eating as a family.

I did have one breakthrough of my own which is our biggest success to date so I’m really proud of that. I realised that part of her eating well at daycare was the social aspect. So despite the daily challenge that it brings with both Janis and I working, we now make as much effort as possible to all eat together when we get in. This requires fancy footwork to get food ready ASAP that we can all eat but we are getting there!
This serves two purposes. First is the role modelling piece – Frankie sees us eating what she is eating. Sometimes this means she wants to eat exactly what she’s got on her plate off our plates but that is more than OK with me. Second is that Janis and I now chat to each other and just leave her to it (a very hard discipline to learn). Without focusing so much on what she’s eating and how much, or trying to feed her to speed things up, she generally gets there by herself. I’ve had to teach Janis to let the mess go – as recommended by Tara, letting her smoosh food and play with it then often leads to her smashing it into her mouth. JOKE IS ON YOU FRANKIE MWAHAHAHAHAHAAAA.

Food for thought.

I am hopeful that these tactics will work long term for all of us. Both Janis and I have had to really learn to relax (but we were taught when she started solids that food keeps babies asleep at night. MAN it is hard to let that go). We are enjoying mealtimes so much more, Frankie is definitely eating better and you know what, two mouthfuls or two bowlfuls, she sleeps just the same. Trusting her to know herself is probably a great life skill to set her up with right?


How is your experience of feeding your toddler? Maybe you have a nightmare niece or your best friend’s kid is a horror at the table…. Perhaps your tiny tyrant has an allergy that causes you conniptions? Tell me your toddler fodder nightmares below….And if you know someone that could do with some sanity saving on the matter, please share away!


  1. Oh Hannah,that made me smile and bought back so many memories in the end just go with the flow,that’s what we all had to do..I remember Claire refusing to eat meat unless it was a sausage so when I did a roast every weekend instead of Chicken,Beef,Lamb or Pork Claire had sausages this went on for what seemed like years but wasn’t and I gradually put meat in with the meal with gravy of course till she ate what we were eating I was a picky eater as a child we do grow out of it,just hang on in there your doing a great job Xxx ps much love to you all xxx

  2. Well they are just totally irrational aren’t they! Ned will eat chips, but not roast potatoes (calling them round chips didn’t fool him!), he munches raw carrots, but eyes me with suspicion if I try and serve them hot. I will try and follow your advice not to offer up a plethora of other breadcrumbed delights when he reacts with horror when presented my lovingly prepared pre-kid dinners with vegetables in their raw state. In fact he did that tonight, ungrateful monkey.

    Viva la spag bol!

    I hear ya girlfriend, we are not alone – thanks for a great article! Xx

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