How to Get Toddlers to Eat Real Food (5 important ways)


You may be thinking, “Is this even possible?” I’ve had the same question and still do at times.

It has been a challenge with each of our kids during different phases of their childhood to get them to eat real food over waiting around for a treat or dessert. Even worse, choosing not to eat because they refuse to eat something that isn’t packaged pretty or highly processed. It can make you want to pull your hair out and simply give up. And, I would be unrealistic to say I’ve never thrown in the towel, especially when we are away from home. And, it’s ok!


The inspiration behind this post is because we are currently battling our 2 1/2 year old daughter. It’s a struggle to get her to eat any meal of the day without a “I don’t like it.” She is definitely practicing her right of opinion nowadays. So, I have been diving deep to the core ways that have worked for each of our kids at one point or another to get them out of that picky rut. And, will create more structure and healthy habits.

So here it is…

5 Ways to Get Toddlers to Eat Real Food

1.) Refrain from asking, “What would you like to eat?”.

No kidding, I got in a bad habit with this recently asking my 2 1/2 year old what she’d like for lunch. This led to food battles and made her think she was completely in charge. (Read below on how give her some of this power, but not all.) As if she was going to ask for a plate of veggies…HA! There have been times when my kids will actually ask for something like that, but this phase is not one of them!

I’d definitely made a bad habit out of asking this question. And, I was not getting the response I’d hoped. Now, I say something like, “Sit down, and I’ll get you a big plate of food for you”. I always make sure there are a couple of whole food things on the plate that she really enjoys. The other items are whatever we have in the fridge/pantry that’s available that day. If she chooses to eat it all then, great. And if not then, she can have it ready for her when she’s hungry again.

It’s also a great idea to give them choices. Give them some of the choosing power.  For example,”Would you like like peas or cucumbers on your plate?” Or, “Would you prefer almond butter or peanut butter as your dip?” Simple parenting strategies can make things go smoother with your toddler feeling like they have some of the choice.

2.) Have a designated place they sit each time with a buckle.

This is another lazy parenting habit I’ve fallen into with each of my kids, and quickly recognize the importance of having a special seat just for them that has a buckle to keep them there. Consistency allows them to know what is expected when they sit down to eat.

Toddler age is such a busy age. The discipline to sit at the table until they’re full is impossible with out something to keep them there. Our kids became grazers going back and forth from the table instead of a eating a meal until they’re full. Rarely do they get full from grazing and I hate the thought of messy fingers everywhere in the house. Use that buckle! I promise, they will eat more when they know they can’t go anywhere and you’ll be happy to not hear “I’m hungry” every hour. It’s a win-win! 😛

3.) Lead by example 

Your example has twice the impact as your good advice. When we show how to eat healthy, or how to show kindness, they will most likely do it they way you do. I grew up eating peanut butter on bread with my chili. I didn’t even know most of the world didn’t do this until I was married, and Mr. Clark asked why I did that. (Because that’s what my parent’s did!)

Show them how, and they will most likely follow in your path.

4.) Differentiate Treats and Snacks

Differentiate snacks vs. treats with your kids. A snack is something eaten between a meal when getting too hungry. A treat is a special occasion food item. Often times, toddlers (and kids!) will ask for a snack, but really mean a treat. Sneaky kids! 😛 Differentiate these two and you’ll soon find out your kids aren’t as hungry as they profess to be.

This goes for adults too. In between meals, are you really wanting something to hold you over until the next meal or are you wanting something sweet or salty (as in, a treat)?

5.) Sneak in more veggies

Actually, I’m really not a fan of this idea except under one circumstance. Here it is: If your kids are going through a phase (and you know it’s only a phase), and you’re concerned about their health, constipation, immune system, etc. For example, my toddler is just coming out of one of these super picky phases. This called for sneaking in vegetables into her food in order for her to get vegetables at all. I wasn’t perfect at it, and she was still constipated at times, but I know it was better than not doing it at all.

The reason I feel this is the only good circumstance (other than handicap or some other different situation) is because I believe kids need to adjust and mold their taste-buds to the flavors and sweetness of non-processed foods. (If your’e wondering if vegetables are sweet…yes, are once the processed and refined food is pulled out of a diet.) If we always hide it, they’ll never learn or adjust to the flavors.

