Bonus Material: 7 Day Toddler Meal Plan (with easy meal ideas for picky toddlers!)
Did your parents ever say the famous line “Stop playing with your food!” when you were growing up? Mine sure did! And although playing with food was totally unacceptable in the past, it’s now associated with so many benefits that truly can help if you’re dealing with a toddler who’s overly cautious of certain foods.
Let me teach you all about it!
Toddlers are learners. They thrive off exploring new environments. They touch and feel things, they taste things, and they’re constantly analyzing their surroundings. Why should food be any different?
I want you to think of a time when you had to try a new food. What did you do? Did you smell it first? Poke it with your fork? Take a small bite before diving in? Your toddler is no different!
Instead of banishing food play ideas from the table, try encouraging them to explore their food with feeding activities! Allowing your toddler to be a food explorer can make a world of difference in the progression they make in accepting new foods, and can actually help curb their tendencies to refuse them.
I know what you’re thinking…it sounds messy. It also might seem like playing isn’t the goal…eating is! But I can assure you that this is a tried and true trick that can help your toddler increase the variety of food in their diet, while also easing their stress around what foods they’re exposed to…which leads to eating!
Let me help you make mealtimes more fun for you and your toddler with 15 easy toddler meal ideas for picky eaters! (And if you’re looking for some recipes to try these with, download my free 7 day toddler meal plan now!)
Why are toddlers so stressed or cautious around certain foods?
Have you ever wondered why toddlers are so frightened or anxious to try new foods? Why do they seem to always resist? Why do they poke at it and stare at it and just push it away without even trying it sometimes? Well, it’s mostly out of their control and completely normal!
Toddlers often have what we call neophobia, which is the fear of trying new things, and it’s very common in children as they progress through the early stages of childhood. It’s actually an evolutionary instinct.
Imagine you’re way back in the days when humans lived in the wilderness. As toddlers became more mobile and were more likely to wander off on their own, they’d come across lots of potentially poisonous foods.
As a built-in protective mechanism, toddlers are literally designed to be wary and cautious of new food to protect them from ingesting something unsafe. While that was super helpful 1000 years ago, it’s not so helpful now after slaving away to make a healthy meal for your picky eater!
Neophobia is important to be aware of as you begin introducing a greater variety of meal ideas into their diet, and it’s important as parents that we try not to retreat back to offering only safe foods we know are tolerated well.
Because…although they’re naturally cautious, they’re also naturally curious!
Allowing them to explore their food at their own pace can help decrease their neophobia, and let them really get to know their food and its properties, which will help them to get over their fear!
Why being a food explorer is the perfect feeding activity for picky toddlers
Food exploration is important because this is simply how toddlers and preschoolers learn best – by engaging in play based learning. This is a natural form of learning for them, and it’s typically how they learn to do anything during this stage of their development.
By allowing them to explore their environment, or learn a new skill by exploring and figuring it out on their own through trial and error, you’re allowing them to build more confidence and long term skills.
Some of the typical ways in which a toddler explores new things are by determining…
“What is it?”
“What is it for?”
“What does it smell like?”
“How does it feel?”
This is how they gather information. Learning to like new foods and discovering how to eat them is no exception. And that’s why feeding activities should focus on allowing your picky toddler to explore foods in fun new ways – and that’s where food play ideas come in handy!
Achieving play based learning at the table is so easy when you let your toddler become a food explorer (or food scientist). Just like a scientist, they have to explore all the properties of an object by experiencing them. They need to investigate on their own, over and over, to formulate an opinion or fact around the topic (aka food!).
What counts as an exposure during feeding activities?
I often talk about the importance of reintroducing foods through repeated exposure, but remember, a successful exposure isn’t only counted when food is actually eaten! Touching, smelling, licking, smushing, and interacting with food in any way is also considered a successful exposure for picky eaters.
Touch is the sensory exposure that has a higher chance of your toddler actually eating the food! Incorporating food exploration, and food play ideas, into your family meals can push things along quicker, and allow your toddler to become more confident in this process by using their own way of becoming familiar with the food.
Food exploration is simply focusing on building a relationship with food, in their own quirky way, and it allows your toddler to bring fun to the table during their meal! Oh and feel free to join in with them too – toddlers love to see their parents being silly and having fun – these positive experiences help ease picky eating as well!
How to prompt food exploration without pressuring to participate in a food play idea
As parents, we can help guide our children to play with their food by encouraging them to get creative and get down to the basic sensory level of food. By this I mean prompting them to discover the taste, smell, sound, and texture of a food. All of these steps help them work towards the main goal which is, eventually, to eat it.
Prompting them to play with their food and allowing them to squish the food on their hands and face, to compare their foods, to test… “What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that?”… can help them become more comfortable and get over any hesitation they may have.
As I mentioned above, don’t be afraid to make silly voices or become involved in role play with your child! Sometimes silliness can make a world of difference and show them that it is okay to play with their food!
