Feeding, feeding, feeding has been your big job for a long, long time. We all feel like good parents when our kids clean their plates.

Yet, many toddlers tenaciously refuse any food other than crackers, macaroni and cheese, and buttered bread. Don’t take this fussiness personally; it’s just a normal part of the rigidity so common to the toddler years. Take some time to read a book or check with your doctor to learn the amount of nutrients your child really needs, and track their food intake over a week or two to see if they’re getting enough. Most kids require less than we think.

Four Reasons Toddlers Become Food Refuseniks

  1. They’re not hungry. Shortly after the first birthday a toddler’s weight gain suddenly slows down. And by 18 to 24 months, many toddlers become “grazing animals,” preferring many snacks a day to regular meals. 

  2. Mealtime means more than food. To your toddler, a meal is as much play, or a science experiment, as it is a time to eat.

  3. They hate green. It’s smart to like red and avoid green. Red signals what’s ripe, sweet, and safe to eat. Green foods are often bitter or unripe. (Even with lollipops— toddlers pick red over green almost every time!)

  4. “Temperamental” taste buds. Some kids are just born supersensitive. They hate rough clothes, loud noises, and strong flavors.

          Tools to Handle Picky Eaters

          Smart parents avoid battles they can’t win. So rather than trying to force your child to eat something he doesn’t want, sidestep the conflict by hiding it in the food he likes or finding a win-win compromise.

          Connect with respect.

          Narrate your child’s strong desire not to eat so she knows you understand. (Here are more tips about how to connect with an upset toddler.

          Catch others being good.

          Casually point out what kids have on their plates when you visit restaurants (though resist the urge to compare other kids to your own—that could make your child feel worse…and more defiant.). Invite older kids to your house to eat a meal. Toddlers love imitating others, especially slightly older kids.

          Strike a win-win compromise.

          Compete to see who can chomp down the “little trees” (broccoli) the fastest. Offer choices (“Should I give you three peas or two?”) and suggest a win-win compromise (“Eat a green bean and you can have another French fry. Eat two more green beans and you can have all five of these French fries!”). If your toddler drives a hard bargain and eats only one tiny nibble of the bean, you should still give her a piece of the French fry because that’s definitely a baby step in the right direction. 

          Use reverse psychology.

          When your toddler reaches for a piece of broccoli, at first let her have only a tiny piece. Say, “No way! Mummy wants them ALL! They’re Mummy’s trees.” When your tot gobbles up her piece, make a silly pout and say, “Hey, you ate my broccoli!!”

          Reverse psychology in action: When 2-year-old Celia refused to eat, Mark and Karen pretended to try to sneak bits of food off her plate as though they were greedy and wanted all her food for themselves. “We appeal to her basic sense of ‘It’s mine!’ ” says Mark. “It works about half the time, but a 50-50 success rate ain’t so bad.”

          Put bad behavior “on hold.”

          Lips still zipped? If your child still won’t eat, let her leave the table. However, if she returns for a little milk or sweets, you might put her “on hold” by doing something like this: Begin to hand her the milk, then suddenly stop and offer her a smidge of dinner first. “You want milky? Okay, sweetheart, here’s your milk. Oops, silly Mummy! Mummy forgot, big girls have to eat one green bean before milky! Do you want to eat this big one or this little teeny, tiny, baby bean?”

          If she refuses, say, “No problem, my love. But no beans . . . no milky.” Then say, “I’ll check on you in just a sec to see if you’re ready for your bean.” Now turn and busy yourself with something for 30 seconds. Then turn back and whisper, “I know you don’t like beans sooooooo much. So should we find a teeny, tiny one or would you rather just eat a half of one?” As soon as she eats her bean, reward her with a smile, milk, and a little time-in. This will encourage faster cooperation in the future.

          Become a master of disguise.

          Okay, the following may sound like you are being a spy more than an ambassador, but here are my favourite tricks for getting nutrients and veggies past your toddler’s lips:

          • Appeal to her “sour tooth.” Cut vegetables into French-fry–size strips, cook them, then marinate them overnight in pickle juice or Italian dressing.

          • Blend veggies into a soup or pasta sauce.

          • Blend and bake veggies into bread or muffins. Use a recipe for zucchini bread, but use pureed broccoli in place of zucchini and double the amount the recipe calls for.

          • Make yam chips by baking or broiling them in an oven with a little salt and butter.

          • Dip lightly steamed veggies into ranch or creamy Italian dressing.

          • Grind zucchini or carrots and put them into pancakes and serve them with syrup.

          • Serve fresh carrot or carrot/apple juice.

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