How I (Painstakingly) Reformed My Picky-Eater Toddler

It didn't happen overnight. But with the help of a local dietitian, mealtimes at my house are now a lot less stressful — and, dare I say, even fun.

Picky-Eater Toddler Tips: Noah eating his food happily.

Behold! My picky-eater toddler, Noah, happily eating a sandwich. (I thought this would never happen.)

I think most first-time parents will sympathize with me when I tell you the following story. The rest of you might think I’m a tad nuts, but whatever. I’m willing to risk your judgment.

So here goes: It was 8:30 on a Monday night, about an hour after my nearly one-year-old son, Noah, had been put to bed for the night. My husband, Chris, was out of town for work, so I’d had a particularly long and logistics-laden day juggling a needy baby, yippy dog, work deadlines, etc. (Side note to single parents: I do not know how you do this day in and day out, and I salute you. I believe you are actual superheroes.)

In a word, I was tired. Really tired. And on that particular night, I’d battled with my kid for nearly an hour at dinnertime while he rejected — with gusto, I should add — every last item of food I put in front of him. 

I’d noticed that over the course of the month or so prior that he’d gotten particularly picky about eating. The food he used to gobble up happily — avocados, sweet potatoes, scrambled eggs — were now tossed to the floor without so much as the tiniest taste. Like, I would put it on his tray, and it would immediately get thrown off. He would do the same thing with new foods: on the tray, on the floor, rinse, repeat. For this Type A first-time mom, it was incredibly frustrating.

Add this to the fact that the only thing I could get him to eat were those store-bought pouches of pureed baby food, and I felt like a complete and total failure of a mother. At some point I’d gotten it into my head that I wouldn’t, under any circumstance, spend an absurd amount of money on some suspiciously shelf-stable version of a food I could prepare in my own blender. But there I was feeling utterly defeated as I watched Noah gleefully suck down a Capri Sun-like pouch of mashed up turkey and plums stamped with a best-by date in 2017. Babies, man.

So that’s what led me to my computer on that Monday night in early May. I figured that the all-knowing Google would be able to help me find some ideas or tips somewhere, anywhere that could help me reform my picky-eater toddler. I searched furiously, seemingly to the ends of the Internet, but an hour later I still hadn’t found an answer. And then a name popped into my head: Krista Yoder Latortue, a local registered dietitian and founder of Family Food. I’d worked with her on a few stories for this blog in the past, and had even given her a Best of Philly nod back in 2013 for being such an awesome local resource for — wait for it — parents dealing with picky-eater kids. GUESS WHAT Y’ALL: I was now that parent.

So I rattled off an email that I’m sure read like the ramblings of a crazy person and pleaded with Krista to please, please, please tell me what to do.

The reality is, the more you worry about his eating, the worse it will get,” she wrote to me the next morning. “Rather than worrying about getting him to eat, think about feeding as time to expose him to food.”

She told me about a pediatric nutrition expert named Ellyn Satter and her so-called Division of Responsibility, a way of reframing how parents approach feeding their kids. The nutshell version is this, according to Krista: Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of meals, and children are responsible for deciding whether or not they want to try the food and the amount they want to eat.

Hold the phone: You’re telling me I’m supposed to just let Noah decide?! He’s not even a year old yet! How could he possibly know what he wants and doesn’t want?

“Because your son is not a robot,” I heard a small voice say in the back of my mind. True, he’s not, and I’d already begun to see glimmers of his independence, the little wheels turning in his head, as he’d begun to test his boundaries, inspect — like, reeeeally inspect — how his toys actually work, and repeat words when I said them. It was an interesting theory, anyway.

Krista also kindly offered to send one of her superstar dietitians, Robin Nuse, out to my house for a home visit. Of course I accepted.

Over the next week leading up to our appointment with Robin, I decided to make it my personal mission to really learn and understand what’s going on in my kid’s head when it comes to food. Most of all, I was going to remember Krista’s advice that I can control what goes in front of him, but not what goes in him, and I have to be okay with that.

A few days later, at lunch, I had a breakthrough. I offered Noah a piece of a cherry for the first time, but instead of just plopping it on his tray and hoping for the best, I held it in the palm of my hand and asked him to touch it. He looked at me quizzically for a second, but then gamely obliged and touched the food in my hand. Eventually, I got him to pick it up and put it back in my hand. It wasn’t on the floor yet, so, progress.

