What to do if your toddler only wants to eat one food (and more and more of it) but nothing else at a meal? Since I work with toddlers and picky eaters, I commonly hear about kids who only eat certain foods, they only like plain food, or they zero in on one food at a meal and you worry about their variety.
Toddlers are known to be finicky, but if you keep running into trouble at mealtimes, you’re right to be looking for a solution! Let me help you feed your picky eater!
Why does my child only eat certain foods (or just one food)?
Some kids are wired to be pickier with food. Which makes a parent’s job that much harder. I know.
1. They spread out their macronutrients
Sometimes, kids simply will eat more of one macronutrients (protein, carbs, or fat) at a meal than others, and then switch to another at a different meal or the next day. Weird? Yes, it can feel odd, especially if you like to make and eat balanced meals.
When kids are offered a variety of food groups at each meal, they sometimes will get what they need over a period of a day or two, vs. all in one meal.
For example, my daughter might have a day where she eats just eggs at breakfast and ignores the other food, just turkey at lunch, and then only avocado at dinner. Then the next day she wants waffles for breakfast, bread at lunch, and pasta at dinner.
2. They don’t like the other foods at the meal
This is common with picky eaters who only want the familiar item or the food they LOVE and they ignore the other foods. If your child is typically not adventurous with food (or other things as well), you’ll see them stick to a smaller variety.
Picky eaters like to go with what feels safest. If another food looks weird, or slightly different than normal, they might be cautious or flat out reject it.
3. Something medical is going on that needs to be addressed
This is more rare, but when a child eats VERY few foods, it can be a sign that a doctor or specialist needs to get involved. Always go to your child’s healthcare provider with concerns about their health & wellbeing. Worries about weight, growth, or development are all important to address.
Could it be ARFID?
ARFID – Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder – is NOT common, so I don’t want to freak you out! But it is a disorder to be aware of if your child is drastically limiting their food intake.
Unlike anorexia, ARFID does not involve any distress about body shape or size, or fears of being fat.
Signs and symptoms would include failure to achieve expected weight gain (or even weight loss), slower growth than anticipated, significant nutrient deficiencies, dependence on tube feeding or oral nutrition supplements, and interference with psychosocial functioning.
How to handle it when your child only wants one food at a meal
Take a look at this email from a mom. When I saw, “I have a burning question,” it got my attention! Let’s use her example to see how you can handle this.
Here is what she wrote:
Question 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:
1- Offer more of the food they want, but with some limits
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.
Sometimes you have to limit it because there’s only so much available. Sometimes you’d like to save some for later. That’s okay! You don’t have to give them unlimited amounts of a food. Just make sure they have other options available to fill up on.
In the mom’s example, the daughter wanted more and more blueberries. We know that if they have a bigger appetite at that meal, blueberries alone probably won’t satisfy them. So I would include something like cheese or hummus, for example, that she also likes. That way, when you say it’s been enough blueberries, she has another option that she likes.
2- Keep them on a good meal & snack schedule
Your child will learn that she needs to fill up on other things besides blueberries (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.
3- Don’t blame yourself
There are so many reasons why your child may or may not eat well. But the last thing you need to do is feel like you’re somehow at fault. It’s very normal for them to prefer sweeter tasting foods and carbs. So if no matter what you serve, they always dive head first into the carb? Not a reason to feel bad about your parenting! Goldfish crackers just taste better than broccoli – it’s that simple sometimes.
But what if dinner is really small?
Usually, the hardest piece for parents 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.
Here is what you’ll want to consider:
- Was there something else at the meal that they like? Remember, there needs to be a filling option like a grain, or protein, or fat (avocado, cheese, etc) in addition to any fruits or veggies.
- Do they tend to eat more earlier in the day? Many children frontload their calories – meaning they fuel up for the day at breakfast/lunch, and then eat less before bedtime. This is completely okay (as long as it’s not impacting their sleep). Think about when they need the energy the most…during the day when they are active!
- Is there pressure on them at dinnertime? Sometimes, when we have good intentions to get them to eat more, it ends up doing the opposite and they eat LESS. Try to avoid talking about how much they are eating so that they feel free to eat as much as their body says they need.
Troubleshooting if nothing seems to work
There are some cases when with this approach, they still won’t eat any of the other foods besides their favorite. Even after several days of really sticking to a meal and snack schedule. Then you need to troubleshoot.
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. We also have tools to answer these questions in the Picky Wins course.
- 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.
Feel like the tips and tricks aren’t working for YOUR picky eater?
Picky eating can take your job from hard to impossible. It IS possible to reverse it, but it’s hard to do when you get bits and pieces of help here and there. In my course, Simple Steps to Picky Wins, it’s broken down into doable daily steps that won’t leave you feeling like you have a whole new job. You’ll find a huge sigh of relief in feeding your kid, where there used to be a pit in your stomach.