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Creating a Happy, Healthy Relationship Between Your Toddler and Food

What did you hide in there?

For toddlers, a lot of things are about control -- they want control and they'll do anything to get it. Food often becomes a battleground for families, with parents wanting them to eat nutritious food, to sit properly at the table, and to learn to eat what is put in front of them. High expectations for meal time can lead to disappointment, turn mealtime into a battleground and create an unhealthy relationship with food. But what can parents do? There is, of course, no silver bullet. However, there are ways that you can make mealtime more pleasant without having to cater to every single food-related whim that your child has.

Parents always feel pressured to have those perfect family dinners (although I don't think they're "all that"). I think the first thing we should do is take a huge weight off of our own shoulders and stop worrying about whether everyone is sitting properly at the table and using the right utensils. That will come, with time. When your kids are toddlers, developing a healthy and positive attitude toward food is more important than proper table manners. Dionna (@codenamemama) wrote a great post with ideas on making mealtime a positive experience that I wish I'd printed out and posted on my fridge when my kids were that age (in fact, maybe I should still do it now).

It is important to remember when dealing with your own kids and when handing out advice to others, that what works for one toddler, will not necessarily work for another. That is especially true when it comes to picky eaters. There will always be some person ready to tell you that if you just put healthy food in front of your kids, they are guaranteed to eat it. My experience with a picky eater tells me that is FAR from the truth.

When I asked my readers about the issues they find challenging with their toddlers, a lot of you mentioned picky eaters. Erin, one of the commenters on the post, left an insightful comment in response to some of the concerns people brought up:

I think eating issues are often caused when parents make food an issue of control rather than sustenance. All small kids want to control their world, and they often focus on food. So if parents are rigid about expecting kids to do X (like clean their plate) they will often do Y. In addition, small children have extremely sensitive senses of taste and texture, so it’s pretty common that flavors that seem okay to us are revolting to children.

I wouldn’t send my kid to bed hungry either. I tend to make them food I know they will like and add on a bit of what we’re having in some form (although they often eat before us because they go to bed early). The 3 y.o. has to take at least one “thank you” bite from everything on the plate, but whatever he eats or doesn’t eat after that is up to him. I don’t care. My job is to provide a balanced and nutritious meal. His job is to decide what he wants to eat. And we have a designated snack before bedtime that’s part of the daily meal routine. (We don’t do dessert, so that’s never an issue.)

I was a kid who wouldn’t eat much and I spent a LOT of time sitting at the dining room table after everyone had left refusing to eat my vegetables, and I ended up with a very unhealthy relationship to food. I think it’s one of those situations where we as parents have to ask ourselves – Is this really a big deal to me? Why? What am I trying to teach/give my child out of this situation? When you think about it, it’s kind of strange to try to force someone to like certain foods if they don’t. It’s not a moral failing if your neighbor doesn’t like cilantro!

Hannah (@mominisrael) from A Mother In Israel writes about food at Cooking Manager. A couple of years ago, she wrote a post on preventing food issues, which detailed her mother's approach to feeding their family. She followed it up with a second post, answering a reader's questions, on feeding picky children without wasting food.

My two kids couldn't be more different in terms of what they will eat, what they won't eat, and how much they eat. Yet somehow, magically, they are both fairly healthy. So my biggest bit of advice regarding toddlers and food would be the same as my advice on most toddler issues -- slow down, relax, breathe, and listen to your child. You'll figure it out over time.

Resources for Healthy Meals, Snacks and Nutrition Parenting

What are your favourite resources relating to toddlers and food? Do you have any favourite websites, books, or recipes?

Toddler Carnival Sponsor

Image credit: jessicafm on flickr. Post contains affiliate links.
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Reader Comments (38)

Thanks for sharing. We currently make all our own baby food, all organic. Do you think that will help with our daughter's transition to a toddler?

From experience with my kids, I would say that giving babies small pieces of regular food helps better with the transition than making "baby food". I think baby food (purees) were an invention from the times when babies were being given solid food too early. Now that parents are advised to wait until the baby is 6 months, most babies can handle small pieces of cut up food instead of eating baby food.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thank you! I just reached toddlerhood with my baby girl. Looking forward to trying these tips!

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMandi

I see that "one bite of each" thing a lot. What if they won't do the one bite of new things? I see people talk about not letting them leave the table till they take a bite but I'm not into that. How do you convince them to try one bite?

