July 22, 1999 at 12:00 PM ET
To tackle this challenging topic, it's best to start with the basics. Below are a set of guidelines for nutrients critical to toddlers, a list of the foods that provide them, and—getting to the heart of the matter—ideas for how to get them to eat that food.
The last four are the ones most often deficient in toddlers.
Each day, try to serve the following:
As you can see, toddlers need remarkably little food. A typical meal may consist of 1 1/2 cups milk, 1/4 slice toast, a few bites of scrambled egg, and a tablespoon of applesauce. It's not surprising that the most common concern of a toddler's parents is that their toddler doesn't eat enough, especially vegetables. While what the eat may not look like much, keep in mind that toddlers are small and not growing too quickly.
There is, however, truth to the fact that toddlers notoriously favor a limited number of foods, making the second most common complaint, "My child is such a picky eater." Why is it that your toddler will eat only macaroni and cheese, and a two-year-old in Mexico will accept a tortilla wrapped around beans? Children learn to accept foods in a social and cultural context and are capable of learning to like and accept a wider variety than most people think.
Research shows that two factors chiefly determine a child's preference for food. Not surprisingly, one is an unlearned liking for sweet taste. The second is familiarity. Toddlers simply prefer the foods that are familiar to them, having nothing to do with their defining characteristics—smell, taste and texture—hence, beans and tortillas in Mexico, and macaroni and cheese in the US. "Neophobia" is the fear of the new and unknown, and for toddlers, that can translate into a reluctance to try new foods.
Neophobia makes sense when viewed as a normal, adaptive response, and rather than reflecting a lack of cooperation, it may be a young organism's mechanism for avoiding unfamiliar, potentially toxic foods. A "cave baby" might soon have died if she was willing to try every berry she could get her hands on. Likewise, your child may refuse the food gifts of a stranger -- a healthy response! Once you recognize food "negativity" as an adaptive response, you can take the necessary steps to get your toddler to accept new foods in spite of it. Increasing her variety of liked foods is your goal since a wider variety is more apt to ensure an adequate nutrient intake.
Nor should the initial rejection of a food be interpreted as a fixed and true dislike of it. Only after several exposures will he learn the food is safe to eat. After several occasions of tasting the food with no negative side effects, such as nausea or vomiting, he learns the food is okay. Even one experience of lousy gastrointestinal consequences, however, can cause a long-term rejection of a food.
Knowing this, the most successful tactic is to offer a couple opportunities a week to try a new food. Don't coerce your child to eat it, but make clear that you expect him to taste it. Always allow him to spit it out if he wants. It is important to establish a policy of at least tasting a new food in late infancy, before the strong sense of autonomy and independence takes hold. Never force a child to eat, though. That approach, sometimes successful in the short-term, will backfire later on.
Equally as important as offering the new food often is the atmosphere in which it is offered. Certain commonly accepted feeding practices have unintended effects on a toddler's food preferences. For example, dessert (usually sweet) comes at the end of a meal and is often used as a reward for "eating your vegetables," or is withheld as a punishment for not eating them. This has the effect of making the restricted food (in this case, dessert) more highly desired—they want what they can't have. According to Dr. Leann Birch, this strategy reduces a child's preference for the food he is forced to eat—all too often, the nutritious ones.
But you really don't want your toddler eating dessert if he hasn't eaten his dinner. What to do? First of all, rethink what you're serving for dessert. For most people, sweets are palatable even when they are full, which may be why a non-hungry toddler is still willing to eat a bowl of ice cream even though she wasn't hungry for dinner. Try offering desserts that make a positive nutritional contribution to the meal. For example, instead of ice cream, serve a pudding made with skim milk, such as rice pudding. Serve fruit salad or a fruit and yogurt 'sundae' instead of pie. If it's cookies, make them whole-grain oatmeal. That way, you can even allow toddlers to eat dessert first if they want!
Because of their small size and slow growth, toddlers' appetites are small. It's important not to make a fuss if they refuse to eat. They'll eat when they're hungry, and the more you force, the stronger they'll refuse. A toddler's eating is erratic and unpredictable, but viewed over several days, will balance out in terms of average daily needs. So don't worry if on some days she refuses to eat anything, because she will make up for it elsewhere.
Coping with picky, erratic eating can be exasperating, even in light of your intellectual approach to it. To help deal with it, understand your role well and know you have carried it out the best you can.
Your job is to offer a wide variety of wholesome foods in a non-pressured, supportive setting, and according to a regular, predictable schedule. Try to:
Toddlers need snacks to get them through the day and because they eat so little, they have no room for calories without nutrients. To make sure the snacks you serve aren't "empty calories," keep your pantry full of healthful snacks and pack some along when you go out.
Please let us know if you found this article useful in your daily life. Thanks.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.