Reforming a Picky Eater

Q: My 17-month-old son is very uninterested in eating most of the time. I am still nursing but I would like to start weening in the next month. However, I’m concerned because he doesn’t seem to be eating much. He will eat a certain type of chicken nuggets, boiled eggs, cheese, most fruits and snacks that I try to avoid as much as possible. Sometimes he will eat pizza. 

I can’t tell if he chooses what to eat by the way it looks or if it’s because he wants to be able to pick it up himself or if it’s based on familiarity. I tried to give him a different type of chicken the other day and he would have none of it. I resorted back to his normal chicken and he ate it all. Dinner typically ends up all over the floor with virtually nothing in his mouth. When he was younger, we had a weight gaining issue, so I’m super aware of his eating habits. He does not seem to have a weight gaining issue at the moment. Thank you for your advice.

A: Your son is a picky eater because you’ve allowed him to become one. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but that appears to be what happened based on your question. Your son had weight-gaining issues when he was younger, but you’re still operating as if he still does and that is hampering your ability to teach him to eat a wide variety of foods, including healthy fruits and vegetables.

Let me put it this way: Do you want your son to grow up eating only pizza, chicken nuggets, eggs, cheese, fruit and snacks? That’s a very limiting diet, but because you fear that if he refuses to eat something at one meal, he will stop gaining weight, you’ve allowed him—instead of you you as the mom—to dictate what he eats.

Of course he’s going to go for the easy foods, the ones that taste better to him, and refuse the unfamiliar. All kids would eat his diet if they could because it does taste good, but one of our jobs as parents is to give our kids an expansive palate by introducing them over and over to different foods, including fruits and vegetables, cooked a variety of ways.

Here are a few suggestions to get your toddler eating better. First, stop worrying that he’s not going to get enough. Toddlers go through eating stages. When they’re not growing, they tend to eat less. So if he happens to refuse what you’ve made for dinner, don’t sweat it. When he’s hungry, he will eat. And skipping a few meals won’t make his weight dive bomb.

Second, stop fixing him special meals at dinner time. You can serve him what he likes for breakfast and lunch, but at dinner, he gets what everyone else does. Give him a tiny teaspoon of everything on the table. Then allow him seconds of what he wants (from the foods on the table) after he’s finished those little bites.

Third, remember that he will fuss and fidget and refuse and throw the food. You’ve given him complete control over his eating for his entire (short) life, so wresting it back will take a little effort because he’s not going to give up without a fight.

Fourth, for the nursing, wean him with the step-down method (dropping one nursing at a time, then a few days later, another nursing). Replace those nursings with milk in a sippy or other cup (skip the bottle—in my opinion, it’s easier not to have to wean off the bottle later).

Fifth, keep in mind that you’re not just feeding a toddler—you’re training a budding adult on how to eat for life. Taking the long view by focusing on having a child willing to try all foods, eat the ones he doesn’t like, and know what makes a balanced meal will help keep you on track.