Ever feel like mealtime is one of the most complicated parts of your day? If so, you're not alone. There's so much pressure to feed our children the "right" way and raise healthy eaters, but ultimately, we can't control what goes in their bellies. Sure, we can purchase food, prepare food, and plate food, but we can't force a child to eat. And if you're anything like me, that lack of control can be a little intimidating at times.
Our daughter breezed through the first year of starting solids. She ate everything and in massive quantities. I didn't have to worry about her nutrition because she was growing like a champ and loved food! We often call this the "honeymoon phase" because babies and young toddlers are more inclined to try new foods and typically have a more well-balanced diet in general. Around 18-24 months, many toddlers become more hesitant to try new foods, have stronger opinions and taste preferences, and have a lower physiological need for food (and calories) as their growth slows dramatically after 1 year. Mealtimes suddenly become more stressful for many families.
At 22 months, our daughter is already learning how to push buttons and test every possible boundary, and mealtime is no exception. Sharing our love for food and cooking with her is one of our favorite ways to connect as a family. We love the challenge of introducing new foods and watching her explore them. But to be honest, it doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes she eats salmon and broccoli for dinner. Sometimes she eats cheese and more cheese. It’s all part of the journey. I don't allow myself to get discouraged or bring my own insecurities to the table because the last thing I want is for this little girl to grow up feeling anxious about food. Instead, I’m practicing the same exact techniques we coach parents on in our practice. I'm putting all of those "best practices" to the test in my own home!
Here are a few things that we are doing, and have had success with, to help children of all ages build healthy eating habits.
One of the best ways to get your little one to try new foods is to involve them in the process. From meal planning and grocery shopping to cooking and serving food, kids love to be part of it all! Granting autonomy around food allows your child to take some ownership and satisfies their natural desire for independence and control.
It looks something like this: Mom buys green beans at the grocery store, steams them, seasons them, and plates them. Little Jimmy feeds them to the cat when Mom isn’t looking. Alternatively, Mom takes little Jimmy to the grocery store. He sees green beans in the produce aisle, shows interest in them, asks to buy them, helps Mom cook and plate the green beans. Little Jimmy eats the green beans! I’m not saying this will be the end result at every meal, but it’s a great place to start.
The supermarket is prime territory for toddlers and young children to explore with all five of their senses. The produce aisle is brimming with various colors, textures, and aromas. Use the supermarket as your classroom and allow your child to ask questions, touch, smell and taste new foods.
The kitchen is a great place for children to learn basic cooking skills, and it gives them a sense of purpose. I don’t know about you, but I get all warm and fuzzy inside when I cook for and share a meal with someone I love. Your child likes to feel all warm and fuzzy inside, too! Let them help measure, dump things in bowls, stir the pot, lick the spoon. It’s a great bonding experience and opportunity to teach your child about food.
On a side note, I totally get it. Taking your toddler to the grocery store can be hectic to say the least. Allowing your toddler in the kitchen when you are trying to cook dinner after a long day… also hectic. It doesn’t have to be every day or every grocery trip. Do what feels right and also keeps you sane. Have fun with it! If you are exhausted and find yourself frustrated or impatient, just let it go. Try another day. The key here is to surround your child with positive vibes, so be kind to yourself and take a break if you need it.
Infants are born with an innate ability to recognize when they are hungry and when they are full. Their little bodies have different needs from day to day and sometimes from meal to meal, but their ability to self-regulate is powerful. When you trust your child’s natural hunger cues, meals become less stressful for everyone involved.
We follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding in our home. sDOR is a feeding approach based on leadership and autonomy, and what I love about it most is that it communicates "I trust you" to your child loud and clear.
The Division of Responsibility goes a little something like this:
It is your role as parent to determine what, when, and where your child will eat, but it is the child’s role to decide what (of the options provided) they will eat and how much. When we force children to eat certain foods or eat more than they need, we are sending the message that we don’t trust them to be good at eating. And guess what? Over time, they will believe this to be truth, feel negatively about food and eating, become disconnected from those internal cues and lose their ability to self-regulate.
I know it can be stressful when you feel that your child isn’t eating enough or that they aren’t eating the right foods. You may have a tendency to push food on them, bribe them to eat more, or pressure them into finishing the food on their plate. Try to avoid these behaviors. Research shows that these types of techniques, although very common, increase the risk of picky eating, eating disorders, and negative health outcomes.
We recommend, for all children regardless of their size, that you allow your child to eat the amount his body needs and grow in the way his body was intended to grow. If you have any concerns regarding your child’s eating or growth patterns, discuss them with your pediatrician and work with a pediatric dietitian if you feel that you or your child may benefit from one-on-one support.
Don’t give up
Raising a “picky eater” can be stressful, but you are not alone. Many children struggle with trying and accepting new foods. A few reasons why this is so common:
A child's appetite fluctuates from day to day and meal to meal. There are key periods of growth when a child's appetite spikes (like in the first year and in puberty), but it's normal to see a drop in appetite during periods of slower growth.
We are born with an aversion to bitter foods as bitterness in nature can indicate a dangerous or poisonous food. On the other hand, we are drawn to sweet foods as sweetness in nature signifies food that provides a good source of energy (calories). This may be why your child refuses to eat broccoli, but loves fresh fruit. It takes time to learn and accept these less palatable flavors, but it will come with patience and continued exposure!
In addition, our mouth is packed with thousands of taste buds at birth, so children are very sensitive to different flavors and textures. As we age, so do our taste buds and sense of smell: two very important components of flavor perception. So flavors are perceived differently by children than adults.
Then you throw in a child’s ability to self-regulate. And let’s not forget their tendency to push limits and defy boundaries. Bundle all of this together and you’ve got a real challenge on your hands.
But there is hope! Just because your child didn’t eat a food yesterday, doesn’t mean they won’t eat it today. It’s possible that they simply weren’t hungry enough to explore new foods or their little body was craving something different that day. The more times a child is exposed to a food, the more likely they are to accept that food. Exposure doesn’t imply eating or even tasting. Simply offering a food to a child and allowing them to see it, touch it, and smell it counts as a food exposure. You may want to try introducing foods in different forms. Try a different cooking method, seasoning, or food presentation. Practice patience, and be respectful of your child’s decision to accept or reject a food.
Let go of the stress
You may have noticed a common theme of practicing patience and trust. Your child can sense when you are stressed, and they certainly won’t respond well to being pressured or forced at the dinner table. We recommend sitting down as a family at meals, set an example by choosing foods that nourish your body, and provide them with a low-stress, no-pressure food environment. Together, with your child, celebrate the communal aspect of a family meal and find the joy in feeding again!
It’s important to note that every child is different, and your feeding journey might look very different than that of your neighbor, friend, or sister-in-law. These are basic tips that promote a positive food environment in your home; the content of this article is not medical advice. Work with your pediatrician and a pediatric dietitian if you have concerns about your child’s health, eating habits, or growth patterns. You can read more about our services right here if you're looking for one-on-one support!