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

My son isn't a particularly fussy eater but, when he was a toddler, we found he was often too tired and cranky at the end of the day to try things. All he wanted was cereal, so we let him have it. We served the veggies, fruit and meat and cheese and so forth for breakfast, and morning tea, and lunch when he was happy and more adventurous.

I didn't make him try everything until he was older and understood more, and I ignored most of the instructions about baby feeding we were given by our maternal and child health nurse. We always offered him everything we were eating unless it was potentially life threatening. It's not a system guaranteed to produce a kid who'll eat anything, but we have managed to avoid most of the angst.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

[...] Follow th&#1110&#1109 link: M&#1072k&#1110ng a Pl&#1077&#1072&#1109&#1077d, Healthy Relationship Linking Y&#959&#965r Toddler &#... [...]

I love your simple advice. There is so much that has worked for my toddler that I know has not worked for many of our friends with children the same age - there definitely is no one size fits all approach to encouraging healthy eating.

I'm with Megan on the "one bite of each" method - it seems to work for a lot of people, but trying to convince my daughter to even lick something she's not interested in is a battle I'm not willing to fight. I just trust that as she sees the same foods over and over again, she'll warm up to the idea of tasting them.

The most helpful thing in our house has been serving meals family style. Giving my daughter the control as to what goes on her plate makes meals much for enjoyable for her, and I think she eats more, of more types of food. Try to give her a bowl of pasta with sauce on it, and you're in for an ear piercing scream, "Annabelle no want sauce!" Give her a dish of noodles and a dish of sauce and let her put some her on plate, and you've got a mess on your hands, but to me it's worth it because she actually eats both, happily.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

[...] they are guaranteed to eat it. My experience with a picky eater tells me that is FAR from the truth.detailsJunk food could damage your toddler’s brainCan’t wait to snap a photo of your toddler [...]

We are super-relaxed about food in my family, and we seem to be turning out some pretty good eaters. My husband and I are both rather adventurous eaters, and we love to cook. It's rare that a typical "kid friendly" meal hits our table. We have five kids, ages 9, 8, almost 6, 3 and 3. They are all five willing to try new things, and are good eaters in general. Here's what has worked for us:

- Solids weren't introduced until each baby could sit up and had mastered the pincer grasp. Their first foods were things like avocado, banana, yogurt, eggs, baby pastina, etc. Since they started eating solids a little later (usually somewhere around 7-9 months), we pretty quickly progressed to just cutting up whatever we were having for our meal (complete with all the seasonings, with the exception of anything overly spicy).

- We don't buy junk. That's not to say that my kids never have junk food, because they do, but I don't regularly keep anything in the fridge or pantry that I'm going to have to argue with them about.

- From the time they are old enough to figure out that there is stuff in the fridge and in the pantry to eat, they pretty much have free reign to eat what they want, when they want (this is where not stocking junk food helps!). Kids just don't get hungry on the same schedule that adults do... I think that trying to enforce an arbitrary (to them) breakfast/lunch/dinner routine at an early age is a useless struggle. For the most part, kids will eat when they're hungry, and when they're not, they won't.

- At meal times, everyone gets a plate with everything on it, and they eat what they want. The only rule is that they're not allowed to say "that's gross," "I don't like that," or any variation of those. Don't want it - just don't eat it. No reason to make a big production about it. They usually eat whatever they're given, and we regularly get "mom/dad, you're the best cook EVER" comments. For the older ones, they're welcome to make themselves a sandwich, a bowl of cereal, or heat up leftovers if they'd rather have that than whatever's for dinner. I try not to make this option about whether or not they 'like" whatever we're having - sometimes you're just not in the mood for [insert food here], ya know? The only stipulation with this one is that if the younger kids decide they'd rather have a PB&J, too, guess who gets to make it for them? Not mom or dad!

That's pretty much it, and it has served us well. Really, I think most of our "success" can be chalked up to the amount of control we give the kids over when and what they eat, combined with the "if you don't like it, don't eat it, but don't talk about it" philosophy. Not only do WE not make a big deal out of them not eating something, we don't give THEM the opportunity to make a big deal out of it, either. Since it's turned out five kids with healthy appetites and adventurous palates thus far, I figure we must be onto something. Hopefully someone else finds the info useful!

