Q: My two-year-old is a picky eater. Some days he'll eat a lot and others he won't. When we give him something new to try he holds the food in his cheek for 3-5 minutes before he swallows it. We don't want to give him the same things at every meal. It's frustrating because he does this with every new food he tries and sometimes he won't even try a new food. Why does he hoard his food like that and how can we get him to try new things without us getting frustrated?
A: It's perfectly appropriate for a two-year-old to play with his food. At that age, exploring the world and exerting independence are likely to be much more of a priority than sitting down for a wholesome, nutritious meal with the family.
Every parent can relate to the frustrations involved with feeding a toddler, especially when he won't easily accept a new (or any) food, plays with his food or, in your case, keeps the food in his mouth without swallowing it. As challenging as it may be, it's important for you to discuss your child's feeding behavior with your pediatrician to rule out a chewing or swallowing problem that needs intervention from a trained feeding expert. Although hoarding food in his mouth every now and then may not be cause for concern, doing it for too long can increase choking risk or have other adverse nutritional and health consequences if the behavior persists.
Having family meals with your toddler as often as possible, and taking small bites of your own food are two good ways to model healthful mealtime habits. At meals, offer your toddler very small amounts of food, including a familiar and favorite food. Offer a new food (also with a familiar food or beverage) every few meals or every few days, one at a time, to make trying something new less overwhelming.
Be sure to offer new foods when you're not in a rush, and when you and your toddler are more relaxed. Present the food in small, bite-size pieces, and eat it and enjoy it in front of him to encourage him to do the same.
As often as possible, have your toddler go grocery shopping with you (even if that means a trip to your local fruit stand) and allow him to choose a new food--perhaps in a color he likes--that the whole family can try. When he doesn't accept a new food, or holds food in his mouth for too long, be as patient as you can and try to not pay too much attention to it. Also, be sure to limit distractions, like television, and instead, play a fun game such as, "What was the best part of your day" or "I spy" to keep mealtimes pleasant and positive. If all else fails, you can let your toddler set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes and tell him that when it goes off, the mealtime is over. While you don't want to encourage him to chow down his food in record time, it may help him to know there is a limit to how long he'll have to sit for a meal.