Why is it that toddlers can be so finicky? What part of their brain makes them decide they don’t like something they just ate (and enjoyed) yesterday? My son was on a serious banana kick for a while. Some days he’d eat two or more! Suddenly he no longer wants bananas, but worse… he requests a banana then won’t eat it. W.T.F.

It turns out that a healthy toddler is naturally inclined to test our limits. They are pre-wired to challenge us. It is their job to explore their world and it is our job to define the boundaries. Back when I went through teacher training they talked a LOT about “rituals and routines” as it relates to the classroom. The idea is that in the beginning you set up the rituals (what is expected) and the routines (the schedule) and reinforce them over and over and over above any other activity or importance. Then, when the students are thoroughly engaged in learning activities you can reference the expected behavior and they will be reminded of what is expected and (hopefully) comply.

To make matters difficult the toddler still hasn’t fully grasped their language skills yet and are still operating mainly from the right side of the brain. The right hemisphere is all about play and imagination and creativity and, most importantly, emotion. The left hemisphere is the one of logic and reasoning and language and numeracy. Learning about the two hemispheres helps us to understand more fully why it is that children behave as they do. This right side dominance is the reason why your toddler doesn’t respond when you try to reason with them as they’re having a meltdown. They don’t have any other ability other than to process the situation emotionally.

To handle that pickiness that comes with the typical toddler it helps to remind yourself that the challenge is more of a power play than an actual preference. The child isn’t saying no to the chicken and green beans because he suddenly doesn’t like them it’s because he’s trying to see if you’ll give him the bowl of cereal he’d really like. Don’t turn yourself into a short-order cook! As Pamela Druckerman says in Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (now with Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting), Europeans don’t normally struggle with the food issues that we do in America. That’s because they don’t allow food choices to become a battle ground.

Your Kids Table has been an invaluable resource for me in regards to picky eating. What started out as a resource for parents of children with sensory processing disorders has morphed into a resource for all parents. Alisha Grogan is a licensed pediatric occupational therapist who discovered that the recommendations for her clients worked just as well for her own children. We are pretty consistent with our son and it is thanks to her information that we are successful. Here are the two things we do:

  • First, we don’t force our child to eat anything. We offer but always say, “You don’t have to eat this but this is all there is.” We let him get down from the dinner table and play and later on when he decides he’s really hungry he comes asking for food and we offer the dinner plate. If he still refuses he goes to bed hungry. He’s only really tried that once. He recognizes that it may not be his favorite meal but it’s sustenance and if he’s hungry he eats. The caveat to this is to make sure that at least one thing on the plate is something he enjoys. Don’t try and force brussels sprouts as the only vegetable if he’s never had them before.
  • Second, we offer choices. “You can have cheddar bunnies or raisins.” If he asks for something else we just repeat the sentence. Choices help him to feel like he has some control over the situation as it is a child’s natural inclination to want to be in charge but the choice we are giving is still allowing us to make the ultimate decision. We do this in just about every aspect of his life. Clothing, two choices to wear that have been picked out and weather appropriate. Food, two choices that are nutritionally valuable. Drinks, water or milk, end of story. We’ve done this from the very beginning and it works wonderfully. Every once in a while we have rebellion but that results in us referring back to the first statement above.

In addition to those two principles we try and always eat as a family and stick to eating five times a day. Breakfast is usually eggs and fruit. Morning snack. Lunch of most often leftovers from the night before or a sandwich and veggies. Afternoon snack. Dinner is usually a meat and two vegetables, sometimes with pasta or rice. That’s it. We have found that if our child doesn’t eat too many snacks he comes to the table hungry and willing to eat what’s in front of him. Not only that but he’s an adventurous eater. Since we eat dinner together he’s been able to try sushi and just about every other adult food you can think of and he loves it all. He even tried an oyster recently!

The key is always reminding them that they don’t have to eat it. No forcing to finish the dinner plate or “just eat one more bite.” We offer a variety of foods and keep trying them until we decide we like them or not. No pressure. Our child doesn’t get “kid food” or a different dinner than anyone else in the family. We don’t have time for that nonsense! Food should not be a battle. Food should be nutritious and delicious and exciting. We are determined to make sure we set our child up for a healthy future!

What about you? How are the food battles in your house? Have you ever tried any of these ideas? What have you found to be successful tactics? Do you want more help in this area or have other questions? Let me know!

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