As a new mom, I worried constantly that my daughter was eating too much or not enough vegetables, having too many snacks or developing an unhealthy attitude toward snacks. All that fretting was exhausting. And it turns out there's another really good reason for not obsessing about her meals: it actually made her a better eater.
Here's what I learned along the way. Trust me — you, too, can go from neurotic to normal when it comes to your toddler's diet.
1. Take responsibility for the food in your house.
There was a chunk of time when my daughter was 1 that I remember as the Goldfish Period. She went to a daycare that served cheese crackers every day, and she ate them every day despite the fact that I packed her lunch and snacks from home. It was all she wanted. She eventually switched daycares (for unrelated reasons, I promise). Since cheese crackers weren't served and I wasn't buying them, she stopped asking for them.
The lesson: If your child is obsessed with a specific food — mac and cheese anyone? — it's probably because it's available and they eat it very often. If your child is obsessed with a certain food and you are unhappy about it, you might want to take a break from it. As in, don't buy it for a while. Sure, there might be a difficult day or two during the transition, but the benefit of short toddler memories is that if their favorite isn't around, they will find a new one.
2. Give them some power at meals.
Feeding expert Ellyn Slatter said it best when describing her "division of responsibility in feeding": The parent is responsible for what; the child is responsible for how much (and everything else).
That means that once you put the meal on the table, your child is in the (baby) driver's seat. If you are serving meals with options that include a food that your child usually likes, either in the form of side dishes or on family-style platters, this should work out well. You won't need to count the number of bites and or try to get her to take another bite. She is in charge of what goes into her mouth. And as any parent of a toddler knows, all these little people want is power!
3. Let them trust their hunger.
I know that in some households, mandating that a certain number of bites are taken before a child can leave the table is a solid strategy — especially with kids who get distracted or who don't tend to eat a lot — but how do you decide on the amount of food?
Taking daily variation into account, the average toddler eats an average of somewhere between 760 to 2040 calories per day. That's a giant range and one that I just don't think we should try to determine for our kids. I mean, how can we? There are days when they are more active, dehydrated, growing, sick, teething, and everything in between. Which means that their caloric needs are always a moving target.
If we simply let them eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full and we don't impose our outside views on how much is the right amount for them — which are probably biased by our own body image concerns — they will build important muscle memory that will serve their bodies (and minds) for years to come. It's also just easier for everyone.
4. Don't take their preferences personally.
I recently made elbow pasta for dinner, instead of rotini, spaghetti, farfalle, or any number of other shapes that we regularly eat. My daughter wouldn't eat it, even though it was otherwise the same meal that we eat once a week. Her response to the new shape was irrational and I was, of course, frustrated.
While I tried to talk her through the situation, I understood something crucial: Her reaction was not about my cooking skills or even a critique of my grocery shopping abilities. It was purely because she couldn't make the leap in her head that a new shape of pasta would taste the same as other ones she knows she likes. I didn't make her feel guilty or take my frustration out on her in the moment. I simply let her eat the peas and meatballs that were also part of our meal, and pitched her serving of the offending pasta into the compost bin when we were done with dinner.
I realize that it can feel impossible not to react when a toddler won't eat something you know that they will like, but toddler logic just isn't the same as adult logic, so there's really nothing to gain by making a big deal out of the situation — except raising everyone's stress level and possibly making the kid dig in even further to his stance. Note: This is when I find late-night texting to my best mom friends to be especially helpful with diffusing any lingering frustrations.
5. Take the long view.
When my daughter recently went on a fruit strike, a good friend of mine reminded me that she has her whole life to eat fruit, and that a few days without probably wouldn't matter in the long run. Looking at it like that, I felt a little silly for complaining. After all, she was right — a few days without fruit (or vegetables) does not spell disaster for our kids' health.
If we can remember that and not react in the moment, chances are that they will come back around on their own. I don't know how much of this has to do with my daughter's strong-willed personality, but I always find that the less I push a food on her and the more I can stay neutral, the better her overall diet is. And in case you're wondering, she did eventually start eating fruit again; she loved when I gave her cut-up pink Cara Cara oranges on lollipop sticks to nibble on with her breakfast.