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

I'm not into forcing anything either, Megan. I think the idea is to put one bite of everything on their plate and ask that they try. Sometimes you have to offer dozens of times until they will even try it.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Great post. My daughter isn't really what I'd call a picky eater most of the time as there are many foods she likes, but she will rarely try anything new which can be frustrating -- or anything with something mixed into it. It's almost impossible to "hide" vegetables and she won't touch smoothies -- only juices from a single fruit. I try to remember to bring out something new now and then but hesitate because it often goes to waste. However, she'll try new things around other kids though -- peer pressure I guess :) The only real point I'd like to make is that a lot of kids have sensory issues and taste can be a big part of that for some of them. My daughter has been enrolled in a program to address some sensory issues and we learned that many kids simply cannot handle new tastes and textures. In these situations requiring a child to eat or even try foods that they dislike or are not familiar to them can cause them a lot of stress.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

My son is like that, which is why I wanted to make the point about "what works for one kid, doesn't necessarily work for another." He will have a full on panic attack if you try to get him to eat something that he doesn't want to eat. On the rare occasion that he has agreed to try something new, he usually ends up gagging on it.

He is 7 years old and won't eat any fruits or vegetables that are not in puree form or well disguised by other textures (e.g. small chopped up soft vegetables in a bolognese sauce, carrots in a carrot muffin). Even that second part is only a newer development.

However, the good news is that I know him well enough now to know what he will be okay with, so I am able to suggest new things for him to try that he will actually like and he is starting to be more trusting.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Great ideas all around, and many thanks for sharing my link! Now that Kieran is a preschooler, we are having different issues, but I still believe that a relaxed, enjoyable eating space has helped us. Now if only he'd be as interested in his veggies as he is in dessert ;)

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDionna @ Code Name: Mama

In my opinion, using a relaxed approach to feeding and food in general should start when the child is a baby. I read an article on infant feeding that opened my eyes to the fact that so-called baby food is just so unnecessary. It explains clearly where the puree and spoon feeding approach started and why it isn't necessarily the best approach. It changed the way I approach food with my children in general.


Great post. As you know, I love Emma and Eshun's book as well; have used it since it was first published, before I even knew those two.
I was a picky eater well into my 20s - you want to talk control issues? Anyway, my mother's favourite story to tell is that when I was 2 years old, I would come downstairs in the morning, and announce that I wasn't eating dinner that night. And then I wouldn't. I gave the poor woman an ulcer, and she in turn wished triplets upon me that were exactly like me.
My kids, however, are nothing like me, but it took a great deal of effort and intention on my part. I did a few things very early - introduced an extremely wide variety of food, involved them in the process of choosing/preparing food, allowed 'manners' to take a back seat to enjoyment of meals, and didn't sweat it when, despite my best efforts, the food was sometimes rejected.
Now, at 4 and 6, my girls are great eaters. But their tastes still change, and it can be frustrating. I won't let it ruin our mealtimes.

January 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkarengreeners

Now, I'll be the first to admit that we do buy way too much "junk" and my 3 yo daughter eats to much of it (I swear if she eats another goldfish, she's going to sprout gills and let's not even discuss the candy over the past couple of months!) and we are not very good about the fruits and veggies ourselves, but besides that bad example we're setting, we try not to make food a big "thing" with her.

She's still nursing quite a bit, so I don't really worry about whether she's missing any nutrients if she doesn't eat what she "should" in the day (or week).

I'm a SAHM and my partner works evenings, so our "sit down dinner" is at lunch time, if we're not running every which way. Ideally we would all sit and eat and converse, but in reality, I set the table for three, and put some food on her plate, and maybe half the time, she hops right up and eats.

The other half, she wails that she's not hungry, or she wants to keep watching her video or playing with whatever she's into at the moment.

We just say "Ok, that's cool. You don't have to eat, but Mommy and Mama are eating now, so we can't play with you / click on that Sesame Street web game / whatever."

Invariably, in less than five minutes, she comes bopping into the kitchen, climbs up in her chair and starts eating.

Lately, she's been dancing around in the kitchen with her food, saying "I love green eggs and ham! I love them, Sam I Am!" or performing the Nutcracker in the "mirror" of the oven door, but whatever.

Just today I asked my partner, "Do you think it's okay that we let her do that?"

She said, "Well, she doesn't do it in restaurants, so? "

"Oh," I said, "So as long as nobody else knows, it's okay, right?"


