Feeding Toddlers – What One Dietitian Has Learned

hiking with toddler and food cup

Perhaps it’s because I am a dietitian and someone who loves to cook and eat all sorts of food, that I just assumed I wasn’t going to have a picky child. Or maybe it was the optimism of being a first time mom, but I really thought that if I introduced a variety of fruits, vegetables, textures, and flavors from the very beginning, if I made all of Aidan’s food, shared what we ate with him, and exposed him to everything that I would have a toddler with a sophisticated palate. Ha!

Instead I have a little munchkin who, when he tries something he doesn’t like, makes a mom-you-just-poisoned-me-face and pulls any of the gross food out of his mouth with his fingers and then vigorously wipes his tongue. (I tried but couldn’t get a video of this.) Then, he takes a drink of milk and chases it with a drink of water to get the residual taste of the horrid food out of his mouth. On one hand it’s a comical and dramatic display and on the other hand, it’s quite frustrating.

This past weekend, looking for inspiration from a toddler cookbook a friend gave me, I came across zucchini fritters – they looked like little pancakes made with flour, cornmeal, and shredded zucchini. He loves pancakes (our homemade banana or blueberry breakfast variety), so I figured that this was a similar shape and texture and that it might be a way to get him to eat his veggies? So Friday night, I whipped up a batch of the zucchini fritters and introduced this new food by saying, “Aidan, we are having pancakes!” He looked at the little cake I presented skeptically as if to say, “Mom, this thing with little green zucchini shreds sticking out is not a pancake,” but to his credit, he did give it a taste (sometimes when I present a food, he vigorously shakes his head and clenches his teeth), so it was sort of a win.

Aidan at Crumb Brothers

Aidan munching a danish

I had my verdict quickly, Nope! The antics described above ensued, and Dakota – our little dog who circles the base of his high chair like a shark – scored big. I resorted to a veggie squeeze-pack and some cottage cheese for Aidan’s dinner, and I ate the zucchini fritters.

So feeding my 19-month old can sometimes be a challenge.

But here’s how I approach meal time: I have always maintained the “you need 3 things to make a balanced meal” philosophy – carbs, protein & color. When I build my meal this way, I know I will always have balance and variety. I do this with everything I make, and we have done this with Aidan from the beginning. While the meals are sometimes really simple, it usually works. Here is a little chart of things he likes organized by my 3 category system. If I can pull one item from each category at any given meal, I think we’re doing pretty well. For snacks, I try to get two of the categories.

Eating Banana Bread

Eating Banana Bread (that, he likes & I pack it with Greek yogurt & bananas)


  • Graham Crackers
  • Pasta (white or whole wheat)
  • Tortillas (whole wheat flour)
  • Granola Bar (he likes the Clif Kids bars)
  • Pretzels
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole wheat bread


  • Cheese (string cheese or cheese curds for snacks, cheese slices for sandwiches & quesadillas)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Meat (chicken, fish, sausage, ground beef)
  • Peanut butter
  • Whole milk Greek yogurt
  • Milk
  • Tofu (he loves it plain or crisped in a pan
  • Egg (hit or miss for Aidan, but scrambled is preferred)


  • Cut fresh fruit (strawberries, apricots, plums, grapes, peaches, pears, apples – whatever is in season)
  • Freeze dried fruit
  • Dried fruit (raisins, apricots, apples…)
  • Fruit/veggie squeeze pack
  • Whole fruit (banana, clementines)
  • Peas (frozen or freeze-dried)
  • Applesauce (jar for home, squeeze pack for on the go)
  • Kale chips (believe it or not, Aidan will actually reach for and swallow a leaf – sometimes…perhaps it’s the yummy olive oil, salt and pepper!)

The above “color” options are in our regular rotation because Aidan will eat them. I would love to add and continue to try:

  • Steamed carrots (he’ll sometimes eat them when nicely seasoned in a stirfry)
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Green beans (he used to eat them pureed as a baby)
  • Zucchini

What else I’ve learned: 

Have fun!: There is a reason that parents play the airplane game (zoom the food on the spoon into the open mouth). When you can make eating more fun and exciting, you may have better success. Sometimes we tell Aidan that we will cheer for him when he takes a bite or drinks some milk. He gets excited for us to clap which means that he’ll take a bite.

Keep trying: Some days / weeks he likes certain things and others he doesn’t, but you don’t know when you will have success. Little kids have ever changing preferences and ideas about food, and their tastes are developing and evolving constantly. So, even though Aidan didn’t like his fun spinach fettuccine noodles this week, he loved them two weeks ago and he may like them again next week.

Change it up: If Aidan has been sitting in his high chair for a while, he can get board and say he’s all done. If we want him to sit with us until dinner is over, we will wipe his hands, give him a toy and then continue to offer bites of food. Sometimes just having a little change of scenery – the introduction of a toy – means that he’ll eat more. For snacks, putting finger food in his little snack cup is a great way to make it fun and something that he can do all by himself.

Dip: A quesadilla dipped in salsa, or squeezing a little veggie squeeze pack on grilled cheese or a quesadilla can make lunch or dinner interesting. Dipping pancakes or french toast in yogurt can also be fun.

Be patient: As hard as this is sometimes, if I get visibly frustrated, he does too, so I try to keep smiling.

Add cheese (see video above) 🙂

So what’s on the menu for tonight? I haven’t totally decided – either stirfry – brown rice (carbs), tofu (protein), peas (color) OR pasta (carbs) with roasted broccoli & cauliflower (color).

Aidan might not eat it all, but we’ll give it a go!

Kristi Spence MS, RD, CSSD

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