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!