When I first introduced solids to my daughter Willa, she happily gobbled up mashed avocado, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash. Later she delighted in trying sugar snap peas and salmon, which pleased every bone in my dietitian body. I felt slightly smug that I had raised such a healthy eater. But at some point--when she was about 20 months old--Willa became much more discerning about the foods she would eat and began to reject things she once loved. Okay, I'll admit it--she got downright picky.
Fortunately, I learned that if your toddler has transformed from an adventurous eater to a discriminating one, it's probably a stage, one that almost every kid goes through. Assuming your child doesn't have medical problems or sensory issues, how long the picky phase persists depends a lot on how you respond to it, says Jill Castle, R.D., coauthor of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School. Find out why toddlers turn away from tilapia or put the kibosh on squash, and follow new strategies to win back your former veggie-eating machine.
Your toddler is probably getting more opinionated in general. Pickiness is a normal developmental milestone that starts around 18 to 24 months. "Children this age reject foods--even the ones they previously loved--as a way of asserting their independence," explains Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed With Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup.
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Toddlers want to make decisions, after all, so let them have a say in small things: green beans or carrots, whole-grain pancakes or waffles, avocado or hummus, suggests Dr. Jana. If you have a preference yourself (suppose you've bought 5 pounds of sweet potatoes), then let picky eaters decide on the topping (butter or maple syrup) or even the color of the plate that you serve it to them on. In a recent study at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, 94 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds took some pieces of fruit or veggies when offered a selection of three to choose from while just 70 percent did when given only a single kind of produce.
Toddlers realize that they can make a difference in a situation, and they may want to test you whenever they get the chance. "It's all about control," says Castle. "By pushing away their plate or screaming no, they might be looking for a reaction from you."
TURN THE TABLES
Practice your poker face. "When your child rejects a food, one of the worst things you can do is act upset or annoyed," says Castle. In fact, pressuring 3- to 6-year-olds to chow down raises the chance that they'll refuse to eat a certain food, according to a study at Loughborough University, in England. "Toddlers want a reaction, and if they don't get one, they're less likely to try the same tactic again," she adds. So what do you say when your child won't eat any of his lunch? "In a nonemotional way, say, 'Oh, well, maybe you'll be hungry at snacktime,'" she suggests. Just make sure that the "snack" is similar to what you planned for lunch so she doesn't think she can skip a meal for something "better."