It happens to the best of us — your toddler goes from eating everything to becoming a picky eater. I used to brag about my oldest son's eclectic palate, only to wake up one day and realize that he suddenly only wanted to eat specific items. Worst of all, his preferences changed by the day, but one thing remained the same, none of them were healthy.
For parents whose toddlers won't eat anything but snacks, we have some tried-and-true solutions that will get them back on track!
1. Stick to a Schedule
One of the first things to look at when a toddler won't eat meals, only snacks, is their eating schedule. If they aren't hungry, then they aren't going to be motivated to eat their food. A great way to remedy this is to stick to a feeding schedule. Plan times for meals and specific windows for snacks to ensure that they're eager to eat when each feeding time rolls around.
2. Serve Them in Courses
Just like with toys, offering your toddler too many food options can be overwhelming. This can cause them to become distracted and unwilling to try the items being offered. This was a big problem with my son. We would stack his plate with food, as you would for an adult, and all he wanted to do was push it around. When we switched to course-style serving he was much more eager to eat.
I always start with the protein, followed by fruits and veggies, and finally the starches. This makes sure that he stays full long after the meal, instead of filling up quickly and then becoming hungry before our next snack time.
3. Make Them a Part of Meal Planning
If your child is involved in the meal, they're likely to become more excited about eating it! Not only do we give our son choices on the main course — tacos or spaghetti, eggs or chicken, etc. — but we also have him help with the meal prep. This can involve:
- Picking out ingredients at the grocery store
- Bringing mom or dad ingredients from the pantry
- Washing fruits or vegetables
- Chopping fruits and vegetables (with the help of a toddler-safe knife under parental supervision)
- Assembling the ingredients (for example, pizza prep or layering the lasagna or casserole)
4. Incorporate Some of Their Favorite Snacks in Meals
Who said you can't have chips or cereal for dinner? These can be key ingredients in your toddler's meals, making them more enticing. For instance, baked potato chip breaded chicken strips or cheese chicken potato casserole topped with cornflakes can be way more intriguing to a picky eater who prefers these crunchy snacks. In other words, don't be afraid to get a little creative with your ingredients!
For extremely picky eaters, you can limit ingredients and give a small amount of one of their favorite items along with the main course. For instance, some plain ham and a side of three potato chips. This can satisfy their craving without overdoing it. If they want more, you can make it a rule they have to finish what's on their plate first.
5. Make Their Food Fun
Cookie cutters can be used for way more than cookies! These can be a fantastic tool for making fruits, vegetables, and meats more exciting. Also, consider using the other parts of the meal to create a fun character or picture on their plate. This can take a little extra time, but it can also make your toddler more willing to try different items.
6. Keep Snacks Out of Sight
Out of sight, out of mind! If your toddler knows that there's something yummy hiding in the pantry, then they are going to want it. If you limit snack options in your house and keep them in a hidden spot, your toddler will be less likely to ask for these items.
My favorite response is "Oh no! We are out of chips! I guess we will have to get them on Friday at the store." After this exchange, I give my oldest son two choices for alternate snacks. Giving him a choice gives him the power he craves while giving me control of his options.
When doing this, consider the snack that was requested. Was it salty? Sweet? Crunchy? Try to offer alternatives that mirror these qualities. For example, instead of gummies, offer fresh fruit or a handful of dark chocolate-covered almonds.
7. Make Healthy Treats That Look Like Their Favorites
Another option is to make healthy snacks to replace the ones they typically love! This helps your toddler feel like they are getting what they want, while also ensuring that they stay healthy and introducing options they may have otherwise turned away.
Some of my favorites are no-bake protein balls, homemade sweet potato chips, DIY fruit popsicles, trail mix, and frozen Greek yogurt candies (these are literally frozen dollops of yogurt). I use these to replace ice cream, gummies, candies, sugar-filled popsicles, and greasy chips.
8. Talk to Your Toddler About Why They Dislike Items
If I'm honest, I'd rather starve than eat oysters. They're revolting to me, purely based on the texture. It's like swallowing snot. When you think about it, most people have specific texture and flavor preferences and aversions, no matter what their age may be. This is why it is important to talk to your picky eater.
If your toddler doesn't like a food, ask them why! Is it the flavor? Is it because it feels odd in their mouth? Is it solely based on the fact that they hate the color green? Finding out these details, and legitimately respecting their preferences, can help you to better craft a meal that they will be willing to try and might even enjoy.
Sometimes feeding therapy is required to overcome extreme texture aversions and feeding struggles. This is more common than most parents realize, so if you're struggling, consider talking to your pediatrician about options that are available to you. If they think your child could benefit, they can refer you to a therapist for a consultation and screening.
9. Let Them Bring a Lovie or Toy to the Table
Meal times should be fun! If your toddler is feeling forced to sit and eat, then consider letting them bring an item with them that makes them feel more comfortable. This can be their lovie or a toy that they are favoring at the moment. By having their friend nearby, they will be more willing to sit and even try their food. If they are still hesitant and the toy is easily cleaned, consider telling them to let their lovie try it first! Then, see if they will take a turn.
Remember every family is different and that's okay. Different things work for different kids. Try a few ideas or modify them to fit your family and schedule, and you may find progress in getting your toddler to eat more than snacks.
10. Try Offering the Same Meal Again Later
This has been my go-to solution with my older son. Like clockwork, I tend to get hungry by 6:30 p.m., but my husband is never hungry until at least 9 p.m. I've come to realize that my son tends to favor this later eating hour, like his dad. Thus, I always offer dinner when baby brother and I eat, but if he isn't hungry, he doesn't have to join in. I just remind him that there are no snacks until dinner is done and instruct him to put the food in the fridge drawer.
This brought a bit of pushback in the beginning, but now he knows that he can put his food away and go back to playing, if he so chooses, and can go back to the fridge drawer and retrieve his meal when he's ready. This normally occurs around 8 p.m. It only took a few days for him to realize that he could control when he eats and how much he eats, and he's much more willing to chow down when he's actually hungry and has that small amount of control.
This also takes the pressure off of the activity. Food is meant to sustain us and eating when we are not hungry doesn't instill good eating habits. If we teach our kids to eat when they need food, then they will be less likely to indulge when their body doesn't need to be fueled.
My boys are on my schedule, so they go to bed at 9:15 PM every night and wake up between 7:30 and 8:00 AM. With that being said, I give a warning at 8:15 p.m. if my son still hasn't eaten. He knows that is the last call for food because we will be getting ready for bed soon. This helps him to stay on schedule and reminds him to chow down before it's too late.
If Your Toddler Won't Eat Anything But Snacks, You're Not Alone
If you find yourself Googling "My 2-year-old won't eat anything but snacks, what do I do?", first know that you are not alone. Every person gets picky at some point in life. It's normal.
Second, keep in mind that each toddler is different, so some techniques will work better than others, depending on your toddler's personality. Finally, while it may seem enticing, try not to use their favorite snack food as a reward for eating their meal. This will not promote healthy eating habits.
Instead, aim to give them smaller amounts of their favorite snacks at specific snack times, while also presenting them with opportunities to try healthier alternate options. Everything is okay in moderation, so there is no need to cut out the Doritos altogether, but limiting the amount and frequency of less healthy snacks can be a big step in teaching them good lifelong habits!