This article isn’t about how to feed your picky toddler or even how to stop him or her from being so finicky when it comes to food. There are plenty of great articles that give creative food tips and suggestions on how to accomplish that. This article is about how you can keep your sanity while dealing with your picky tot at mealtimes. Feeding little kids is theoretically easy but, in reality, it can be quite a challenge. As a dietitian, I have a pretty good handle on what my little guy should be eating. However, my little guy doesn’t care that he should eating a balance diet, and sometimes it seems he doesn’t care if he eats at all. Dealing with a picky eater can be very frustrating and it’s important that you learn to keep your wits during this stage of wasted food and frayed nerves.
Know Your Responsibility
If you’ve done any amount of reading on picky eating, you’ll have no doubt come across Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding. I bring this up as my first point because it is the most important way to keep your sanity. If you are providing 3 balanced, age appropriate meals and several snacks throughout the day, you are doing your job. It isn’t your job to make your child eat. He or she can decide if they are hungry and how much they want to eat. If you do your job, there is no reason to feel bad. I know it is hard not to get frustrated with the wasted food and time you’ve spent prepping meals but you can’t get too worked up over it. Believe it or not, there will be a time when your picky tot turns into an ever-hungry teenager and you’ll be struggling to keep your fridge stocked with food.
It’s Just a Stage
Remember this too will pass. It’s just a stage. Like all of the other stages you’ve lived through up until now. Remember the sleepless nights you thought never would end? Or those of you with colicky babies? Well, they ended and this will too. If it helps, try repeating a mantra to yourself every time a plate of food you slaved over is shoved aside. Breathe deeply and repeat: This is just a stage. This is a just a stage. This is just a stage. It will be over soon enough.
Healthy Toddlers Won’t Starve Themselves
Healthy toddlers will not starve themselves. Plain and simple. As long as your doctor isn’t worried (which likely they are not), you shouldn’t be either. Your toddler has an innate ability to regulate his or her appetite. Please trust in this ability to regulate their intake. Trying to force or bribe your little one to eat will do more damage than good. You want your child to grow up to be an adult who understands when they are hungry and when they full. Don’t waste your energy fighting for them to finish what you gave them. Again, it is their responsibility to eat. If you begin to put some trust into their body’s ability to nourish themselves, you’ll find yourself being less upset when they don’t eat what is given to them.
Your Child is Unique
Remember what works for one person may not work for another. I’m sure you’ve heard advice from countless friends and family members about what they did with their kids to get them to eat. Or, perhaps, you’ve scoured the internet for ideas that when tried, have failed. Don’t fret too much. Like all parenting issues, there isn’t a one size fits all solution. Unfortunately, these little creatures we are raising don’t come with operation manuals. Do what works for you. And ditch what doesn’t. The goal here is to keep your sanity intact. Most likely only time will resolve this picky eating phase.
Understand Normal Toddler Physiology
It may help calm your fears about inadequately nourishing your child to understand how much food toddlers actually need. It may surprise you that toddlers actually use less energy, pound for pound, than infants do. This is because they aren’t growing as rapidly as infants. And considering the size of a young child’s stomach is about the same as their clenched fist, the servings of food required are very small. Food portions for toddlers should be about a tablespoon per year of age. So, a serving vegetables for a 3 year old is only 3 tablespoons. That’s not very much. Generally, toddler servings should be about ¼- ½ of an adult serving. That’s all. And yes, some days it will seem that your tot eats nothing at all and that’s normal too. Their appetites fluctuate, some days they eat more, some days less. It’s perfectly normal. Again, this goes back to learning to trust your toddlers internal appetite regulation.
Eat Food You Enjoy
Cook and eat food you enjoy. When your child sees you enjoying your food it will set them up to have a positive relationship with food, even if they aren’t eating a whole lot at this time. Research shows that kids will be more likely to eat food that is appetizing to them, rather than if they are told it’s good for them. So, that’s less work on your part. No need for convincing your little one to eat by telling them it’ll make them big, strong or smart. Just enjoy your food and they’ll get the message that eating is a positive experience, and one day (hopefully soon, right?) they’ll wolf down their meals.
If you give in and only eat what your toddler will eat (like macaroni and cheese at every meal) your lack of enjoyment during mealtime will be evident. Remember it takes multiple times for a child to accept a new food. Continue making mealtime an enjoyable time for yourself and the rest of your family. This doesn’t mean that you should start making meals that are completely undesirable for your tot like a super spicy curry or an impossible to chew crispy salad but you should be making things that appeal to you and that can be eaten by your tot.
Count Your Wins
Yes, your child could be the ‘good eater’ that finishes a whole plate of food but it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon if you are reading this article. Lower your expectations. Your child is an individual with a unique appetite and ease of acceptance of foods. Did he or she sit at the table for 10-15 minutes today? Did they try a new food? Was there less complaining today? Well, these could all be wins. You may not have the kid that asks for second helpings but there probably are things you can learn to appreciate as wins.
Raising a toddler is full of challenges. And sometimes these challenges come in the form of being choosy at meal and snack times. Perhaps we should stop thinking of these tots who barely eat and who shove aside their plates as picky eaters, and just start thinking of them as normal toddlers. And for a normal, typical toddler you’re going to have a spectrum of appetite and acceptance of food. Some little ones will eat pretty much everything that is placed in front of them while others develop more particular tastes. Don’t worry too much, as long as your child is growing well (and your doctor can confirm this with you) your picky tot is just a normal, healthy toddler. Remember - it’s just a phase, it’s just a phase, it’s just a phase.