There are few things more mysterious than toddler food preferences. One day she loves avocados, and the next she starts screaming if there's anything green on her plate. Or you're patting yourself on the back because he's an enthusiastic omnivore, and then he suddenly refuses to ingest anything other than spaghetti noodles with butter and salt. The desperation is real: How do you get your little bundle of stubbornness to eat a variety of nutritious food? There are many possible techniques, but there are also a few things you should never do to get a toddler to eat.
Keith E. Williams, Ph.D., BCBA, Director of the Feeding Program at Penn State Hershey Medical Center and Professor of Pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, explains that a toddler's refusal to eat usually comes down to one of two different problems: insufficient volume or limited variety. "Both of these issues are very common among toddlers and by changing their own behavior, parents can often improve their children’s intake or diet."
If it's intake (i.e. your child's growth) that you're concerned about, Williams advises that you first determine whether it's actually even a problem. "Children’s patterns of growth vary, even among siblings, so it is often helpful to discuss your child’s growth with the primary care provider prior to addressing insufficient intake."
And when you're trying a new strategy, remember that flexibility is key. Meeta R. Patel, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Executive Director of Clinic 4 Kidz in California, says, "Every child is different so there may be a time and place for everything." For example, most people would say that you should never let your kid watch TV during a meal, but Patel points out, "I work with medically complicated children where eating is negative so we use TV or other motivators to make eating more enjoyable." Eventually the TV does get phased out, but it's an effective tool for getting the ball rolling.
But when you're in the thick of it, with every meal turning into a grimy battlefield, take heart from Eve Reed, APD, Ellyn Satter Institute Faculty Member: "Learning to be a competent eater is a process that will take time, usually over the child's whole childhood until they are ready to leave home. It is unrealistic to expect that a toddler will like a wide variety of foods. This will happen gradually and most importantly within the context of family meals."
So hey, if feeding your toddler can't get any worse, that means it can only get better!
1. Don't restrict low-calorie foods
If you're worried that your child isn't eating enough, you might think that it makes sense to stop offering them low-calorie foods so that they don't fill up on things that won't help them gain weight. But that's just going to create new problems, says Williams. "While fruits and vegetables may be low in calories, and water is zero calories, children need to have them," he explains. "Fruits and vegetables are high in nutrients, and, along with water, help children poop." So if it's a fruit-and-veggies-only kind of day, you may just have to roll with it.
2. Don't let them fill up on fluids
While it's never a good idea to withhold water, with a picky eater, you'll want to be strategic with the timing. Williams says that it's fine to let your child drink during a meal, but you should "[t]ry to hold the bulk of the beverage until a bit later in the meal." Otherwise, you may find that she is, conveniently, too full to eat very much.
3. Don't let them eat whatever, whenever
It can be tempting to let your toddler eat on their own schedule, just to get some food in them. But Williams warns against this: "Do not allow your child to eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants it." Patel agrees, saying that all-day grazing "may lead to a child not eating at meals. We want children to feel like they have some control during meals but not all control."
Instead, Williams recommends that parents "establish a meal and snack schedule and curtail grazing across the day." And pay attention to what you're offering your kid: Aim for "a range of healthy foods at meals and snacks," says Williams. If your kid has a lot to choose from, he explains, they're more likely to at least eat something. And because they're not seeing the same thing over and over again, they're less likely to get tired of specific foods.
4. Don't use nutritional supplements
Unless your child has a diagnosed growth problem and your pediatrician has recommended them, it's a bad idea to experiment with liquid supplements like juice or PediaSure. "These supplements are typically high in calories, often from sugar, and do nothing to help children eat new foods," says Williams. "The children fill up on these high calorie supplements, making them even more unwilling to taste new foods." If you're worried that your toddler isn't getting enough nutritious food, you should consider a multivitamin instead, recommends Williams.
5. Don't pressure them
Pressure can take many different forms, according to Reed — and aside from the negative connotations, it also includes things like cheering, distracting, or saying things like, "Yum, Mommy loves broccoli!" But, says Reed, "[t]he thing is that pressure never works in the long run. Children who are pressured to eat more, end up eating less, children who are pressured to eat less, eat more. Depending on the child's temperament and personality, children who are pressured can end up refusing to come to the table at mealtime, may behave badly at the table, learn that eating is stressful, [or] could eat less as their appetite can be suppressed by stress hormones."
Instead, Reed recommends following the "Division of Responsibility" in feeding: "The parent decides what food to offer at each meal, when and where the mealtimes are served. The child decides how much and whether to eat and what to eat from the food that is offered." So while the parents are in control of the menu options, the toddler is in control of what he chooses to eat. And Reed cautions that the setting matters: "This needs to happen in the context of family meals where children enjoy being at the meal and see their parents enjoying the foods that they want their children to eat."
6. Don't let them dictate meals
With the pickiest eaters, it can be easy to get worn down to the point that you just take the path of least resistance. They're refusing to eat anything but ketchup on a hot dog bun for dinner? Let them have at it. But Patel cautions against this. "One thing I think you should never do is let the child dictate meals completely because this then can lead to picky eating. Exposing children to different flavors and textures at a young age is critical."
Williams recommends using "repeated taste exposure in some form to have the child repeatedly taste healthy new foods so a preference for these foods is developed." That means presenting them with "tiny bites or pieces of new foods. The most important goal is for the child just to taste the new food ... The taste does not need to be large and the child is not required to like the food initially." And if they don't like a particular food, resist the urge to read anything into it, or to give up. "Continue to offer the food at a later time. Early on, children often confuse unfamiliarity with dislike, hence the saying, 'liking comes later'," says Williams.
7. Don't nag
When faced with an unending stream of toddler negativity, it can be hard to resist resorting to negativity yourself. But Williams cautions against any begging, coaxing, pleading, or threatening. "Nagging is often counter-productive," he says. You might instead try to focus on the positives: "[I]t is fine to praise eating, and especially, appropriate mealtime manners, like using utensils or a napkin."
8. Don't walk around during meals
If your toddler is refusing to sit still and throws a tantrum at the table, you might feeling like caving in and just scrapping the whole thing. But Patel warns against this: "[L]ong-term this may teach bad habits. Children should learn to sit and eat meals with the family."
9. Don't punish or shame
You may have your own memories of bad things happening if you didn't eat what you were served: Maybe you weren't allowed any dessert, or maybe you were sent to bed without dinner. But, as nutrition expert Jill Castle shared on her site, punitive measures like those are not going to help the situation: "Punishment or shaming may imprint a child’s mind with a negative association about food, eating and coming to the meal table. Research shows this negative association can last well into adulthood."
Rewarding good eating behavior, on the other hand, is up for debate. Patel explains that experts are divided on whether it's a good idea to use a reward system for eating, but she thinks it's worth a try. Introducing some incentives in the short-term can be a totally workable solution, and "eventually those can be faded when the child develops internal motivation to eat those foods," she says.
10. Don't ignore red flags
While most eating problems can be solved at home, there are a few red flags that call for intervention. Williams recommends a discussion with your toddler's primary care provider if you see persistent problems with vomiting, gagging, or choking during or after eating; if your toddler is consistently failing to meet growth expectations due to insufficient food intake; or if they're excluding entire food groups from their diet.
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