Growth and Developement
My daughter Tracie is 20 months old. She’s very healthy, but I worry about her horrible eating habits. I never know how she’ll behave at a meal. Sometimes she eats everything we are eating; other times she’s picky and fussy. She clamps her mouth shut if we try to get her to eat something, even when it’s something she loved the week before. If I put food on her plate that she doesn’t want, she throws it on the floor. Her daycare provider says she eats fine there, even if the food is new to her, but at home she won’t eat anything that doesn’t look right. Please help. I am beginning to dread mealtimes.
Tracie sounds like a typical toddler. Even though some young children will eat anything that they can fit in their mouths, most 1-year-olds are fairly discriminating about what about what they eat. A toddler may have foods she loves to eat one day and refuses to taste the next. Or she may become enamored of one food and want to eat it for every meal.
Tracie’s unpredictable behavior is also part of a toddler’s desire to be independent. When she clamps her lips together she is saying: “You’re not in charge. I am!” When she throws her food she’s testing: “What is my mom going to do about it?” Because her eating patterns are often determined by how rebellious she is feeling, the more that you try to control what and how much she eats, the more she’ll rebel. Toddler food rebellion, unfortunately and unfairly, is usually expressed toward the parent who feeds the child most often. It’s not unusual for a 1-year-old to squeeze her mouth shut when her mother offers her food, and open up like a little bird for her caregiver. It’s not that her caregiver is more skilled in feeding toddlers; it’s that she’s less emotionally invested in the outcome. Because of that, your toddler doesn’t need to show her who’s the boss.
There are other reasons than simple rebelliousness for a 1-year-old to refuse to eat certain foods. Most toddlers do not like to try any new foods, although if they see a food on your plate, they may be willing to dare a taste. Don’t assume that Tracie “won’t eat” a food. If the same food is presented to her many times, without pressure, she may refuse for weeks and then one day take a bite.
You might notice that certain tastes and textures appeal to Tracie more consistently than others. It’s not unusual for a child to refuse all but a certain brand or flavor of a food such as yogurt, or to prefer strained orange juice to orange juice with pulp. As any child’s tastes become more refined, she will have an idea of how she wants food to be presented, and variations in what she is used to may be upsetting to her. For example, many 1-year-olds won’t eat lumpy food, and many of them will refuse a favorite food if it is too hot or too cold when it is first presented. Fortunately, most 1-year-olds don’t get hysterical just because two different foods on a plate are touching one another. That behavior doesn’t emerge until children turn 2!
Food jags, a variation of fussy eating, are common in young children. A child discovers a food that she loves, and demands to have it served to her at every meal. If the food is basically nutritious, there is no harm in continuing to serve it. Even though you may think that Tracie will go off to kindergarten eating nothing but applesauce, these food jags don’t usually last more than a few months. However, if the food that Tracie prefers is a treat food, such as cookies or candy, you can’t allow her to choose to eat them instead of other foods. A 1-year-old doesn’t really need sweets at all, so it might be easier not to offer them daily. If treats and sweets are always around in your home, you’ll have to set a firm limit and stick to it. The type of sweet — “natural,” “organic,” “refined” or “from fruit only” — makes no difference: Glucose is glucose. Try to avoid having any dessert be the reward for finishing other foods. That will set up a dynamic around mealtime that is best avoided. Your child will say, “I’m full” when you offer the chicken, and then demand dessert anyway. (She may say, as one of mine did, “My dessert compartment is still empty”!)
Even though Tracie’s fussiness is predictable and common for children this age, you don’t have to try to overcome it by trying to anticipate what she will like or not like at every meal. If you are a parent who is always adjusting her child’s plate to meet her demands, you will teach her that you think it is OK to be a fussy eater and that you think it is your job to try to please her.
The best approach to take is to provide your child with nutritious foods that you know she likes, even if she prefers the same foods over and over. Most children like bread, rice, cereal and pasta, so serving these grains will usually guarantee that your child will eat something. (Whole wheat or whole grains are far more nutritious than enriched refined flours.) Present new foods that are suitable for a 1-year-old to handle, and allow her to taste and try them at her own pace.
Tracie’s behavior at the table in the evenings and on weekends may be in part because your mealtimes don’t match up to times when she is hungry. Try to serve her meals and snacks at regular intervals so that she doesn’t have to wait until she’s hungry and cranky to be fed. Most toddlers have a bigger appetite at certain times of the day, usually at breakfast or lunch times. Dinnertime misbehavior can be a result of having late snacks, but don’t try to hold off feeding until the adults are ready. Offering Tracie her dinner at 5:30 is a good way to help her eat and behave better for her own dinner and for yours. She can have a snack with the rest of the family later.
Once you have offered her food, you don’t have to do anything more than sit with Tracie and make mealtime pleasant for her. You don’t need to coax her to take more bites or to try to eat more than she seems to want. If she refuses all of the food you offer her, leave her alone. Clear the food, and wait for at least an hour before offering again — notice than I am not saying let her starve! — but make sure that you are offering the same type of food. If Tracie learns that she can refuse her lunch at noon and get crackers at 1, you know what she’ll learn.
The good news is that you have more control than you realize. You are the person who decides what food to offer Tracie. She isn’t old enough to stop at a mini-mart on her way home from school to fill up on candy bars and slushies. As long as the food that you think is healthy is placed in front of her at reasonable times, she’ll eat the quantity she needs when she’s hungry. If you get in the habit of chasing, coaxing, pleading or tricking, Tracie can only learn one thing: Being provocative about eating is a lot more fun than just sitting, chewing and swallowing her food.
Meg Zweiback is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and family consultant in Oakland. She has helped thousands of Bay Area families meet the challenges of everyday life with children. She is the author of four books for parents including Keys to Toilet Training. Her website www.bringingupkids.com has downloadable information and handouts for parents and teachers.