Toddler Behavior: Dealing With Toddlers and Picky Eating Habits

Hi Dr. Heather: I eat a variety of healthy foods, heavy on the veggies, with a variety of ethnic cuisines, most of which I cook myself. On the other hand, my daughter more or less eats the same things every day.

It's called experimentation, Mom!

Every resource says the same thing: keep offering it to your child. My question is: how do I do that without wasting large amounts of food? Also, how do I offer it to her at all, when she will eat the foods she likes and leave the foods she doesn't?

Please tell me my kid will grow out of this! I feel stumped when other moms chime in with something encouraging like, "Broccoli is my kid's favorite!" or "I can't pry the sushi from her hands!" I should note that 1) she ate it all just fine when we were in the baby food stage, and right at about 13-14 months she started refusing vegetables, and 2) she doesn't seem like a "picky" kid to me- she eats a wide variety of foods, pretty much anything except vegetables.

I'm sure I'm putting too much pressure on myself with this, but my husband is obese and struggling to lose weight, and I so want to avoid the same fate for her!

Patricia in Atlanta

Dear Patricia,

I know they tell us to keep offering a wide variety of foods to our toddlers and young kids. And we start to feel there’s something WRONG if they don’t eat a nicely rounded diet all the time. It’s another source of pressure and guilt for us, as parents. It had better be healthy! Organic! Wholesome! Etc, etc, etc.

But what they DON’T tell us is that our kids are BORN with very strong tendencies, in terms of eating preferences. I have one kid who’ll eat just about anything, and always has. I have another who is extremely choosy, and yet another who is somewhere in the middle.

You can’t make a kid eat something they don’t want to eat. And if you TRY, you risk setting up a power struggle that YOU CAN’T WIN. It’s normal for young babies (6 to 12 months or so) to happily eat whatever we put in front of them. After one year of age, however, their caloric needs DECREASE, and their desire to be independent INCREASES, as does their desire to get moving! Crawling, walking, running, talking; it all holds much more interest than sitting and eating vegetables. So it’s fairly common to see what you describe; a baby who eats everything, who turns into a toddler who is choosy, or who has inconsistent food preferences. (They often can get into “food fads”, too, where they demand certain things all the time.)

All you can do is go with the flow. Yes, offer her healthy options. Don’t push or insist that she eats her “healthy” food. Set it all out in front of her and then GET OUT OF THE WAY. She needs to make her own food selections, within the range of a variety of foods you set out for her. Your toddler needs to resist and be oppositional, as she works on establishing her independence. Don't let her struggle with you over food. Pick your battles; this one, you won't win. Over time, your daughter will learn to love a wide variety of foods. (But she might not show it until she leaves for college!)

Now, does that mean you give in and offer a Happy Meal morning, noon and night? No. Just try to add something healthy to her plate, and leave it alone.

Let her see you enjoying your healthy, interesting variety of foods. And don’t let her associate pressure or stress with that image.

In our house, our 2-year-old is attempting a coup to establish him as Food Dictator. It's a struggle on a daily basis. His preferences change daily, too. Here's what we do: Put the healthy stuff in front of him while we prepare the rest of the meal. That way, while he's really hungry, he's more likely to try the good stuff. Then we offer him a choice or two, and that’s that. I do try to include something I know he’ll eat, whether it’s pasta, or PB and J, or some cheese. He also does like fruit, so I offer lots of that. If he doesn’t want the options, he can eat at he next mealtime. He whines and complains, but I only have the energy to do a certain amount! What’s interesting is that he often craves the food on OTHER PEOPLE’S PLATES; especially Daddy’s, right now. And he will tackle veggies and other things he flatly refuses when put on HIS plate. So we engage in a little trick-the-baby-psychology, and allow him to eat off his Daddy’s plate, after he’s done with his own. We get a little extra nutrition into him that way. We’ll set firmer limits with him on that as he gets closer to 3, because by then we'll want him to see that he's got to stick to HIS plate. But for now, it’s not so bad for Daddy to share some of his dinner with our cute little guy.

Now, I’m not a physician or a nutritionist, so you’d better check with your pediatrician just to make sure things are OK with your daughter's nutrition. You can also read more about the issue in Dr. Brazelton’s books; I love how he deals with the issue.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

PS Want to read more about annoying toddler tendencies? Check out my Toddler Page for more.