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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceHandling a toddler's food refusal — Good Parenting

Handling a toddler’s food refusal — Good Parenting

Baby highchairDear Dr. Debbie,

Our 2-year-old generally likes most foods but lately has gotten pickier. If an offending food is still on her plate, she pitches a fit. Removing it seems like the easiest solution, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to handle it.

Picky’s Mom

Don’t miss last week’s column Helping a child manage a special diet — Good Parenting

Dear Mom,

Issues around food can stir up emotions between parent and child. From the parent’s point of view, food sustains life, takes effort to provide and, if successfully presented, satisfies a child’s needs for at least a few minutes. From a child’s point of view, food satisfies hunger, tastes better from a parent’s plate, and makes for interesting science and art experiences.

Your approach is actually quite logical, especially considering the logic of a 2-year-old.

I’m Hungry Right Now!

Timing can improve the chances that a toddler or preschooler will eat. A young child is usually hungry enough after a good night’s sleep to be easily fed first thing in the morning; unless she is too groggy to be cooperative. Sweet food just before bed will create a low-blood sugar situation in the morning. Better to keep things steady with a low-sugar bedtime snack and create a predictable morning ritual that leads up to a pleasant breakfast.

Appetite is also high after exercise since a workout uses up the body’s reserves. So be ready with lunch and snacks after active play. The key to well-timed feedings is proper spacing. You don’t want her blood sugar dropping so low that she is cranky, nor an appetite that is so low that she finds fault with anything that is offered.

I Want Yours

For some reason, eating off a parent’s plate seems to be a universal practice in the early years. It might be to assure that a food isn’t poisonous, or a hunch that a parent is getting a better deal, or maybe the child just wants to have a more intimate dining experience . It’s up to individual family standards how much of the meal, to what age, etc. this is tolerable. (A wide disparity between parents eating off each other’s plates is usually sorted out during the dating phase!) Many parents find it easier to introduce new foods this way rather than facing the disappointment of a child not liking a full bowl of something unfamiliar.

If it turns out she doesn’t like what’s on your plate, it’s less of a parent-child conflict than refusing to eat what you have made just for her. If on the other hand, she likes it, you can always give her more of yours. Take heart that this phase is usually short lived. “By myself” is a very strong urge at age 3.

Hands On (and In) Learning

Preschool teachers know to plan for “messy play” as an important part of each day. Water, sand, play dough, finger paint and food experiences provide opportunities to categorize, contrast, observe cause and effect, as well as learn to control the muscles of the hands. The palms and fingertips have become a child’s best means of taking in new information, as opposed to the mouthing of the world’s textures and flavors that dominates the first year and a half.

So snack time and mealtime can quickly turn into mess time if you don’t remove that which has been identified as objectionable as a food.

The concrete thinking of a 2-year-old will find purpose for whatever is on her plate — whether to eat it or to play with it. So when she has determined that it is not food, just make it go away.

Roll With It

Try to put this potential conflict about what happens at the table in perspective. Above all, mealtimes should be pleasant for all as bodies are nourished, conversation is shared and family members enjoy acceptance from one another. You may find it easier to accept your daughter’s need to clear her plate of (what to her is) unappetizing items if you keep in mind that everyone can get right back to enjoying the meal.

Keep your kitchen stocked with a variety of nutritious foods that are easy to serve so that a quick substitution is no big deal. An analogy for an adult might be a situation in which you have little control about what comes out of the kitchen and limited ability to communicate your preferences. Let’s say you don’t speak French, nor do you eat snails, and don’t realize that escargot is served as a standard appetizer. The sooner the gastropods leave the table the sooner you can get back to thoughts of eating.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

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