January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWhozat

I got side tracked on table manners there, but meant to say that she's kind of a weird inverse picky eater. There are tons of foods that she likes in theory, and even gets excited about "Oh! Stwawbewwies are my favowite!" until she actually tastes them, "I don wan it." (with sad face) but there's not much that she's not willing to try, or at least allow onto her plate and pretend she's going to eat. I love taking her to the salad bar, and letting others over hear her saying "yes" to everything I offer. She might not actually eat it, but at least she's willing to give it a shot.

And, after having eaten who-knows-how-many apples myself, because she begged for one and then took one bite and decided she didn't want it, over the past week, she's suddenly started actually eating them, and loving them.

(Note to self - buy apples!)

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWhozat

I agree that trust is the key. I try to reassure my daughter that I'll never make her eat anything she doesn't want to eat, but I still wish she'd try it because I don't want her to miss out on something I think she'd really like. Most of the time she still refuses, but every now and then...

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Very interesting post. I am three weeks away from starting to wean my daughter and have decided on the 'baby-led' weaning approach which is starting to gain more popularity in the UK. It is all about not bothering with purees at all but starting from 6 months with normal food (apart from a few things for safety reasons). The underlying idea is that babies develop a healthy attitude to food if they are in control of what they eat. Having read about it on a few websites and read the book, it makes complete sense to me, and I am even looking forward to the mess!
Here are the two sites that inspired me: http://www.baby-led.com/
I will probably start blogging about it when we get started.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA Frog at Large

Check out Baby-led Weaning: helping your child to love good food, by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett. A whole book (very readable) on putting your child in control of what food goes into their mouth right from the beginning - no spoon-feeding mush, but finger foods from 6 months onwards, and trusting them to pick what they need from a selection of healthy choices.

It worked for my first child, now 3.5 years old, and I'll be doing the same soon with my 5-month old.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFran

I feel this sense of failure when I've spent an hour cooking in the kitchen, and my toddler immediately rejects it (sometimes by throwing it on the floor). I am learning to ignore my own silly reactions (eg. I slaved in the kitchen, so you'd better eat this!), as I know this is totally unhelpful. Toddlers are emotional beings, and they react the way they do for many different reasons. She's not deliberately rejecting my food :) So we are now attempting a calmer approach to mealtimes - she must try just 1 bite of something, and if she doesn't like it, she can eat something else. Thanks for all these amazing resources!

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMisty

I don't usually do the one bite thing, but will sometimes push "one lick" of something. That's really only if mine has been asking for it and then refuses once it's on the plate, though.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBIT

And I don't recall the one bite thing working on me until I was somewhere near 8 (overnight girl scout camp). It really only made a lot of my dislikes more entrenched.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBIT

I really enjoyed your post, Annie, thank you. I consider Nate to be a picky eater but to offset the "stress" of this, we do not insist that he sits at the table with us. We allow him to graze. He has his own little table and chair that we keep in the living room (our main floor is very open concept) and keep a snack there for him along with a sippy of milk or water all the time. There is a very limited list of foods that he will eat and admittedly, I rarely offer him new foods on his plate because his reaction is frequently very unsavory and I feel lately that I'm in "toddler survival mode" and do what I can to prevent another tantrum. I know he eats a lot of fruit and dairy but he rarely eats meat. Oddly enough, his favourite meal is chili, so if I make that once a week, I can hide all kinds of veggies in there and know that there is at least one given day that he'll be getting a big dose of vegetables and protein. I agree that I'd rather not make food a control issue. Instead I'd like eating to be a source of comfort and togetherness and hope that the rest will fall into place eventually.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

I found this link on Parent Hacks. It's really influenced my thinking about food:

I clicked on the "techniques to try" tag in the RHS panel. There are 89 articles tagged "techniques to try", so hopefully everyone will be able to fine one or two that helps them. I read for hours one night even though I think we've been pretty good at avoiding food battles. Which isn't to says we don't have some bad habits around here, just that battling isn't one of them. We pretty regularly indulge in 6 of "the most dangerous foods, for example. http://itsnotaboutnutrition.squarespace.com/home/2010/7/19/the-10-most-dangerous-foods.html

The PSAs in my area advise: Caregiver decides what, where, and when (obviously with the child's needs/wants in mind); children decide whether and how much.

