“I don't like it.” Are those four words a familiar phrase at your dinner table? If you find your child’s nutrition a sore topic in your home, don't worry, mama. You are not alone. I know we worry and feel pressure about what our child eats or doesn't eat every day. Picky eating is yet another phase in their ever-changing toddler world and what I can promise you is: this, too, shall pass.
Every mom is always so excited when their baby finally gets to start enjoying solid food and life becomes so much easier for a while. Then, boom! Your sweet baby has turned into a toddler. They start to try and exercise control in different aspects of their little world and yes, food is a big part of that.
Picky eating is often the norm for toddlers starting as early as year one. Dozens of studies have found that a child’s eating patterns that were found to be “picky” were linked to and affected by everything from parental control at mealtime, a child’s personality traits, social influences, and even their mother’s eating habits.
Any mother who has ever had a toddler knows the control struggle you face every day, which is the main driving force behind picky eating. As toddlers learn control this extends to their food: how much and what they are willing to eat. The struggle may start with broccoli but 9 times out of 10 it’s not even about the broccoli or cauliflower; it's mostly about being able to control their food choices. A refusal to try a new food is their way of expressing fear over experiencing new textures or flavors for the first time.
Back to those four words: “I don’t like it.” Since toddlers are learning to verbally express themselves, words hold power. They may use this phrase to express anything from they’re not hungry, they want something else, or they’re just straight up cranky. “I don't like it” just turns into a blanketed response for children to use to get out of eating food.
This, in turn, is where your frustration and power struggle begins.
Does this sound familiar, “Just a couple more bites and you can have a treat.” Even escalating to “You're not leaving this table until you have finished your food!” Power struggles and bribes teach your child the wrong values of food. You are teaching your child that the treat is more valuable and desired than the healthier item you are trying to get them to eat. You are not teaching them to value or prefer the healthier item. Do not turn mealtime in a power struggle; this will only make trying new foods a negative experience. Now, I know we all have “I'm the adult and you're the child” moments and they can be difficult. However, overreacting and trying to force your child to eat your specific dietary expectations to discourage picky eating tends to backfire.
You being anxious at mealtime doesn’t help. I know, easier said than done when you just want them to eat. Instead, lead by example and be positive when offering food and show your child how much you like a food when you are asking them to eat it.
Also, share the meal responsibility with your child. As a parent you can control what food to serve and also when and where meals and snacks are eaten. Your child then controls how much they eat and even whether they eat. This sharing of responsibility and control will defuse the power struggle with food. Accept it, mama.
Take a deep breath. I know this is a lot but I do have some tips to help curb this unbearable stage:
- Offer choices. Give your child food options that you want them to eat. If you don’t want your child to choose chicken nuggets and mac n cheese every day, then don't even make it an option. As you know, making choices is important for your toddler, especially with food. You want them to learn to make good decisions even when you aren't around.
- Do NOT make separate a meal for your child. You are not a restaurant! If you do this you are just feeding into their picky eating habits and creating a cycle where your child eats every meal on demand. Your child will not starve, I promise. (If you do feel guilty they didn't eat then give them the most boring alternatives such as plain yogurt, cottage cheese or plain Cheerios.)
- Be realistic with your expectations when introducing new foods. It can take up to 10 times of being exposed to a new food before it goes in the “like” category for your child. Now this doesn't mean they have to eat it 10 times. Examples of exposure include looking at the food, listening to you describe it while eating it, letting them touch it or even just sampling it. Do NOT pressure your child into eating it or it will go straight to the “doesn’t like” category.
- Involve your child in preparing the meal. They can help pick new foods at the store, help prep/cook the food and even help set the table. It helps them feel in control and will help encourage them to eat what they have helped create.
- Do not include behavioral issues in picky eating. Them throwing a tantrum and having a meltdown has nothing to do with the food. Try and identify what has caused such behavior. If you lump it all together you are going to make trying new foods a negative experience rather than a good one.
- Do not ban treats and sweets all together. Teach your child your expectations of how to eat them sparingly. They don't understand these expectations automatically and like everything else, it is your job to teach your child. Set an expectation, such as only one treat per day. It is then up to the child when they get to eat their treat, whether it is with lunch or dinner. Some kids will choose the instant gratification of eating it now but some will surprise you and choose later. In the end, make sure to hold to your expectations and do not make dessert a reward.
- Offer the same foods to the whole family. Remember to lead by example. Let them see you eating healthy foods.
- Minimize distractions at the dinner table. Remove the technology: television and all electronic gadgets and yes, this even includes you, mama. Put the cell phone down. Help your child focus on the food and family time.
- Make mealtimes a relaxed, enjoyable, and positive experience. Stop trying to control your child so much and show them how mealtime is a great shared family experience. Enjoy each other while eating meals together.
The above are all realistic and simple things you can do daily to help with your sanity during this stage. Guess what, mama? I even have some tips on how to introduce new foods to your picky eater. It is not impossible, I promise you.
When introducing a new food offer only one at a time and with something you know your child already likes. Offer small portions at first. Remember to set realistic expectations. Let them taste it and be patient. As I have said before, be a good role model. Try new foods yourself. Try and offer the new food first, when your child is the hungriest, at the beginning of the meal. Most importantly, remember new foods take time. Be patient and offer the food many times. It may take many tries for your child to like a new food.
It is so very important for your child to develop a healthy relationship with food at this young age. Respect your child’s appetite (or lack thereof) as they learn what full is to them. Bribing and forcing them to clean their plate can only reinforce the power struggle with food. They need to learn their own hunger and fullness cues. This cannot be stressed enough.
It is my wish that I have helped to ease some of your picky eater anxiety, mama. Just remember that your child’s eating habits will most likely not change overnight but even small steps and progress can lead to a lifetime of healthy eating and that all-important good relationship with food.
**As always, if you are ever concerned that picky eating is affecting your child’s development or growth, please contact your child’s pediatrician.**
Jennifer Beckom is a twin mom to four year olds, Clara and Elizabeth. She is a wife, chef and child nutritionist. She has served as Secretary and Co Programs VP for FWMOM.