Ask the Expert – Feeding a Picky Eater

Ask The Expert is a weekly column on The idea is to have a reader-submitted question answered by a nutrition expert or a pediatrician. Feel free to submit your question in the comments section below.

Most toddlers are picky eaters and getting them to build lifelong healthy eating habits is a challenge for most parents. It is not unusual for a child to fill herself with drinks and only nibble on a few foods occasionally. This week, Registered Dietitian Ashley Rosales offers a few tips to bring variety in your child’s diet and encourage healthy eating habits.

Ashley Rosales, RD
  • B.S. in Clinical Nutrition from UC Davis, Dietetic Internship completed at Napa State Hospital
  • Project Manager Dairy Council of California
  • Past Experience: Clinical nutrition, nutrition communications, senior nutrition and food service management
  • Expertise: Registered Dietitian with a focus on effective nutrition education, providing parents with realistic approaches to raising healthy eaters, and blog writer for
  • Twitter: @Ashley_RD
  • Contact via email –

Question: My little one drinks and drinks and drinks but only nibbles on food here or there. Is this okay or should I try to make her eat actual food? Or maybe a nutrition shake?


Many parents of young children question if their child is getting enough nutrients through food. It is important to remember that although they’re no longer babies, young children aren’t ready for adult-sized portions. Their little stomachs just aren’t big enough. Although it is true that they need the same nutrients as adults, the amounts do differ greatly. It is also very common for your child to show day-to-day appetite fluctuations. If your child is occasionally “picking” at a meal, chances are that he or she will make up for it later. If your child is growing normally, seems healthy, and has energy to play, then he or she is probably getting enough to eat. Despite this, it is still normal for parents to feel insecure about “what” or “how much” their child is eating.

One of the hardest things for a parent to do is trust in their child’s hunger and satiety cues. This is a critical time when your child is learning how to make food choices and is establishing patterns of healthy eating that they will take with them the rest of their life. If you are doing all you can as a parent to set your child up for feeding success, then you can feel confident that they will eventually make the right choices and that they will get enough nutrients in the process. Here are a few guidelines to consider to give you some peace of mind.

Establish a routine. Children do best with a routine, so try serving meals and snacks at about the same time every day. Limit snacks that are served as a “pacifier”, such as in the line at the grocery store or while running errands in the car, as these types of snacks can interfere with mealtime. Plan snack and meal times to coincide with your families schedule in order to ensure you have adequate time to prepare a healthy snack and eat meals together as a family when possible. When children don’t feel rushed, or when they eat with others, they tend to eat better.

Serve smart snacks. In addition to meals, young children need 2 to 3 snacks each day. Plan snacks that include something from at least one of the food groups. An example would be sliced apples with string cheese or whole grain crackers with hummus. If your child likes to sip on beverages for a snack try serving up a delicious and nutritious smoothie by blending fruit, ice and milk together. Snacks should be a nutritional complement to meals, so try offering snacks two hours before meals so that your little one is hungry again by mealtime.

Beware of beverages that compete with nutrients. Beverages are important for many reasons, with the highest being that they ensure your child is getting enough fluids for hydration. However, many beverages consumed by children today are loaded with calories yet provide no essential nutrients. These beverages, like soda, fruit and sport drinks, often replace nutrient-rich beverages like milk, which provides the calcium, vitamin D and potassium that children need each day. On the other hand, although your child needs nutrient-rich beverages, don’t be so quick to reach for those child “supplement shakes” unless directed by your pediatrician, as these really can interfere with your child’s hunger at mealtimes. So what should you serve your child to drink? The best rule is thumb is to serve milk with meals, provide 100% fruit juice in moderation (around 4-6 oz per day) and offer water throughout the day when your child is thirsty.

Be a good role model. What are your eating and drinking habits? Do you snack on nutritious foods and eat a balanced meal with your children? Do you drink milk at meals and choose water when you are thirsty? Children are observant and they rely on you to learn their habits, attitudes and beliefs around food. Role modeling is one of the most powerful and effective ways to help your child eat healthier.

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Disclaimer – Information provided in Ask The Expert column on is intended to give you general guidance on a question related to toddler nutrition. It is not meant to be treated as medical advice. You are welcome to contact this expert for a detailed consultation on your specific situation to determine what actions, if any, you should take regarding nutrition and health of your toddlers. We do not recommend you to take any action based solely on the information presented in this column. Experts have agreed to provide their professional opinion on toddler nutrition related questions on a voluntary basis and no compensation is offered to them by


  1. Jean Nicol

    Have you ever considered how many toddlers are learning that they can be in control when it comes to food. All children want to be in control, it’s not a bad thing at all, part of the natural learning process. The difficulty arises when we give them total control of the choices because we fear they will not eat or not eat enough.
    I am all in favor of allowing a child to be in control of their food choices, but as adults we have to present them with some healthy choices. Let them plan the meals based on a variety of choices we give them. Just one of the reasons I invented The Eating Game and it works for those 2 years and up.

  2. Katelconway

    Such excellent advice. Not only for toddlers, but for everyone. Thank you for the clear things to work on.

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