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Solutions for Toddler Feeding Problems (Part I)

14 MAR 2016
Experts offer tips for parents of picky eaters.
By Elizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD

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Your lovable toddler is a charming, entertaining, on-the-go child. But your child's changeable nature can be a source of exasperation, especially when you try to feed your toddler a balanced diet. In short, your child has become the dreaded "picky eater."
WebMD asked three top feeding experts to help solve the most exasperating toddler feeding problems.

Dilemma: My toddler suddenly hates the foods he used to love. Help!
Solution: It's perplexing, but your child's food fatigue is not as unusual as it seems, says pediatrician Jennifer Shu, MD, co-author of Food Fights. "Adults may suddenly become tired of the same foods, too."

However, little ones don't have the language skills to express their sudden change of heart about food, leaving you in the lurch at meal time.

Shu tells WebMD that a toddler's rejection of favorite foods is natural, but could become problematic when you mistakenly assume that it means "I hate this food and I never want to eat it again."

So what's a puzzled parent to do for this toddler feeding problem? First, resist the urge to overreact.

"Understand that younger toddlers generally do not reject the food you've prepared for them in order to drive you crazy," says Kerry Neville, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

In addition, it's important to remember that a toddler's appetite can temporarily wane when teething or ill, causing temporary disregard even for tried-and-true mealtime favorites. Older toddlers may reject foods to garner attention or as a way to assert their independence, or both, because it's fun to watch their parents react.

Whatever the case, because toddlers are characteristically fickle, parents should remain flexible. And, they should try not to worry.

"As long as you serve a variety of healthy foods every day, your toddler will find something on his plate to eat," says Sanna Delmonico, MS, RD, founder of Tiny Tummies.

Dilemma: My 2-year-old prefers just a few foods. How can I encourage my child to try new ones and not be such a picky eater?
Solution: It's tough to figure out why your tyke passes up mashed sweet potatoes and scorns cubes of moist, grilled chicken, foods that you consider perfectly kid-friendly.

The reason why toddlers are picky eaters? A toddler's natural tendency towardfood neophobia, the wholesale rejection of unfamiliar foods, sometimes without even so much as a taste. Vegetables seem to be particularly prone to the effects of food neophobia.

Why all the fuss over new foods? "Nobody really knows," Shu says.

A toddler's busy life could play a part. Toddlers spend most of their waking hours mastering new skills, such as walking and talking. Toddlers are often so consumed by novel experiences that they cannot tolerate any surprises on their plates, especially when they're tired.

Experts recommend riding out new-food resistance (it is a phase) armed with good cheer and some surefire survival strategies.

•  Serve one tablespoon of a new food earlier in the day, when kids tend to be the most energetic and the least aggravated.
•  Offer new foods without pressure. "Avoid pleading and cajoling kids to eat," Neville says.
•  Get toddlers involved. When possible, have children help you prepare the foods you'd like them to try. For example, older toddlers are capable of tearing lettuce for salad, Delmonico says.
•  Be a positive role model. Children, even young toddlers, are highly suggestible. If you'd like your child to eat broccoli, then you should, too.
•  Avoid making only your child's favorites. Serving the likes of mac and cheese, hot dogs, plain pasta, and chicken nuggets to her when she's young ensures she'll expect only those foods when she's older.
•  Keep trying. Although some toddlers may readily gobble up any food you put in front of them, many will not. Research suggests it may take 10 or more exposures to new foods before children accept them.

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