As any parent of a toddler will tell you, picky eating is pretty common between 18 months and 3 years of age. Some experts suspect that little sensory systems are developing and kids are figuring out what textures and tastes feel best. Other professionals think that toddlers crave predictability during this period of rapid development, and as a result, they tend to gravitate towards the same foods. My personal observation is that toddlers are learning to use communication to control their environment- since meals happen 3-5 times a day, this is a logical time to voice an opinion! The good news? It is usually just a phase. The bad news? That doesn’t make picky eating any less frustrating! Here are five strategies to help ease the stress of having a picky eater in your house:
Rather than saying “Do you want _____?”, try offering a choice of two items. Your child will feel that she has some control. I also like to offer options for presentation (“do want big strawberries or cut strawberries?”) as well as options for utensils/dinnerware. (“do you want a blue plate or a red plate?”).
*Model Good Habits
Children are always paying attention! Make sure that you are modeling the eating habits that you want to see your child adopt. Talk out loud about the choices you are making, and make a point of trying new or different things with your child. (ex: “I had red bell peppers yesterday, so I am going to try yellow peppers today. I wonder if they will taste the same or different?”)
I also encourage parents and caregivers to eat with their child. Even if you are just munching on a few carrot sticks while your little guy eats lunch, you are sending the message that meal time is a fun, relaxing time to spend together, as well as to enjoy food.
It is easy to fall into the trap of “I know she isn’t going to eat that, so why bother putting it on the plate?“. The problem with that mentality is that you are sealing your child’s fate as a picky eater! I like to serve my daughter 4 items at every meal- 2 items that I know are a sure thing and 2 that are new or different.
I also make sure that I am switching things up with leftovers so that she isn’t eating the exact same dish three nights in a row. For example, I will throw some frozen peas in her mac and cheese one night, and the next, I will stir in some diced chicken. Not every variation is a smash hit, but I am gently nudging her to step outside of her comfort zone.
If you have ever had the pleasure of engaging in a power struggle with a two-year-old, you know that the more you push, the deeper they will dig their heels in. With the under three crowd, you will have way better success with a more subtle approach. Avoid saying things like “Take a bite” or “Eat this“. Instead, present the plate to your child and let him decide what he wants to eat first. Don’t hover over him as he scopes out his plate. Instead, dig into your own food and chat about a preferred topic.
Beware of making threats or doling out punishments for not trying foods. This can make the child feel more anxious about the meal time process, and result in bad behavior in the future. Don’t let your child see that you are feeling stressed or frustrated- you don’t want his eating habits to have power over the family dynamic.
*Make It Fun
Unless your child has specific concerns about gaining weight or getting the right nutrients, the goal of meal time is really to learn to eat a variety of foods and to learn to participate in the social aspect of eating. You want your child to associate meals with comfort, nourishment, and happiness. Focus on connecting with your child over a meal- play music, tuck away your cell phone, and be playful. Leave the table manners for later years and encourage your child to get messy, explore the foods, and try things in the way that feels most comfortable to them.
It is also really important to keep in mind that toddlers have tiny little stomachs! The average toddler’s stomach is about this size of his clenched fist. Think about how tiny that is! We want our children to learn to listen to their bodies and recognize signs of both fullness and hunger. Consider your own eating habits- do you eat large quantities at every meal? Or do you tend to graze throughout the day? We tend to adjust our intake based on how we feel, our mood, and how much energy we need for that day’s activities. Teaching our kids to do this now will help foster life-long healthy eating habits.
What if this isn’t your “run of the mill” picky eating?
There most certainly are kiddos whose picky eating habits are beyond the realm of “typical”. It can be hard for parents to know when to power through and when to seek professional help. I use these criteria to differentiate a “picky eater” from a “problem feeder”:
*Eats less than 3 foods in each major food group (vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains, dairy).
*Visible signs of distress or anxiety when presented with new or non-preferred foods (crying, screaming, etc).
*Frequent gagging, vomiting or choking during meals.
*Interference with an ability to participate in normal daily activities (birthday parties, family dinners, etc.)
*”Jagging” on preferred foods by eating them too often to the point of never wanting to eat that food again.
If you think you might need support with your child’s eating habits, contact our office to schedule a feeding consultation. Our feeding team will be happy to help.
Elizabeth Clark McKenzie, MS, CCC-SLP