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What to Do When Your Toddler Is a Picky Eater

flickr / David Goehring

Raising a picky eater can make a parent feel like they’re being insulted by the food critic from Ratatouille multiple times a day. Slaved over a hot grill to make an amazing steak? This looks like something that could have been scraped from a shoe, remove it at once! Produced an omelet to die for? What folded abomination have you laid upon the table? It goes to the floor! Made a peanut butter and jelly as a last ditch? This would have been perfect save for being desecrated by the presence of crust! Commence tantrum!

The problem, however, is that internalizing the actions of a picky eater can make the issue worse. Because the more uptight a parent gets about feeding their kid, the less likely a kid will eat. It’s far more beneficial for parents to find a place at the table with expert tactics in hand. But they need to understand what’s actually happening first.

Is It Something More Than Picky Eating?

Chris Linn is president and CEO of Feeding Matters, a nonprofit organization with a mission to further research on disorders that can affect how a child eats.”Statistics tell us that 3 to 5 percent of infants and children under the age of 5 will end up struggling with some form of pediatric feeding disorders,” she explains.

These disorders can often look like typical picky eating but can have devastating consequences on health. Linn recommends that parents look deeper into frustrating eating behaviors. In fact, her organization offers a free online tool that helps parents understand if their child could be affected by picky eating or a more complicated feeding disorder that requires intervention.

That said there are a few universal tactics that will help parents regardless of the eating barriers.

Don’t Be A Short-Order Cook

Parents who feel like they’re behind the grill at a local greasy spoon every time dinner rolls around should rethink their methods.

The Five-Pronged Approach to a Picky Eating Toddler

  • Include your kids in both grocery shopping and meal prep in order to get them invested in the experience, and make family dinners a social experience.
  • Don’t stress out if your toddler doesn’t want to eat. Look at the child’s weekly rather than daily food intake if they begin to avoid meals.
  • Never badger or bargain with your child in order to get them to eat.
  • Try to give your kid something to eat 15 separate times before giving up. Offer the food in different forms if your initial attempts fail.
  • Pinpoint the difference between picky eating and a potential feeding disorder. Seek help if you believe your child is beyond being a finicky eater.

“First of all it’s labor intensive and parents are busy,” says Melanie R. Silverman, dietician and CCO of pediatric telemedicine app Pacify. “It puts children in charge of nurtrition and not the parents.”

Silverman points to a famous principle championed by pediatric dieticians called the Divison of Responsibility in Feeding. It simply states: The parent’s job is to provide the food, and the child’s job is to choose to eat it or not.

Instead of treating children like a customer ready to drop a 1-star Yelp review, Silverman says parents should juts put their heart into making healthy balanced meals.

Don’t Stress Too Much

Parents should understand that kids and adults don’t eat the same way. And that’s not just because adults somehow refrain from rubbing spaghetti in their hair.

“Adults are more consistent eaters,” says Silverman. “As toddlers, children skip meals. They have ups and downs with their appetites and you can’t invest too much with every meal.”

Silverman points out it’s much better to look at your children’s intake over a week rather than day to day. Basically, parent’s need to chill the hell out and have a cocktail. Maybe two.

“Children aren’t trying to drive their parents crazy,” Silverman says. “They’re just doing what they’re supposed to.”

Don’t Be A Food Pusher

Concurrent with being the most chill dinner companion the world has ever seen, parents don’t want to spend the whole time badgering a kid to eat something. It will only serve to cause everyone to loathe dinner.

“Parents need to create an environment that helps kids learn to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full,” Silverman explains. “When you push food on children it blunts their ability to develop their satiety cues and could lead to weight problems later in life.”

Don’t Bargain

Bargaining is related to food pushing in that it teaches a kid to ignore the physiological urges to eat or not eat. Silverman says she’s encountered parents that have offered everything from toys, trips, and cash just to get their kid to chow a tiny piece of broccoli. All of which she considers as counterproductive.

“It’s another avenue of strife at the table,” she says. “All your energy, effort and love should be in planning menus.”

Also, bargaining just makes a parent look desperate. And having a toddler run your life isn’t a good look on anyone.

Don’t Give Up

There’s an old picky-eater saying: It can take 15 tries before they eat something other than fries. Actually, that’s not a saying. But it is a true thing. 15 appears to be the magic number of tastes that need to transpire before a picky kid will actually come around to liking something, or not.

But Silverman notes that the 15 times shouldn’t be over 15 consecutive days, rather aim for about once a week. “You need to spread those tries out pretty far,” she says “And offer foods in different forms. So they may not like the meatballs, but they may take to the ground meat in chili.”

Get Them Involved

Parent’s can take kids shopping and let them pick out some things they may want to try. Pull a chair up to the kitchen counter and let them “help” prepare. Let them set or “decorate” the dinner table. Maybe let them pick out the dinner music. Just get them invested in the process.

Silverman also suggests gardening. “For children to see these things sprout up, it’s almost magical. And when it tastes good, that’s a gratifying feeling.”

In the end, parents might still have a picky eater, but also an inspired future restaurateur. Could they be the next David Chang? Only if the parent is one lucky peach.

Don’t Get Dramatic

“Just serve the kid,” says Silverman. She explains that parents don’t need a great deal of fanfare when introducing kids to new foods. That includes plating it in tiny palatable pieces, or making explanations for why they’ll like it, or going on lengthy dissertations about why it’s good for them.

“Drama is exhausting,” Silverman says. “The dinner table is a place to come to relax and nourish yourself and your family.”

Make Dinner Fun

This doesn’t mean making elaborate Pinterest-level food art.  Silverman says to turn off the phone and come to together to talk at dinner. Go ahead and tell knock-knock jokes that don’t make sense. Make up silly games. When parents aren’t yelling, and their kid isn’t melting down, things get way better.  “Family meals are a community building activity that provides emotional and nutritional support.  Laughter and fun should absolutely be part of the experience,” says Silverman.

Finally, if parents are seriously concerned that there’s a deeper problem for a kid not eating, they should call a pediatrician and ask for weight checks. If there is a serious problem there are interventions for kids who refuse food to the point of it being harmful. But this is relatively rare.

“We are programmed to live,” says Silverman. “Have faith in your kid’s physiology. If you place your love and care into preparing a good meal, trust in the fact that your child will eat what they need.”

And if not, they’re probably just practicing to be the world’s most withering, rat-befriending food critic.