I stumbled onto baby-led-weaning quite by accident with my second child. I didn't even know it had a name. I just had a very strong-willed baby who was exclusively breastfed to 6 months (which was my goal) and then she REFUSED any food and drink unless she put in her own mouth. So she never got any baby cereal or puree because she refused spoon-feeding. She could handle a cup (not even a sippy) with mouthfuls of breastmilk or water by 8 months.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren L

Chili is great! If my kids liked it, I think I'd make it once a week, but serve them leftovers several times per week. :)

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

As a new mom, I have a question rather than advice. I too believe in creating a positive relationship with food, so I try to offer my 13 month old a wide range of healthy options, although he tends to be a lover of carbs. I'm still breastfeeding four times a day, so I figured that made up for whatever he didn't eat. Then at his one-year check up I found out he had a low iron level (albeit slight) and was instructed to pump him with meat and green veggies, one of our biggest food battles. Any advice for kids whose eating habits truly are causing health problems.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

I can relate, both my boys were low in iron (which I blame on early cord clamping done at the hospital).

It's hard, and you have to be very creative, but there are other high iron sources that your boy might like: hummus, lentils, sunflower seed butter, eggs (they LOVE eggs, especially french toast and I don't add any sugar to them), sweet potato wedges, steamed asparagus. If you're comfortable trying it, you can give nuts (cut up in small pieces to avoid choking hazard).

I supplement with iron using Floradix (and I had it approved by my doctor before I started using it). It's a very small dose, tastes good so the kids love it and it's basically a supplement for vegetarian families which is highly bio-available (+ it's a low iron dose as opposed to medical supplementation which is a much stronger level of iron and tends to irritate their stomach).

So, my approach is to offer a variety of foods that are tasty. No bland food (because I'd never eat that so why should they). Then, on days where they don't eat any meat or meat substitute I offer the vitamin. They literally lick the spoon clean and I get my peace of mind.

Best of luck to you.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

Thank you, Nadia! He has turned his nose up at eggs, but I never thought of sugarless French Toast - I know he'll go for that. Thank you also for the advice on low-dose iron supplements, particularly on giving it when he doesn't get meat or other iron-filled foods. It's a good fall back for when the options I give him end up all over the floor. :)

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

[...] food to the point of self-starvation (i.e., to a point far beyond what would be considered “picky eating“) and who displays unusual eating behaviors (Klara will only eat when her grandmother is [...]

I forgot to mention beans. I add them to most anything, even in my pasta sauce (puree them first). If he won't eat beans, cook them & make them into a dip!

I make a black bean dip that my 2 year old devours (black beans, soaked then cooked, roated garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and a touch of lemon juice, then blend into a puree and use as a dip for vegetables or top over rice and in sandwiches). I make a lot then keep it in the fridge as we use it up.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

[...] or she would set herself in this rhythm. That same night, Annie, writer at PhD in Parenting posted about creating healthy relationships with your children about food. Perfect timing. One suggestion [...]

I wanted to mention that when we're having a really bad streak with vegetables, I give V8-Fusion to drink, since 8oz counts as 1 serving of fruit and 1 serving of veggies. I know many parents who won't give their kids juice, but I find this (and Calcium fortified orange juice) a great backup.

January 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBIT

Nadia, just had to report back that French Toast was a big hit, and will be trying the bean dip tonight. Re-test for iron level is next week and feeling much better about it. Thanks again.

January 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

[...] MA: Little, Brown, & Company. Some tips on feeding “picky eaters” from Dr Sears Phd in Parenting blogged in this subject just as I was preparing this article! Great minds, [...]

January 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArticles » “How ca

I feel like a bad Mom sometimes because my kid will only eat cottage cheese, yogurt, blueberries, blackberries, avocado, cereal, waffles, apple sauce, spaghetti and apples. And never consistently. He used to love eggs when it was only yolk, as soon as he turned 1 and we could give him all of the egg he wanted nothing to do with it. Sometimes he will eat meat, most the time he won't.

It is so hit and miss that I feel like crap when he won't eat what I make and I have to rely on the defaults that I know he will eat. How long can a kid survive on yogurt???

I'm thinking of putting mashed up veggies into sauces so at least he will get some vitamins. Checking out the resources you posted to get some new ideas.

January 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen

[...] 3 years whether I’ve managed to stick to my guns on that one! If I had a really difficult kid, I’d do whatever it took to create a healthy relationship with food, including being sneaky. I know I’m not really in [...]

I get the feeling these are First World problems. I live in Nepal and kids eat whatever is put on their plates, and like it. After they are weaned they eat the same thing every day for their entire lives, rice, lentils and curried vegetables or meat. I wonder if kids just have too many choices; they never develop a habit of eating any one particular thing and become addicted to change.

December 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Prokos

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