Until recently, mealtime had become a battle of wills in our household. My headstrong two and a half year old son, Brody, preferred to smash, throw, or finger-paint with his food as opposed to eating it. Presentation was definitely not the issue, as I always prepared his food in perfectly appealing, bite-sized shapes. If he did not want what I offered, I tried something different. I’d even attempted bribery, with treats or fun activities, if he would just eat his food! In my desperation I had resorted to following him around while he played and shoving spoonfuls of yogurt or applesauce into his mouth. Nothing else was working. Eager for some suggestions, I asked our pediatrician, Dr. Robert W. Mills of Pediatricare Associates, for his advice, and picked up a copy of My Child Won’t Eat, by Carlos Gonzales. I came away with some incredibly liberating information.
Stop the Pressure to Eat
“Stop tugging your end of the rope,” Dr. Mills recommended. Explaining it as an issue of control which would only worsen the more I pushed, he advised me to let go. He suggested I leave a plate of healthy food in a place where my son could eat it when he wanted to, and warned against putting any pressure on the act of eating itself. “Kids are not going to starve themselves unless there is a neurological issue,” Dr. Mills assured me.
Gonzalez agrees. In My Child Won’t Eat, he stresses, “It is appetite that regulates the intake of food, and at least in children, it does so in a way that adequately meets their needs.” Gonzales also cautions against using such methods as distractions (spoons as airplanes), television, begging, promises (you can have ice cream if you eat your peas), threats, supplications, and comparisons (don’t you want to be big and strong like daddy?). I was guilty of a few of these methods, none of which was the least bit effective.
Expecting My Child Won’t Eat to supply me with an arsenal of tips to coax my son into cleaning his plate, I came away with a completely different, vitally important message: toddlers have only one relationship with food; as nourishment. They only eat because they have to, unlike adults who eat for enjoyment, or as a way to release stress, etc. “Do not force your child to eat. Never make him eat in any way, under any circumstance, for any reason… The majority of children who refuse to eat do it simply because they do not need more food.” Let your child take the lead.
Make food available, not mandatory
Now at mealtimes, I conjure Dr. Mills’ advice to me, “It’s not your job; it’s his job.” It is a parent’s job to make healthy foods available. How much a child eats, when he eats (if he eats) is his responsibility. Dr. Mills assured me Brody will eat when he is hungry, even if that isn’t at a frequency to which I am accustomed (or comfortable with). It is completely normal for a toddler to go a day or more without eating. In a pinch, he told me to give Brody a Flintstones vitamin with Iron.
Oftentimes, my son eats very little. Other times, he eats everything he is offered. Most importantly, I try not to forget Dr. Mills’ advice to “Let it go.” Brody’s got this.
Tips for dealing with picky eaters
- Offer nutrient-dense foods such as peanut butter, avocado, and yogurt.
- Remember toddler-sized portions are only ¼ of an adult-sized portion.
- Keep servings small and wait until your child asks for more.
- Offer a variety of healthy foods at times you know your toddler is hungry.
- Make a finger food tray of healthy foods in an easily accessible place and keep it readily available for grazing.
- Aim for a balanced week’s intake of food rather than a balanced day.
- Always offer one thing your toddler likes at every meal.
- Let them choose when you can, for instance: apples or grapes?
- Let your toddler help you make their food; they will be more likely to eat it!
- Try to remember this is just a normal stage of development and expect inconsistency- what was gobbled up one day may be untouched the next.