I Did Everything “Right” and My Toddler Is Still a Picky Eater

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

Before I had a kid, whenever I crossed paths with a child who was a picky eater, I was sympathetic about the problem. I know there are a lot of factors contributing to a kid’s limited palate, especially when they are very young, and parents have little to no control over many of them. “I totally get it!” I’d say, while watching a friend’s 3-year-old methodically munch through an entire restaurant bread basket and eat nothing else.

But deep, deep down, in the dark place of naked honesty, I’d think to myself: But with my kid, it’s going to be different. I’m going to do everything right.

This is where you start laughing if you have a child over the age of one. Because you know what happened: I did everything “right” and my 15-month-old son is still a picky eater.

My mission to raise an adventurous eater started while I was pregnant. After morning sickness passed, I ate my usual varied and flavorful diet throughout my pregnancy — sardines, spicy food, and kimchi! — and after my son was born, I continued to eat normally throughout breastfeeding, with lots of meals that included spices, funky flavors, and bitter vegetables. I didn’t purposely eat these types of foods so my son would be introduced to their tastes via my amniotic fluid and breast milk, but I did see that as a possible happy benefit.

(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

When he began eating solid foods, I started with homemade vegetable and fruit purées instead of bland cereals; I blended up baby-friendly portions of the dinners I made for my husband and myself, so he could taste everything we were eating. When it was time for finger foods, he snacked on black beans, little pieces of canned salmon, and roasted beets. He ate happily and voraciously, and almost never refused anything I put in front of him.

It was all happening! I was quiet with my triumph, but secretly smug. So smug.

But then he turned one and learned how to shake his head no, and suddenly everything changed. He started refusing most vegetables and proteins. He would cry if there was bread on the table and he wasn’t eating it. He hated beans. He spit out broccoli. He started picking up fistfuls of his morning scrambled eggs and dropping them on the floor while giving me a look of deep distaste. My adventurous little eater was just another picky toddler.

Intellectually, I knew this was all developmentally normal. Toddlers are learning to assert themselves, and their newfound caution about what they eat might even be a trait that evolved to keep them safe as they learn to walk and explore the world on their own. But emotionally, feeding a picky toddler on a daily basis can be frustrating, stressful, and ultimately exhausting.

(Image credit: Kachalkina Veronika)

But although my son is still quite picky, I have gotten much better in how I deal with it, both internally and externally, over the last several months. Here’s what I’ve learned about making it more bearable:

3 Things I’ve Learned About Feeding a Picky Toddler

1. A division of responsibility at the table makes life much easier.

Registered dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter is a recognized expert on feeding children, and her book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense is something of a bible on the topic. She coined the term division of responsibility regarding adults, children, and food: Parents (or other caregivers) are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding, and children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.

For me, the most freeing piece of advice from the book is this:

Put your effort into what you offer, not what your child eats. You get your parenting points when it goes on the table. Once you get the meal on the table, it is up to her to decide what and how much she will eat.

It was such a relief the first time I set down our dinner on the table and thought, “Okay, my job is done.” Dinner now involves far less cajoling and worrying. I try to plan meals that my husband and I enjoy, that my son (with his limited teeth and developing coordination) can more or less feed to himself, and that include at least one thing I know he will eat. Yes, that sometimes means he only eats the noodles when I make pasta, and that he usually ignores all vegetables on the plate (unless it’s sweet potatoes, in which case he will eat nothing but sweet potatoes). And at restaurants, he might just eat his way through the bread basket and that’s it. But overall, our family table has been a much happier place since I started taking Satter’s advice to heart.

(Image credit: Cheryl Sternman Rule)

2. My partner is better at feeding our toddler than I am.

“Why?” asked my husband when I told him this. “Because I take it too personally!” was my answer. I can’t help it. If I’ve just spent the last hour in the kitchen making a dinner that attempts to be healthy, appealing, and satisfying for two adults with adventurous tastes and one picky child — a child who continuously crawls into the kitchen to sob at my feet during the last 15 minutes of cooking; a child whose early bedtime is the reason we are eating at 5:30 p.m. when I’m really not hungry at all, and then that child takes one look at his plate and starts emphatically shaking his head and sobbing again — well, I’m just not in the right headspace to calmly and lovingly feed that child.

But my husband is! So he sits next to the high chair and points out all the things on the plate my son actually likes to eat, until we all settle down to eat peacefully for the six minutes it takes for my son to finish the one thing on the plate he will tolerate. Ah, family dinner.

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

3. I’m playing the long game.

Ever so slowly, I’m starting to see signs that my son’s food horizons will expand as he is exposed to foods again and again. For awhile, I didn’t bother putting things I knew he hated on his plate. Why waste it if I knew he was just going to ignore it or even get mad about it? (He will often pick up a piece of offending food and show it to me while looking deep into my eyes and making angry, accusatory grunts, like he’s trying to tell me there’s been some terrible mistake.)

But then he’ll miraculously have a breakthrough with a food or dish he previously disliked and I realize that the harder, longer road — the one that involves Sisyphean tasks like cutting up a piece of steak into minuscule bits so he can eat it, even though when he puts one of the bits in his mouth, he will just grimace and let it fall out and then not touch the rest — is the one most likely to get us to a good place in the end.

I do think I’ll have a less-picky eater one day. Just because he isn’t eating curry and kale salads right now doesn’t mean all the effort I put in at the beginning of his life was for nothing. I still care about what I offer him, even as I learn to relinquish control over what he actually eats, and I’ve come to realize that is what it means to do it “right” with a kid his age. He’ll get there, I hope — but it probably won’t be while he’s a toddler. And that’s just fine.

Have you ever had to feed a picky toddler, or are you in the thick of it now? What are your survival tips?