Ever since my son, Mason, turned 1, mealtimes have become a minefield. One day he'll devour anything; the next, nothing pleases him. Rejected food often goes flying. Thankfully, most kids eventually outgrow their pickiness—even though experts note that this phase can last from a few months to several years. "Toddlers are asserting their independence, and they become very opinionated about food," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., a Parents advisor and coauthor of Food Fights. While there are no magical fixes, check out these common fussy-eater challenges and the ways to gracefully handle them.
Eating a Limited Diet It's normal for toddlers to crave a few familiar foods—mac 'n' cheese, chicken nuggets—and nothing else. "Pickiness may be an adaptive trait that would have kept toddlers from wandering off and tasting a poisonous berry thousands of years ago," explains Tracee Yablon-Brenner, R.D., coauthor of Great Expectations: Best Food for Your Baby & Toddler.
If you're worried that your finicky child is missing out on key nutrients, don't panic. Instead, keep a log of everything she eats for a week. Chances are, her overall diet is more balanced than you think. Ideally, a toddler should consume two servings of lean protein (like chicken and beans), four servings each of fruits and veggies, three servings of dairy or other calcium-rich foods, half a cup of whole grains (like whole-wheat pasta and brown rice), and 3 teaspoons of healthy fats (like olive oil and avocado).
Even the most finicky kids will grow normally as long as they get enough calcium and vitamin D. You'll find these nutrients in milk, cheese, yogurt, and calcium-enriched foods. But if you're still concerned, talk to your pediatrician about adding a liquid multivitamin.
Skipping Meals Just because your child rejects dinner one day doesn't mean he's going to starve. A missed meal now and then is no big deal, but make it clear that this is the only food he's getting. "Don't become a short-order cook to appease your kid," advises Dr. Shu. If he hasn't eaten much and seems hungry, offer him a piece of fruit or some sliced veggies that he's reliably enjoyed in the past. If he refuses it, stay calm and simply wait until the next meal—he'll be hungrier and more likely to eat better.
Throwing Food Although it's aggravating to see your child's meal end up on the floor, her actions probably aren't as naughty as they may seem. She's still learning about cause and effect and may be flinging her food simply to see what happens. Of course, she also may be full—or bored. "At that point, end the meal," advises Dr. Shu.
If she asks for more, say, "No throwing." Then, every time she appears ready to do it again, pull the tray away. Helping your child communicate more effectively can also help solve the problem. Sara Cherkis, of Washington, D.C., taught her 15-month-old son, Jonah, the baby sign for "done," and it's made a real difference. "Now he signs for 'done' to let me know he's finished instead of hurling his food," she says.
Refusing Old Favorites For weeks Mason gobbled up whole-wheat fusilli with tomato sauce and meatballs for dinner. Then one night he shrieked when I served it. Why the sudden disdain? Like us, toddlers can grow weary of the repetition. "Give him a break, and he'll most likely start enjoying a food again a few weeks later," says Dr. Shu. If you're having trouble getting your child to eat veggies or fruits that he used to like, serve those first, when he's hungriest. Taking him on your next grocery run may also motivate him since he can see what foods look like before they're cooked.
Rejecting New Dishes Toddlers can be notoriously stubborn about trying unfamiliar things. Calmly offer small quantities of new food choices again and again, without begging, bribing, or pressuring. "It can take up to 15 times for a child to get used to a flavor," says Yablon-Brenner. Also, consider tweaking the presentation. Slice something like zucchini into thin ribbons instead of bite-size chunks, since texture is important to tots. Above all, stop worrying. With plenty of patience and perseverance, your child's eating habits will (eventually!) get better.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.