Then we held it the cherry together — I know, it sounds crazy — all the while I sat there making the most absurdly embarrassing, “Yummm!!!!” noises. He was interested and curious, eyes big as he took it all in, as if telepathically saying to me, “You’re saying this is good, Mama?” After a few minutes, we picked it up together, and he let the cherry touch is lip. A few minutes after that, he took the tiniest, almost imperceptible bite. I praised the business out of him, and his eyes lit up. Then, to my utter shock, he picked up the entire piece of cherry and shoved it in his mouth, beaming with pride. I clapped and whooped and he shook his hands with delight.

The whole scene took at least five minutes, maybe even 10. It felt painfully slow and deliberate in the moment. Like, Good lord, child, it’s a cherry, not a nuclear bomb. It’s delicious. Trust me! But you know what I learned? Noah needs to find out for himself. He needs to take his time to figure things out, to decide if he’s going to go for the thing you want him to go for. In other words, my son is not a robot.

A few days later Robin came over, and I was feeling sheepish about the entire thing. I’d made a lot of progress with Noah by that point, and I said to Chris a few hours before our appointment that Robin was going to see a perfect-angel eater and report back to Krista that I am, in fact, out of my freaking mind.

Luckily, she did not say this to Krista. (At least, I don’t think she did.) What Robin did do, was give me an arsenal of practical tips to continue to coach Noah to try new things, along with some straightforward real-talk to manage my own expectations, such as:

• Don’t be the short order cook — meaning, I shouldn’t feel pressure to try to feed him every single thing in my kitchen when he’s not accepting what I’m offering. I should include one or two “preferred foods” at each meal — that is, food I know he likes — and introduce one or two new foods along side. “You are guaranteed he will eat something and will also have exposure to new foods,” Robin said.

• Encourage self-regulation. This goes back to the whole, I-can-control-what’s-in-front-of-him, but-Noah-controls-what-he-actually-eats thing. “Allow Noah to determine how much he will eat and remember that he is eating only as much as he needs,” Robin advised, adding that it’s very typical for a child to go two or three days without eating a “good” meal. Since he’s growing just fine, I shouldn’t worry about a few “bad” meals in between.

• Remember: Portion sizes for babies are much smaller than you think. Did you know that for a one year old, one tablespoon per food per meal is an age-appropriate portion? That seems like nothing, right? If you figure I’m offering three foods at a meal, my expectation should be for Noah to eat just three tablespoons of food in total. If he eats more than a tablespoon, it’s essentially the icing on the cake. This absolutely blew my socks off, and honestly just knowing this has removed a ton of pressure from mealtimes.

• Encourage food experiences — i.e. the cherry process above! “Have him smash the food, kiss it, count it and smell it to allow him to experience a new food before eating it,” Robin told me. “It may take time, but this will help to increase his acceptance and also the likelihood that he will eat it.” This last part has definitely shaken out to be true. In the weeks that I’ve been rigorously implementing Robin’s strategies, I’ve found that Noah’s warm-up time for new foods is waaaaay shorter than it used to be. Now when I hand him a new food, I say, all upbeat and happy, “Let me see you eat it!” Usually, he rolls it around in his hand for a few seconds before popping it into his mouth. Sometimes he chews it a few times and spits it out, so we start over. After a few tries and lots of praise, he swallows. Victory!

• Speaking of praise …  Offer praise when trying a new food to encourage him. The goal, of course, is to reinforce that food is not scary. It’s fun! It’s delicious! Who knew my kid had such trust issues? I’ve found that if I try the food alongside of him and make a big show of chewing and swallowing, he not only thinks I’m completely hilarious, he almost always follows suit.

I can’t say after two months of concerted effort that Noah is now some kind of baby gourmand, and, yes, he still has some issues that we’re working on. (Anyone know how to get a toddler to stop throwing food?) But I will say that mealtimes are about 95 percent less stressful than they used to be, and a whole lot more fun.

Our latest victory? Red bell pepper and curry-spiced chicken, both of which Noah can’t get enough of right now. Not bad for a picky-eater toddler, eh?

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