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How to Deal With a Toddler Who is a Picky Eater

By Dr. Eric Ball, a CHOC Children’s pediatrician

Most babies are great eaters. The average twelve-month-old will eat most of what he is offered. At my son’s first birthday party, I remember that he happily ate broccoli and strawberries, and only nibbling on his birthday cake. Three months later, my wife and I were begging him to just try or lick a piece of broccoli. What happened?

Some studies suggest that over 90 percent of toddlers and preschoolers are described by their parents as picky. I have a few theories about what happens to these formerly stellar eaters:

  • Children’s growth velocity slows down dramatically after their first birthday. The average child gains 15 pounds in the first year of life and only 5 pounds in the second year. Most of the food your baby ate went to growth, whereas most of a toddler’s food will go to running around and playing. Therefore, a toddler’s hunger will be variable. There will be days when they are hungrier than other days. It is normal for toddlers to have meals― or even days― when they eat little. There are also days when a toddler might eat more during a meal than their parents.
  • The last thing a toddler wants to do is sit in a highchair for thirty minutes and eat a meal. They want to play and explore. The average toddler or preschooler will eat just enough to get the energy to play more. When their tank is refilled, off they go!
  • Kids get smarter as they get older. Eventually my son realized that chicken nuggets taste better than broccoli. Since toddlers have no knowledge of nutrition, they want to eat what they like the most. At this stage, the biggest pitfall parents can make is to start allowing their toddlers to decide what food will be served. They will obviously choose the junk food that tastes best to them.

So, what do you do with your newly picky eater? I was raised in a strict household where my brothers and I were forced into eating our food. My brothers and I all struggled with obesity as children and were all very picky eaters. My wife’s family had one rule for the table, “Eat what you want, leave the rest.” There was no arguing or bargaining around the dinner table in their home. My wife and her brother were always a healthy weight and ate a good variety of foods. Here are some tips that I learned from my wife’s family that I try to pass onto my patients and my own children:

As parents, we are in control of the quality of the food offered to our children, and they are almost 100 percent in control of the quantity that they eat.

Toddlers have a fierce independent streak and the more they are pushed, the more they push back. Do not bribe, coerce, or force your children to eat. Sit your toddler down for three well rounded meals per day and at least one healthy snack per day. Make sure that he is offered a variety of healthy foods at each meal. If he eats what is served, that is fantastic. If he does not eat what is served, that is okay, too, but do not offer him anything else. We parents are not short order cooks. If the family is eating chicken, rice and broccoli, then that is what the toddler should be served. If he is offered macaroni and cheese after he whines that he does not like chicken, then you have essentially taught him that in order to get macaroni and cheese, simply whine and refuse your food. This is the first step in the making of a picky eater. It is better to excuse him from the table if he does not want what he is served rather than give him something else. Children do not starve themselves to death. Place the dinner plate in the refrigerator, and he can have a second chance at eating his dinner later that evening if he decides he’s hungry.

Maximize your opportunities for successful meals by not filling up on liquid calories and snacks.

I do not serve milk or juice with meals, only water. When my son was a toddler, if he had milk with his dinner, he would chug the milk until he was almost completely full, and then eat little or no food A ten-ounce cup of whole milk has more calories than an equivalent sized soda. I would save milk or juice for snack time and limit my children to no more than 16 ounces of milk per day. In fact, I filled a 16-ounce measuring cup with milk each morning so that my children could see exactly how much milk would be allotted for the day. When the cup was empty, the milk for the day was over.

Give your toddler mutually acceptable choices for snack foods.

I will offer my children an apple or a pear for a snack. If they respond that they want Goldfish crackers, I will remind them again that their choices are between an apple and a pear.

Eat as a family whenever possible.

Children are much more likely to eat their food if they see others eating the same food. It is hard to expect a toddler to eat peas if he is the only one eating them. Even if work schedules make a true family meal impossible, try to have one parent sit with the children and eat small portions of what the children are served.

Allow children to participate in food preparation.

Most people are more willing to eat something of which they have ownership. Even something as simple as having your toddler stir the peas and corn may increase the odds that he will eat them.

If there are foods that you do not want your children to eat, do not buy those foods.

Good nutrition starts at the grocery store. If a child’s only options for snacks are fruits or vegetables, it is likely that he will eat them. Most toddlers and preschoolers eventually are smart enough and agile enough to find that stash of Oreos in the cabinet.

In medical school, I was repeatedly taught that parents should not make mealtime a battle. That lesson didn’t fully sink in until I had my own children and I realized how quickly a lovely family meal could degenerate into a stress-filled ordeal. By applying the simple family rule of “Eat what you want, leave the rest,” mealtime at our home is once again a pleasant experience.

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