Many children go through phases of selective or picky eating. Toddlers, especially, will go through phases where former favorites are suddenly repulsive. These periods can be stressful for parents who worry about their toddler’s health and nutrition, and can lead to power struggles that can make things worse. The toddler years are all about big leaps in independence, communication, and self-discovery. Food is one of those areas where they have some control, and often they can sense that this is an “important thing” to their parents and caregivers. Clarifying our own goals around food and incorporating some family-friendly strategies can reduce power struggles and make mealtimes more enjoyable.
When it comes to eating, you can set realistic goals for you and your child. Here are some ideas:
Willingness to try new foods: Many parents want their children to be willing to try new foods, especially those that are “good for them” or those prepared by someone else. We can model this for our children and create a communal family practice around a shared veggie plate or tasting plate. Discuss the texture, taste, smell, and sound of the foods - leaning into the sensory experience gives children something to think about beyond “Do I like it or not?” It often takes several tastes of a new food (without being forced) to get used to a new flavor. Children are also sometimes more interested in eating during the meal-prep process. If your child can be near the counter and (safely) involved in preparing meals, they may happily snack on foods during the meal prep process that they refuse at the table. This can significantly slow-down the time it takes to cook a meal, and if having your child help in the kitchen feels out of reach, you can start small with one meal a week on a day when you have a little more time or flexibility.
Mealtime Expectations: Do we all eat meals together? Do kids eat the same thing as grown-ups? These are big decisions about our family culture and will be dictated by our schedules and the needs of different members of the family. If you are trying to incorporate a family mealtime, remember that your young child doesn’t need to eat a full meal. Maybe “snack time” is when they get the bulk of their calories, and dinner is more about exploring new foods and sharing time as a family at the end of the day. Their stamina to sit at the table may be short now, but will increase over time.
Eating a balanced diet: Pediatric nutritionists often encourage parents to think about a “balanced week” rather than a “balanced meal.” Any parent knows, there will be those days when your child will only eat cheese, but the next day all they want is strawberries and carrot sticks. Taking a wider view can help us see where there might be a real gap in what our child is eating, and where it’s all working itself out over the course of the week.
Self-awareness and a healthy relationship to food: To listen to their body’s signals about when they are full and when they need to eat.
Our children have control over how much they eat, what they choose to eat, and when. As parents, we control what’s offered, and when. If mealtimes have become a power-struggle, it may be time to step back and relax a bit before we reset our expectations and start building in some new habits Try offering a mix of familiar favorites, new items, and set aside some of our stresses by offering healthy options.