This can be especially helpful if you’re moving from previously not allowing any food play at all, to now encouraging it. Watching you do some of these ideas first can help them trust that they won’t get in trouble if they start to play too.
Some simple ideas you can say to prompt food play include:
“Does this food make a crunch sound when you break it?”
“Can you squish this between your fingers?”
“What color is this food?”
“Can you make a smiley face out of these peas?”
“I bet I can make a taller tower out of these carrots than you can!”
“Let’s use the broccoli to make a forest on the table!”
One tip I would suggest is to fight the urge to automatically ask your toddler how the food tastes or if they liked it. This brings the focus back on eating the food instead of exploring it, and can make your child hesitant again if they feel like there is any pressure to try it.
Tasting the food will come, but don’t force it or try to make it happen fast. This may take time, and multiple attempts at different feeding activities, before your toddler is feeling comfortable enough to taste it.
And that’s ok!
Focus on your goal being to see a happy, comfortable toddler at the table – instead of a scared and stressed one. This will be what leads to them trying new food.
My Top 15 Food Play Ideas for Picky Eaters
Here it is – my list of favorite food play ideas for picky eaters. Remember to have fun with them, and try to create even more new games to play with food!
PS – If you’re looking for some easy toddler meals, download my free 7 day toddler meal plan to give yourself a week off meal planning for the fam! A lot of the meals and snacks have finger foods in them that pair perfectly with these food play ideas, and make balanced, healthy meals for your toddler.
You can incorporate feeding activities into mealtimes, or do them as a separate activity. It all depends on what you have planned for the day.
These are my favorite games to play at the table during meals with picky eaters:
1. Shape sort each food into different categories
This could be a bit tricky, depending on what you’re eating. But it works really well if you’re having things like meatballs, coined veggies, carrot sticks, sliced bread, cheese slices, etc. They can put all the circular food in one pile, all the stick or rectangular food in another, and maybe all the food that isn’t really a shape, in another pile.
You can see this option in action below. Super easy and really fun for both you and your toddler! The key is to use vegetables like green beans or asparagus to make the board.
3. Color sort each food on their plate into groups
I love this idea! Most toddlers are working on learning their colors anyway, so why not bring that learning to the table. Now, don’t make it a quiz, but maybe see how many different colors they can find, or ask them if they want to sort a few, and then follow it up with asking them to pick a favorite color from the ones they see.
This game works really well for casseroles that have a lot of different veggies in them like corn, peas, and carrots. Many picky toddlers struggle with casseroles because everything is mixed together. This is a fun way for them to get things into order on their plate, and just might make it ok for them to eat the pieces they do enjoy when they aren’t mixed in with other things.
4. Sword fight - use veggie sticks for swords!
This one is all about having some fun with your toddler! No need to hop down from the table and make it a whole production, but a little playful sword fight while sitting side-by-side at the table can be fun.
5. Make smiley faces
You can see this one below too – but use your imagination and get creative! This one works really well if you have small things like peas, carrot pieces, black beans, or corn. Challenge each other to see what else you can come up with too!
6. Tower building
The perfect game for when you’re serving carrot, sliced cucumbers, or radish coins. Stack them up to build a tower and see if it will stay standing or fall over.
7. Use purées to your advantage
Use mashed foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, or hummus to make fun landscapes with “mud” or “lava” and let their imagination run wild! Also works really well if you’re serving broccoli because they make the perfect little trees for your pretend landscape.
8. Practice your animal noises!
This is a really fun option – even if it is a little loud. You can take different foods, shredded zucchini, carrots or apples are great for this, and stack them into a pile. Then, pretend it’s a haystack and ask what noise a cow/pig/goat might make while they eat this. Or simply ask them how those animals would eat it.
I’ve also heard from a lot of parents that use “dinosaur bites” on a regular basis in their house. The concept is that when you take a bite of something you become a dinosaur which makes you roar. So basically, every time a toddler bites their food, they roar. It usually devolves into fits of laughter, and a competition to see who can roar the loudest, but it’s definitely a fun way to eat your food!
Please note that this will not work for toddlers who are very hesitant to try a food. This is something that you can model for them (yes, I’m asking you to roar), and if they choose to join in, great. If not? At least you’re showing them it’s ok to have fun and play at the table.
9. Try making a pancake
Serving mashed potatoes, squash, anything that can be easily molded into shapes? These are perfect “pancake” making foods! See if they can pile it up together on their plate, and then have them squish it with their hand or fork to make a pancake.
Does it stick together or fall apart? Can they make a big pancake or only little ones?
Remember, your participation during toddler meals is crucial in helping provide direction and connecting with them in a positive way during toddler meal activities – so get in there and get your hands dirty!
