What to do if your toddler only wants to eat one food (and more and more of it) but nothing else at a meal?
I received this email from a mom and when I saw “I have a burning question” it got my attention! Here is what she wrote:
Email from mom of a picky eater:
“I have a burning question- I have a picky 1 yo eater who likes about 10 things. I’ve done a lot of research into picky eating and noticed that you, along with others, say that one should not cater to a picky eater, but rather be respectful of their preferences. What that seems to mean in practice is feeding them a meal where you offer them one thing you know they like along with some new things for them to try.
My question is, if all they eat then are the things they know they like, do you continue to replenish their serving of that thing once they finish it if they haven’t touch the other food? For instance, my daughter loves blueberries. If I serve her some meatballs, some pasta, and some blueberries, she will eat all the blueberries and leave the rest. Do I then continue to give her more blueberries until she is full if she continues to ignore the other food on her plate? And if that is not the correct approach, after how many blueberries do I cut her off? She is only one years old so doesn’t understand that if she doesn’t eat the food presented, she will go hungry.”
This is a common question! And I’m so glad moms are thinking about this kind of thing and how to handle it best. Because I know your goal is to get them a balanced, nutritious diet.
I address some concerns in this post where I talk about how appetites vary at this age, how to take it as an opportunity to start teaching mealtime manners, and why to avoid restricting food.
Here is what I recommended to this mom:
When your toddler only wants to eat one food, I typically allow 2-3 servings of that food and then won’t replenish that item anymore. Read here on how exactly to handle that.
She will learn that she needs to fill up on other things (but she won’t learn it immediately).
So the way I suggest handling that is by sticking to a regular routine of meals and snacks (3 meals and 2-3 snacks). This post has a sample schedule.
You can be flexible in the timing of all of those, meaning it doesn’t have to be a rigid time that can’t be moved forward or back depending on what’s going on that day. If they have a small breakfast and seem very hungry an hour and a half later, just move morning snack up a little earlier if you are able to do so.
So for example say your toddler only eats blueberries at lunch. After 2-3 servings I would say, “that’s it for blueberries. You can have something else from your plate if you’d like.” If she doesn’t want anything, I’d end the meal. It’s very possible that she’s not that hungry. Either way, I wouldn’t take that as a sign to go get a preferred food just to get her to eat more at that meal. Because when you do that, it reinforces the behavior you’re trying to change. The message they receive is, “If I wait, or I throw a fit, then I’ll get the foods I REALLY like, so I never have to eat anything else!”
Then, she gets another opportunity to eat in another 2-3 hours. (Or a little sooner if she seems extremely hungry.) And you repeat that same thing throughout the day. Usually, they will eat more and try some other things on their plate once their appetite is bigger again.
But what if dinner is really small?Usually, the hardest piece for moms is dinner time because you want them to fill up to sleep overnight. It is very possible that some days they don’t need to “fill up” at dinner and will still sleep fine. It can be hard to let that go though and have trust that they WILL sleep. So back to the blueberry example- if they ONLY eat fruit at dinner, even if you give them a few servings, you may still worry it won’t fill them up enough for night time.
Troubleshooting if nothing seems to work
Ask yourself these 4 questions:
- Are you bringing out other preferred foods at a meal or very shortly afterwards because you know they will be eaten? Does another caregiver do this for them?
- Are there any signs of food allergy or intolerance? Acid reflux? Constipation? Any digestive issues that may make them less likely to eat certain foods? If you suspect any of these could be an issue, I’d reach out to the pediatrician.
- Texture issues? Temperature issues? Look at all her preferred foods and note whether they all share similar characteristics. Are they all the same temperature? Texture? Food group? If you notice they are all similar and these are really the only foods they will accept, it warrants a call to the pediatrician and possible referral to a specialist.
- Does your little one have trouble gaining weight or staying on their growth curve? This child will require a more specialized approach.
Remember every child is different
One approach will not work for everyone, so if you find another way to handle this that works for you, that’s great! Don’t feel like you’re doing it “wrong” if it’s not the same way that I suggest to handle it.