How Not to Stress Over Picky Eating Toddlers
Picky eating toddlers are difficult for all parents. They bring out our insecurities like no other. And why? Probably because we were parented in an authoritarian way where food was always a battle of wills. And because of this treatment we have grown up to believe that kids only make good choices when forced to do so. But do they really?
Drum roll, please…..absolutely not true. The study called Parental Influence on Eating Behavior gives a very detailed account on the subject of food preferences and what shapes healthy food habits. In short, there are biological predispositions for things like sweets and salty delights, and learned behaviors around less pleasing options like vegetables. So you forcing your child to eat their vegetables will not lead to vegetable love. In fact, it may turn your child off for good because of the negative associations they will build with food they are forced to eat.
So, how do you battle picky eating?
YOU need to get let it go! Plain and simple. Stop stressing so much about your child’s picky eating and get back to enjoying your life. And let your child enjoy theirs. But continue exposing them to the foods you want them to eat. It can take up to 30 times before your child will try a new food. And also remember that kids eat in phases. They get obsessed with one food for a bit, then stop eating it altogether. It’s perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate. So don’t worry about it. Any nutritional gaps can be filled with multivitamins.
I understand your burning desire to stuff your child full of broccoli. I have it too, sometimes. We all want what’s best for our children and want them to be healthy. It’s not a secret that a whole foods plant based diet is the healthiest way for us to eat. But we cannot bully them into a healthy diet. We can only model with our own diet and by exposing them continually to healthy options. But leaving them as options, without any pressure.
I think another pitfall is that we don’t actually serve appropriate portion sizes for our little ones. No one has ever taught us how much our children should eat. So we force way more food down their throat than they can handle.
How much should your toddler eat in a day?
Here is a sample of what your child (up to 3 years old) should be consuming in a day
My suggestion would be to set aside some time, get some measuring spoons and cups, and put out all the food your child should be eating in front of you. Does it look like more or less food that you expected they should be consuming in a day?
Keep in mind, that every child is different and depending on their size and appetite, they will require more or less food.
Now that you have a good visual of approximately how much your child should be eating in a day, let’s think about how we parents can chill out a bit and be more responsive to hunger and fullness cues.
How to keep your sanity while feeding your picky eating toddler?
Let’s imagine this scenario: It’s lunch time and you made a delicious sandwich with a delicious soup for your little one and they refuse to even take a bite. Just as in any situation in which we feel our blood pressure rising, the first step is to take a deep breath and then follow that up by 10 more. Once you feel more calm, try to asses the situation.
Has your child eaten today? Is this a food they generally like to eat? Do they appear as if they are sick or teething? If they have eaten already, then release them from the table. They’ll go play or do whatever and may come back at a later time to eat their lunch or not. Either way is fine. If it’s generally a food they enjoy and they are not eating it, they’re either sick or truly not hungry. On the other hand, if they refuse what you put in front of them but request their favorite food only, then they’re not hungry and you can let them go about their business.
The important thing is not to engage in a power struggle with a toddler and not to give in to their demands. Both will save your sanity and ensure that your child does not learn how to wear you down (and believe me, they will because you are out of practice and they are at the peak of their career).
Also, don’t get into a habit of giving them lots of snacks if they don’t consume their normal meals. This sets you up for failure and will ensure that your child only wants “snacks” and not actual meals. In addition to snacks, don’t let your kid drink milk between meals, if they’re being especially picky. Milk has a lot of calories and you don’t want it to take the space of other nutritious foods. And be very careful, if you give milk with a meal. Many foods are not compatible with milk and will cause an upset stomach. I personally, only give my sons milk upon waking and right before bed.
And expose, expose, expose! I know it seems like it doesn’t work (I’ve personally felt that way in the past). But my children have proven me wrong time and time again. The moment I feel that my sons won’t touch a vegetable in their life, they surprise me and put away a whole salad’s worth. It’s just important to keep offering. They will give it a shot eventually.
Coping with your child being a picky eating toddler
Now that you have cleared out potential roadblocks on the road to eating success, help yourself stay calm in this situation. If breathing isn’t doing it for you, distract yourself or educate yourself even more on what to expect from your toddler. Do anything you need to stop obsessing about what’s going into your child at the moment. Unless your child has a true eating disorder (which your pediatrician can help you identify and treat), they will eventually eat.
And I can’t stress enough that if you provide nutritionally dense foods for them at every meal, then you won’t worry as much about them missing a meal. (Check out my blog post to find some ideas for easy and nutritional foods for toddlers).
Another trick that I employ with my son (the older one) is having his favorite meal as a back up for those days that he’s eating poorly. I am fortunate enough that his favorite food is hummus, so I pair it with tomatoes and sprouted bread. Voila! Child is not going hungry and ate something that was good for him.
Also, don’t stress if your child doesn’t like meat. It’s actually pretty normal for a toddler to not enjoy eating meat. Their body doesn’t need much protein, so they are really not lacking any nutrition if they’re not eating meat. As they get older, they will most likely change their preferences. Just remember that your child, not you, knows if they’re hungry, how hungry, and what foods they find pleasing.
So compile a list of your kid’s favorite foods and find the most nutritious versions of them. Stick this list on your fridge and refer to it during the tough day. And only offer one new food at a time and in combination with foods they enjoy. It will feel less intimidating to them and they will be more likely to try it. Feed those to them and you won’t have to worry so much about your picky eater. Less worry equals less fights and more fun for everyone.
And the most important point to remember is that your child’s pickiness is not a reflection of your parenting! It’s just a reflection of their age, personality, and sensitivity.
Quote of the Day
“Toddler: a small creature who is only hungry after you throw away the food she refused to eat the first eighty times you offered it to her” – www.hollowtreeventures.com
Mental Health Tip of the Day:
If you are feeling so angry that you can’t help but yell at your child, STOP and WALK AWAY! When you are a safe distance away, check in with yourself: why are you angry and what can help you calm down. Take a few deep breaths and collect yourself before coming back to your child and talk to them in a normal voice. Nothing gets solved by yelling.