How My Picky Toddler Changed Dinnertime

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: MaaHoo Studio/Stocksy)

Long before I had kids, I watched a friend of mine, a stylish food blogger and soon-to-be cookbook author, pull Amy’s macaroni and cheese out of her freezer for her kid before we left for dinner. “It’s just easier,” she explained. And in my head, I absolved Future Me from any frozen-food guilt. But, years later, I think back and wish it were only that easy. If I could count on my 2-year-old to eat her macaroni and cheese, I’d probably serve it every night, because at least she’d be eating something.

It’s okay, you can laugh. I’m a food writer who built her career on the slogan “World’s most enthusiastic eater of everything,” and my daughter won’t eat anything.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

How Dinner Changed with a Picky Eater

That hallmark of toddler behavior — rejecting food — began rearing its ugly head almost as soon as she could eat solid food (before, even, although we’ll save her breastfeeding woes for another day). Chubby baby paws flung avocado against the wall and pushed spoons full of colorful purée away as if they were full of cockroach guts, not sugar-sweet carrots.

I had hoped having kids wouldn’t change our dinnertime diet too much, but by the time my daughter learned to say “no” (it was her second word, after “cracker,” specifically saltines), all I cared about was getting her to dine at dinnertime.

She’s not starving: She’s at a healthy weight, and her daycare reports that she eats well there. (I choose to believe that in much the same way I choose to believe that they’re feeding her something besides Cheerios.) But every night when we sit down to eat, her food mostly goes ignored.

Between the tight turnaround time from daycare to dinner and her pickiness, dinner is difficult. The reality is I’d change everything we eat, if she’d only eat it. I happen to be a big fan of macaroni and cheese (particularly the Food Lab’s three-ingredient version), and would not reject eating it often.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

The One Thing My Picky Toddler Likes to Eat

But the one food I can consistently get her to eat is roasted broccoli. So, we serve a lot of broccoli. She likes plain proteins, so woven in with the Chinese stir-fries and Vietnamese spring rolls I love to make, I occasionally compromise with unadorned chicken thighs (particularly Bon Appetit’s perfect pan-roasted ones). She can have a boneless, skinless chicken breast over my dead body. We all have limits.

Some days, our dinners are blander and more boring than I ever would have guessed — leaving me longing for the rich, bold flavor of macaroni and cheese. On those evenings, I judiciously apply a wide variety of hot sauces to my flavorless meat while I glare at articles where Anthony Bourdain brags about his 6-year-old eating sushi. But since I can’t force her to do anything, and I don’t know how to make her eat, I mostly cook what I want to eat — with a side of broccoli (because, let’s be honest, we could all use a little more broccoli) — and I put it on her plate each night.

Most nights, that means my husband and I end the evening quibbling over who gets to eat her now-room-temperature tacos while she stands at the cupboard, asking for crackers or those pre-made veggie pouches.

Every once in a while, I spot a glimmer of hope — a night where red-cooked pork disappears from her plate (and I don’t find it stuck under the side of her booster seat), or a morning where she actually eats her toast instead of just licking the butter off and asking for more.

I hope that this means she’s in a phase, and that she won’t be like this forever, but like so much about parenting, who the heck knows? Some nights, she’s diving into edamame and Spam musubi with the zeal of a sled dog arriving at a trough after a hundred-mile run; other nights she seems to survive solely on saltines and thin air. She eats, I have finally accepted, like a toddler. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to feed her like an adult (most of the time).

How does your picky eater change dinnertime?