Mealtime Battles: Behind Your Toddler’s Misbehavior
Understanding and responding to common toddler behavior issues
Why Toddlers are Finicky Eaters
Between 12 and 24 months, children are suddenly able to do many things for themselves. And what’s more basic than choosing the food you eat? “Toddlers now have this sense of self. They’re realizing, ‘I have choices. I don’t have to just eat what you put in front of me,’” explains Tovah P. Klein, PhD., director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. “It’s all about mastering some control over their world. It’s great to have all that separateness and yet it’s scary at the same time,” says Klein.
This need for control is what drives a toddler to suddenly decide he does not like the taste of squash after all, but then, two weeks later, maybe he does. He’s calling the shots. And while it can be hard to feel like you’re literally catering to a two-year-old, in terms of development, this independence is a wonderful thing.
What to Do
Toddlers are very sensitive to parents’ feelings about feeding. If you talk about preparing “something special” or how well an older sibling is eating, your toddler picks up on that pressure. So first, take an honest look at your own emotions. Until now, feeding has been one of your most important jobs and a powerful time for bonding. It’s totally normal to feel like your child is rejecting you now. But at around age one, eating becomes his job. Your role is to present healthful selections of finger foods and let your child choose.
“Just back off,” says Klein. “Serve your kid a pretty healthy meal—three or four things (never touching) on the plate—and say, ‘You eat what you want.’” Try to take the emotion out of meal time: Don’t assume your child will dislike something, but keep your expectations in check. And when your toddler says he’s done, he’s done. (And yes, smearing or throwing food and standing up in his chair are also signs that a toddler is done.) Take him away from the table and don’t offer food again until the next regular meal or snack time. If he gets hungry, he’ll learn to eat when food is offered. This isn’t punishment; Your aim is to be matter-of-fact about it. “You never want to make a battle out of food. Don’t try ‘One more bite’ or, ‘Eat this first and then you can have chocolate.’ You want child to gain the ability to decide what and how much to eat,” says Klein. (Read what one pediatrician has to say about toddler’s picky eating habits.)
For one- and two-year-olds, eating will be largely about experimentation; think in terms of the nutrition they’re getting over a week or month. (If you’re worried about achieving a rounded diet, talk to your pediatrician about a minimum daily or weekly diet.) For most children, a vegetable-heavy diet can wait until the drama of this time passes. Klein says that toddlers who will only eat pasta or bread are incredibly common—and still thriving.
Keep in Mind
“Make meals fun and social,” says Klein. “Don’t talk about the food.” It’s not too early for toddlers to learn that meal times mean talking and sharing with friends and family as much as eating, so sit and eat with them. Take heart: “Eventually they’ll overcome the pickiness. As they get older their tastes branch out,” Klein assures.
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