I recently came across the term “micro-terrorist” to describe kids of this age group and I couldn’t help but laugh at its accuracy. Let’s face it, toddlers are a funny breed. It seems like a lifetime ago that you had a cute, squishy newborn. Then there was that exciting “6-9 month” stage where your little eager eater seemed to eat just about everything you put in front of him. This feeding solids business is a walk in the park, right?
Baby’s first birthday rolls around and everyone seems to have a nice little groove going. Fast forward to 18 to 24 months, and for many, this is where things start to go a bit off track. One of the most common messages I hear from parents of kids this age is “What do I do with my picky eating toddler? She used to be such a good eater!”. Sorry my friend: Join the club!
So why does this happen? A few things are at play here, but one of the most significant factors is a slowing of growth. Babies’ growth rate from 0-12 months is immense: birth weight usually triples by the end of the first year. Growth then slows down significantly from 12-24 months, with an average gain of 3-5 lbs and 3-5 inches for most children. From 2-5 years, growth continues more or less along the same trajectory, with an average gain of 3.3-5.5 lbs and 3 inches per year.
So what are parents to do when their former foodie now seems to reject so many previously liked foods? Here is my go-to strategy to make this “picky eating” stage as short-lived as possible, both as a dietitian and a mom of 2 microterrorists, I mean, toddlers and preschoolers:
Stick to your feeding “job”, and let your toddler do his. This is what Ellyn Satter (child-feeding guru) refers to in her “Division of Responsibility”. She lays out the jobs of both parent and child: The parent looks after when to feed the child, where, and what foods to offer. It is the child’s decision whether to eat certain foods, and how much. If parents can stick to their feeding “job” and allow their child to do theirs, things almost always run more smoothly. Perhaps not in the beginning if this is departure from your usual feeding approach, but children adapt, often far more quickly than you might think.
There are two common mistakes parents make here. The first is to hand the decision making over to their toddler regarding what to eat (eg. “what would you like for dinner?”). Some choice is a wonderful thing, but ultimately it needs to be the parent setting the menu, not the 2-year-old.
The second mistake I see well-intentioned parents making often is the “default meal”. The child expresses dissatisfaction with the meal, so mom or dad runs to the kitchen to make something they know the child will like. Again, this only lessens the likelihood that your child will try something new and expand upon their list of liked foods. Remember, children need many exposures to a food before they like it, and that number tends to increase as children get older. The more exposures your baby, toddler or even older child has to a new or disliked food, especially without pressure or coercion to eat the food, the more likely they will be to try it and eventually, like it.
Feeding toddlers can be exhausting and overwhelming, but by consistently reminding yourself of your role in the feeding relationship, things are bound to go more smoothly for everyone. And like many things in parenting, in most cases this too shall pass. Slowly at times, but it will pass.
(Of course, if you sense that there is something more severe that is happening with your child’s eating, it is always recommended to seek support from your healthcare provider).
Want to know more about setting your toddler up for success with eating? Get in touch today for a personalized plan to reduce frustration at the table and help your little one be a more adventurous eater!