Learn why your once-agreeable eater now has mealtime meltdown -- and what you can do to power through this phase.
It's Just a Phase
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.
TURN THE TABLES
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."
Dealing with peer pressure and a junk-food wonderland
Toddlers start paying attention to what other kids eat. Suppose your son becomes friends with a boy who only munches on pizza and chips every day. This new pal may call your son's sandwich and melon cubes "yucky." According to Dr. Jana, that might cause him to abruptly change his preferences.
TURN THE TABLES
Consider hooking him up with a great eater. In two studies in the United Kingdom, 3- to 7-year-olds were more likely to try an unfamiliar food when a slightly older child was also eating it. And the benefit persisted even when the child was alone. If most of your kid's friends are as picky as he is, consider using a teenage babysitter or a tween cousin as a positive influence. However, you need to make sure that they keep it casual. If he senses that something is up, he'll be as receptive to them as he is to you.
Almost all children are born with a taste preference for sweet foods, says Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia. Castle notes that as your toddler gets out of the house more often and sees all the treats at birthday parties, playdates, and even the mall, as well as the "kids' meals" at restaurants, she'll be increasingly interested in these and may protest what you serve at home.
TURN THE TABLES
Introduce the concept of "sometimes" or "special" or "fun" foods. It's important for your toddler to know that you have nothing against cake, ice cream, and french fries, but in order to be healthy and strong she needs to eat what you serve at home, says Castle. In fact, in a recent study at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, researchers looked at the strategies parents used to encourage their preschooler to eat. Nearly 40 percent reported that they make meals look appealing or tell kids that food will make them strong.
Some experts believe that children are genetically programmed to be picky. "Around age 2 is the time that cave babies were weaned and began to choose their own food," explains Dr. Pelchat. "This meant that they had to be choosy about what they put in their mouth." Plants, she notes, are more likely to be poisonous than animal products.
TURN THE TABLES
You can't reprogram their genes, but you may be able to override them. First step: Remain calm. "Kids who grow up to be good eaters typically go through this phase," says Dr. Pelchat. She also notes that most picky eaters aren't underweight, so there's no reason to freak out if your child skips a meal here and there. Plus, don't forget that, in general, kids need less food than adults do so a few bites of this and that can add up to a balanced meal, says Karen Cullen, Dr.P.H., R.D., professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. Being persistent also pays off. "It may take 15 to 20 exposures or more for a child to like a food," says Castle. "But research shows that parents typically give up after four." What counts as an exposure? "Your child doesn't even really have to taste it," she says. "I used to tell my kids, 'You can kiss it or lick it.'"
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.