If you found these tips valuable, then I know you’ll like this complete guide I’ve put together for you to help bridge the gap between pulling out your hair and something that’s actually possible. (Click the box below, and I’ll send it to your inbox right away.) What’s shared in this guide is also really great for school age kids. Seriously, you’re going to love our “Open and Closed Kitchen System” that I explain in this guide…

Hope these tips are helpful for you with your toddler! <3


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2018-01-17T14:47:23+00:00 February 13th, 2017|2 Comments


  1. Natalie February 16, 2017 at 1:23 pm - Reply

    Laura, I love these tips, but have a question! You said ” I always make sure there are a couple of whole food things on the plate that she really enjoys.” But what if my 3 year old doesn’t like ANY whole food items? I guess that’s not entirely true, he does like whole grain bread, peanut & almond butter, and cheese, and he eats (flavored) yogurt, but that’s about it. He survives on toast or waffles w/ peanut butter for breakfast (occasionally cereal), peanut butter sandwich for lunch w/ a cheese stick, freeze-dried apple chips and veggie straws (the healthiest sides we can get him to eat), and yogurt or a cheese sandwich for dinner. I know his diet is atrocious, but I don’t know what to do about it. He is very strong-willed, and would literally starve himself for a few days before he even attempted to TRY anything healthy. He also doesn’t eat rice, pasta, potatoes, any meat (except bacon), any veggies (except very occasionally he will eat a couple of raw carrots), or any fruit (except very occasionally a few pieces of watermelon, a bite of banana, or an apple). Maybe we just need to ride out his strong will and let him starve himself for a few days until he is so hungry that he is willing to try new things, but that just seems cruel, though so does letting him survive on junky food all the time. Oh, my husband and I eat fairly healthy, so we are setting a decent example, and he is old enough that we can’t strap him in a chair, though I do wish we’d done it longer than we did. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • Laura Clark February 21, 2017 at 1:32 pm - Reply

      Natalie, I took a couple of days to think this out in my mind before I jumped to a response to make sure I give you the best answer I can. First of all, you are not alone in the level of picky-ness you are experiencing with your son. I hear of this situation on occasion and even have a couple of close friends who have a kid who will only eat a handful of items no matter what. One of them has even reached out to therapy because it was beyond what skills they had and knew. (This helped a ton for them and their son now eats many foods he wouldn’t even consider before!) This is what I’d recommend…If you feel like you’ve exhausted yourself of the tools you have, I’d reach out for assistance/therapy/counseling for your son. And if anything, you may learn a thing or two on how to help the situation as a parent. You’re right…it doesn’t seem right to let him starve or have a junk food diet. (On the bright side of things, at least he isn’t the kid that will only drink soda, a bag of potato chips, a Twinkie, and a hot dog. There are more serious nutritional concerns out there!).
      Have you heard of Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), also known as selective eating disorder (SED)? It is is a type of eating disorder where the consumption of certain foods is limited based on the food’s appearance, smell, taste, texture, or a past negative experience with the food. So this picky eating thing, when at a more extreme level, is a disorder. And every disorder can improve in some way with professional help. Look this up on the internet and maybe there can be some strategies you could start now.
      The other thought I had is, what if you were to “run out” of peanut butter? Or cheese? Then what? How would he react or adjust? This is an outside approach rather than it being you forcing him to eat something new. We as parents have control over what’s in our cupboards and fridge and can leverage this to create healthy diets for everyone in the house (assuming both parents support eating a healthy diet like it seems you and your husband do). 😉
      Also, I am a strong believer in preparing foods in different ways to find which ways they like them. For example, my daughter hates bell peppers and will gag at them. However, If I cut them up in small enough pieces and add them in our dinner, she is totally fine with it. So, if your son won’t eat any vegetables, try preparing them in not so healthy, but delicious ways to bridge the gap. One suggestion is to make steamed carrots. Smother them with butter, salt, and honey. Make them taste like a treat. Sometimes it just takes a bridge to bring them over to the idea that they could possibly like a new food. In your situation and him being so young, sneaking them in sounds like a good way to make sure he’s getting what he needs (blend them into sauces, drinks, etc.) while at the same time trying to warm him up to “smothered” veggies.
      I hope this is some help to you! I am not a professional in dealing with picky eaters, and am not claiming to be. But, this is from my experience as a mom and friend.
      I’m cheering you on, Natalie! 🙂

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