10. Get goofy and use different foods as a mustache
Another silly and fun option for you! Take your lips and pucker them out really far – like you’re a fish. Then, grab whatever food you have that’s sort of long, think asparagus spear, spinach leaf, roasted carrot stick, green beans, spaghetti noodles, etc. and place it on top of your upper lip like a mustache!
I guarantee your toddlers will find this hilarious and will instantly reach for the same food to give it a try too!
11. Play food scientist
I know I mentioned food scientists above, but I’m thinking more like a “mad scientist”. You know, the kind that mixes random things together as experiments to see what happens – yeah, have them do that.
You can give them an extra bowl, maybe even a toddler-safe knife so they can cut up some of their food, and let them put what they want into their bowl to mix it up and see what it creates.
Now, I know it will be messy, but you can even let them put a few drops of their water or milk in there to see what happens – but that depends on your comfort level.
The last four food play ideas I have for you are for away from the table or not during mealtimes. If your toddler is a very cautious or picky eater, doing activities away from the table can be more beneficial so that it isn’t associated with eating while they build up familiarity in the beginning.
Pinterest is a great resource for ideas of crafts you can do that are food based that get down to the sensory level, and can encourage them to explore their food – there really are endless opportunities!
Some fun activities you can do together include:
Use different flavors and colors of yogurt to create a masterpiece! You can also take really ripe berries and mash them up – both are great, edible finger paint options. I actually find frozen berries work best for this because, when they melt, the water content is high which makes for perfect watercolor edible paints.
13. Classic uncooked pasta pictures
I think we’ve probably all done this at one point or another, but take some uncooked pasta, white school glue and construction paper, and create a masterpiece! If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, let them paint the pasta or add some glitter on top.
14. Food stamping
This one can be a lot of fun! Cut various fruits and vegetables in half and create different shapes on them, then use those as stamps on paper. I tried this with beets for my boys when trying to get them to learn to like beets. You can read more about that here.
Use different food items as subjects for sketching. These don’t have to be masterpieces, or even look at all like the food, if they’re younger toddlers. The point is for them to look at the food and examine its color, shape, and size in order to try drawing it. Have them sketch a whole fruit bowl if they’re up for it!
Alternative toddler food ideas to foster food exploration outside of mealtimes
There are many other ways besides food play ideas during mealtime, or feeding activities and crafts outside of mealtime, that you can use to encourage your picky toddler to explore their food.
Let’s go over a few of them!
Including your toddler in meal time preparation can help them increase their awareness of food, and can eliminate fears that they may have before even sitting down at the dinner table.
Having them help in the kitchen exposes your toddler to the touch, smell, and texture of foods on their own terms, with no pressure to eat any.
If you’re cutting vegetables for example, give them one of each vegetable, either the whole form or cut up form, and let them explore it while you prep the remainder for the family meal. This is especially useful if your toddler is simply too young to help cut or prepare anything.
And, it’s still a positive experience because they get to spend time with you in a safe and expectation free environment!
For more info on how getting your picky toddler in the kitchen can benefit them, listen to my podcast episode with Kids Cook Real Food, here.
Grow your own garden
What toddler doesn’t want to play in the dirt! Vegetable gardening can be so exciting for toddlers and allows them to get dirty all while having fun and exploring new foods! They learn where their food comes from and get excited when they get to eat the food they grew.
Allowing them to help plant the seeds, teaching them what each food is, and then letting them harvest them, greatly increases the likelihood that they will eat it in the future!
For more tips and tricks on including your picky toddler when gardening, listen to my podcast all about it, here.
Take them grocery shopping
Alright, I know you probably already do this, but the experience at the store is the important part. Taking your toddler to the grocery store is such an exciting experience for them because it’s a fun, new environment. With the amount of colorful produce on display, this can be the perfect time for them to learn more about their food and explore their sense of touch.
And if you grab my free 7 day toddler meal plan, you’ll also have a grocery list already ready so you know exactly what to buy to take a week off meal planning for the family!
Here’s what I suggest…let them pick the produce off the shelf and put it into the cart. So simple, but so beneficial! This allows them to use their sense of touch, which is one of the most important senses when exploring their food.
You can also use this time to ask questions about color, if it’s smooth or soft, or any other fun sensory questions you can think of – don’t be scared to be creative! I used to ask my boys all the time to find different foods based on the description… “Can you find me a purple vegetable in this aisle?”. It made grocery shopping more fun and had them forming positive interactions with foods.
If you took anything from this blog post today, I hope that it’s not to underestimate the value of trying some food play ideas, and how encouraging your toddler to explore their food can be a game changer! Food exploration is so important that I have an entire module on it in my Feeding Toddlers online course.
It takes you step-by-step through how to initiate food exploration games at the table, with over 60 ideas and two food exploration worksheets to make it a fun activity for your toddler….all without them even realizing it’s moving them closer to the goal of eating!
If you want help fostering your toddler’s love for play based learning this course can help guide you! Don’t be afraid to be silly and creative!