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How to Get Your Child Past the Fussy Food Stage

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Child refusing to eat her vegetables
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Like testing out the power of the word "no" or refusing to let you change her diaper, being fussy about food is normal for toddlers. And just like those other trying behaviors, this too should pass - but it's going to take some help from you to get her to become a more healthy and eager eater.

One of the best ways to get through the my child won't eat stage is to use the same approach you would when teaching your tot how to put away toys. The first time you try to get him to clean up, he may cry and refuse, but by consistently and calmly showing him time and time again that the toys go into the toy box, he'll eventually get it and do it without the tantrum (or at least with significantly fewer tantrums). Of course, there are differences between meals and clean ups:

  1. We often feel much more concerned about food than tidy toy boxes, so it's hard to be as calm when kids resist eating.
  2. Parents may feel a bit guilty or at least responsible for their child's refusal to eat; whether we cooked the meal or bought it, it's common for us to wonder whether our child won't eat because we're serving the "wrong" food.
These are natural, emotional responses to the situation. But you shouldn't take your child's refusal to eat personally. Turning up his nose at the chicken soup has more to do with testing limits or being reluctant to try something new at that moment. As for concerns about your child missing out on essential calories or nutrition, a period of fussiness should not have a long-term effect on your child's health. Plus, by taking a few key steps, you should be able to get her past this stage and eating an overall balanced diet soon.

Step 1: Keep In Mind Your Toddlers' Nutritional Needs -- They're Pretty Simple:

Notice, first, that I said "an overall balanced diet." The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that you should regularly offer a range of healthy foods from the four basic nutritional groups:
1) Meat, fish, poultry, eggs
2) dairy
3) fruits and vegetables
4) cereal, bread, pasta, rice

But that doesn't mean he needs to eat from all of those groups at every meal or even every day. The goal, according to the AAP’s Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, is that "your child’s diet will balance out over several days."

Remember, too, that toddlers only need 1000 calories a day. If your child only eats small portions of food at a sitting, he can still achieve that calorie mark by eating three meals and two snacks daily.

Step 2: Serve It Once, Twice...Fifty Times If Necessary:

A child may resist new foods for several reasons, but just because your toddler spits out avocados the first, second, or third time you feed them to her, doesn't mean she won't one day turn into a guacamole fiend. Most importantly, don't be quick to label your child "picky" – that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (you treat her like as a kid who won't eat vegetables, she will stop eating them).

Stephanie Gallagher, our Guide to Kids Cooking, explains the many ways you can warm kids up to vegetables, for instance. Basically, she suggests making them a part of your child's life, accepting that your child may not eat them at first, but that one day those beans will disappear from her plate.

Serving different foods is important, but other ways to get buy in from your toddler is to make him part of the cooking process. Take him shopping for veggies. In fact, let him touch and smell them at the market. Sit him in his high chair while you cook and sneak him some of what you're making like it's a treat: "Yum, yum! Try some green beans!"

Step 3: Make Meals Happy:

Going back to the cleaning up toys analogy, you might have other ways to motivate kids to tidy up the play room. Like a zillion other households in America, we sing the Barney Clean Up Song. And it works to motivate toddlers because it turns clean up into a fun activity. Music can do the same thing for meal time. Special bowls, spoons, and cups can also get your little one excited about sitting down at the table (even if she's in a separate high chair).

Step 4: Be a Role Model:

Having meals together is, of course, also a powerful way to make the time special. It's also the best way for a toddler to learn how to eat. I read a story once about a mother who was concerned because her toddler wasn't feeding herself and was resistant to trying new foods. The fact was, the mother would always feed her child alone. She herself never sat down to breakfast or lunch, and she waiting until after the baby was in bed to have dinner with her husband. So, the toddler never really got to see what meal time was supposed to be like: "Oh, that's how we use our spoon. Look at momma trying the sweet potato -- and loving i!"

Related to including a toddler in your family meal, you can start serving the same food to your toddler. You may need to make adjustments such as not adding sauce to veggies or separating out some parts of the meal. Even if your toddler only eats a few bites of the "grown-up" fare along with something more mashed up and toddleresque, getting him used to more mature textures and tastes will help you get him ready to eat your food on a regular basis.

Step 5: Stock Pile Recipes That Are Good for Kids:

When I say "good for kids," I really mean "good for your whole family." I recommend toddler recipes that allow you to create healthy meals for the whole family using more or less the same ingredients. You might adapt some of these to meet the needs of a young toddler who still needs food pureed a bit and you might introduce your spouse or older children to exciting new foods that happen to be toddler friendly because they are more nutritionally dense and can be broken into finger foods.

Bottom Line::

How long will it take before your child willingly eats a stalk of broccoli or doesn't throw her bowl across the room? There's no way of telling. In some instances, children do continue to be picky beyond the toddler years. If your child has allergies, sensory issues, or developmental delays, that is even more likely. In most situations, though, patience and a positive approach to food can help you all through the nothing-but-beige-food stage and other demands. One day, you may actually be looking for exciting new recipes together.
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