Your toddler is a bundle of contradictions and a powerhouse of energy. He explores everything, but he won’t try new foods. She’s interested in food, but would rather play with it than eat it. He drinks from a cup but spills as much as gets into his mouth. She loves beans today, but won’t go near them tomorrow. Help! Is this normal?
Not only is this normal but all children go through certain universal eating stages. Most toddlers’ eating habits are unpredictable and frustrating. Between the ages of 1 and 3, eating becomes part of a child’s overall learning experiences.
When a toddler eats, he sees, touches, feels, smells – and finally may put the food in his mouth. Peas roll, juice splashes, spaghetti wiggles, and crackers crumble. Though messy, these textural experiences are a necessary part of a child’s normal development. This is a time when children in all cultures learn what food is and what is considered edible, poisonous, neutral, taboo, appropriate and desirable.
Toddlers are unable to categorize food according to their nutritional needs. Instead they classify foods into groups like sweet, not sweet, good, and bad. if they like it, it’s “yummy!” If they don’t, it’s sure to be declared, “yucky.” As children grow, this categorization becomes more elaborate but stays grounded in like and dislikes. Many things trigger a child’s feelings about food: color, appearance, texture, smell, and how it feels in the mouth.
Food fussiness is a natural part of child development. It comes at the time when a child learns to say no, which is the beginning of their development into a separate, independent person. Bizarre meals and food rituals are common. Demanding a special plate or a certain juice or refusing to use a spoon is a way children exercise self-control in their struggle toward independence.
Food jags are common. The easiest way to handle them is to go along with the jag, within reason. If your child loves cottage cheese, let her have it every day for lunch. Give her a spoonful at breakfast and dinner along with a small serving of other foods. At first she may eat nothing but the cottage cheese. This is a stubborn age, so compromise does not come easily. After a few meals, most toddlers will eat some of the regular meal along with their favorite food. One day, much to the parent’s surprise, this same child is likely to declare she hates cottage cheese and wants peanut butter.
Toddlers grow more slowly. A baby grows an average of 10 inches and triples their weight in the first year. Between 1 and 3, a child only 6 inches and gains about 9 pounds. Once you understand that growth has slowed it is normal that less food is needed.
Keep portions “toddler-sized.” It is always better to let your child ask for more. Larger portions can encourage a small child to eat too much, overriding the natural feeling of fullness and setting the stage for overeating for a long time to come. A half cup of juice or milk, a slice of cheese, half slice of bread or a quarter cup of fruit or vegetables are all toddler-sized.
Parents who try the hardest to get their toddlers to eat right end up with the pickiest eaters. Children model their parents eating habits in the long run, though they may exhibit few of them during this early, contrary state. The best advice: Stay calm, hold on to your sense of humor, and remember this too shall pass.