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Dealing with Picky Eaters

“Deplorable.”

“The worst culinary experience of my life.”

“It was as if the chef had never attempted to make a meal before.”

“If given the chance, I would never enter this eating establishment again.”

via GIPHY

These aren’t the online reviews of disgruntled restaurant critics. Every parent knows their cooking would be evaluated this harshly by their toddler if the child had the vocabulary.

An Almost-Universal Stage

If you have a picky eater, you’re in the majority. In fact, most of the research and commentary available today doesn’t bother to label kids as “picky” or “not picky” — it just assumes children will be persnickety about food between the ages of 2 and 5. The reasoning behind their pickiness isn’t consistent, either. Dozens of studies that looked at kids’ eating patterns found that choosy eating stemmed from personality traits, parental control at mealtime, social influences, maternal eating patterns … you get the picture.

Despite it being a nearly unavoidable part of life, the anxiety that parents feel about mealtime hasn’t diminished. A lot of that comes from the fact that each child’s pickiness is unique. No one else has the exact same story as you do.

Fortunately, there are some safe generalizations we can make about toddler appetites. Below are a list of the most common “food critics” who could be living in your home and a few tips on how you can deal with them.

Our Critics

Do any of these personas sound familiar? 

Don’t Tell Me What I Want (The Controlling Eater)

You know you have a Controlling Eater when:

  • Trying to get them to eat at mealtime feels like a hostage negotiation.
  • The way in which the food is prepared is a big issue. (Heaven forbid that different foods touch each other on the plate.)
  • You find yourself saying, “If you eat two more bites, you can have <insert reward>.”

Curbside Pickup Only (The Active Eater)

You know you have an Active Eater when:

  • They leave the table frequently during meals.
  • They don’t like to sit down to eat; being still frustrates them. 
  • They’d rather drink milk throughout the day than sit down to eat.

Just Kidding, I Hate This (The Flip-Flopping Eater)

You know you have a Flip-Flopping Eater when:

  • They used to eat well but all of a sudden don’t.
  • Their favorite meal is now “yucky.”
  • They won’t eat certain foods for you but will for a grandparent or friend. 

I Eat Four Things (The Short-Menu Eater)

You know you have a Short-Menu Eater when:

  • Foods like bread, cereals, and milk are as exotic as your toddler gets when it comes to taste.
  • Asking them to consider foods outside of those they have deemed as “safe” often results in tears.
  • Vegetables are guaranteed to be auto-rejected. 

The Fear

All of these scenarios are frustrating in their own way. The core concern that parents have usually revolves around a child’s picky eating leading to nutrient deficiencies later in life. In other words, parents think that their inability to shove vegetables down their toddler’s throat will result in some kind of long-term health problem.

First things first: Give yourself some slack.

Humans are hardwired to be picky eaters at a young age. Before the wonder of supermarkets, humans had to be wary of what kinds of foods they ate. One bad berry, and they’d be done for! Picky eating is part of what ensured our survival. That kind of hardwiring isn’t going away in our toddlers just because we want it to. 

And while it’s frustrating to hear, remember … this is a phase! “Most picky eating cannot be explained by poor parenting. The proof for that is that many picky eaters have siblings who eat just fine,” says Dr. Katherine Dahlsgaard, clinical director of the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic and the Picky Eaters Clinic in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

So what’s the balance to strike? Should parents simply open up their cabinets and let their kids eat whatever and whenever they want? Registered dietitian Ellyn Satter puts it this way: 

  • Parents control …
    • What food is available.
    • When meals are eaten. 
    • Where meals are eaten. 
  • Kids determine … 
    • How much they eat.
    • Whether to eat.

Calming the Critic

With that in mind, let’s talk about some ways you can expand the types of food your child eats without losing your mind.

  • Don’t be too pushy. Remember, your job is to provide the food. It’s your child’s responsibility to eat it. 
  • Respect your child’s appetite. Learn to trust that they are full if they say they are full. If they ate a big breakfast or lunch, they may not be interested in eating a whole lot the rest of the day. And that’s fine!
  • Provide options. Try to make sure there are one or two options served in a meal that you’re confident your child will like. Add one new food, but don’t make them eat it if they don’t want to. It being on their plate helps them get used to the food, and that’s half the battle. 
  • Try food chaining. That’s a fancy way of saying serve food that’s similar to something your child already likes. Do they dig sweet potatoes? Try pumpkin puree (similar taste) or smashed carrots (similar look). 
  • Make sure your kiddo comes to mealtime hungry. Wait two hours between a snack and a meal. 
  • Rethink your beverage routine. Hit pause on drinking milk, water, or juice one hour before they eat.
  • Don’t be a short-order cook. It sets a bad precedent and reinforces the idea that — if your child protests enough — they can eat what they really want. 
  • Recruit your child’s help. It may take longer and be messier, but kids will be more likely to eat something they helped create.
  • Don’t offer dessert as a reward. It may seem like a good idea at the time, but all it does is tell the child that the food they’re eating is inferior to what they could be eating for dessert. And who wants to eat inferior food?
  • Try serving unfamiliar foods or flavors with familiar foods. It’s amazing what a little cheese can do to the taste of vegetables 🙂
  • Let your toddler construct their own plate if the meal allows.
  • Kids can chew more effectively when they are supported by their feet. If they seem to struggle with textures and chewing specifically, give your child a stool to rest their feet on instead of letting them dangle.
  • Try again with new foods. Wait a couple of days before offering it again. It can take more than 10 times before your toddler might like it. 

When Pickiness Becomes a Problem

For most kids, picky eating is a phase. However, if you notice that your child isn’t gaining any weight or seems weak, lethargic, or unusually irritable, talk to your pediatrician. They can help make sure your child is getting all the nutrients they need. 

Frequent gagging could also be a red flag you need to talk to your doctor about. A child that gags often while they are trying to eat could mean they have oral-motor or sensory issues. (Oral-motor skills refer to a child’s ability to move their lips, jaw, tongue, and facial muscles.)

As Always, Be Kind

Like so much of the time, both parenting and growing up are unpredictable learning experiences. As you and your child navigate their pickiness and preferences to food, remember that every other parent you know is going through the same thing. Each child is different, so each situation is different. Give yourself and your child the grace and patience you both need to make it through together. You’ve got this!

For recipes and kitchen safety tips for young children, check out:

Quick and Easy Baby Food Recipes

Get Cooking with Kitchen Safety for Kids

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