My son Liam started out eating anything. He’d gobble down veggies, meat, pasta — you name it. Then, sometime around his second birthday, he began refusing food. This made no sense to me, so I fought it. I tried cutting it into smaller bites. I made it into smiley faces. I doused it in ketchup. I pleaded. I cajoled. I got angry. Eventually, I told Liam he had to eat his meals, and I made him sit at the table until he finished.
He never did, because Liam knew something I didn’t: You can’t make a toddler eat. It’s a losing battle. In fact, once it becomes a battle, you’ve already lost.
“Eating is supposed to be enjoyable,” said Jane Case-Smith, a professor and chair of the Occupational Therapy Division at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “As your child grows into an adult, you want him to view eating as something social, something he enjoys and gives him pleasure, and something that’s not forced on him.”
Picky eating is a complex problem, and there are no simple solutions, Case-Smith said. But eating is an integral part of everyday life, and there are plenty of ways to make mealtime a more enjoyable process — even with a stubborn eater at the table.
Know, first, that your child could be refusing food for a variety of reasons, some of which are completely unrelated to food. Gahanna mom Jenny Bickley noticed her son Reef Murray, who’s now 5, has problems with the texture and smell of foods, while Reef’s 2-year-old brother, Finn Murray, seems to refuse food out of a desire for control.
“Finn will pick and choose when he eats,” she said. “With him it’s a power thing. But Reef has sensory issues keeping him from eating.”
Neither reason is unusual, according to Case-Smith. Some kids “can’t tolerate the sensory experience of eating — the taste, the smell or the texture of foods,” she said. It’s a phenomenon occupational therapists often see in children with autism, she said, but kids who don't have autism are by no means immune.
Embracing the sensory experience of food early can help.
“Some of the first experiences a child has with food are playful,” Case-Smith said. “They’re exploring foods. The fact that they mess their hands in it, get it in their hair, on their face — all that is normal and natural. Kids need to do that. Just lay some sheets and know that your kid is going to get a bath afterward.”
The power struggle makes sense, too, if you look at it from a toddler’s point of view.
“There are so many areas of a child’s life where they’re not given choice, so (mealtime) can be a primary way to show their preference,” Case-Smith said. “It can become a battleground for a child expressing his will. And if children are picky, it usually has a highly emotional response on the parent’s part. The child immediately perceives that his refusing food has this really emotional reaction in the parent, so now they know they can get attention.”
That can help explain why a toddler may one day love mac and cheese and the next day act like it’s a bowl of monster guts. The child could just be tired and cranky, and the dinner table is the only place where he can act on it.
Look for patterns, too, in your child’s refusal of foods, as well as how his or her body reacts so you can rule out allergies or intolerances to lactose or gluten.
But what if your picky eater is far removed from the toddler stage and still just as stubborn? Is there hope?
Well, Liam is now 5 and still eats peanut butter toast almost every day for lunch, and he has yet to incorporate a vegetable into his diet. But, there’s hope. We recently made something called a “New Food List,” with the promise that if he filled it with 10 new foods, Liam would get a new Spiderman bed at his grandma’s house. Though the foods on the list read like a concession stand (popcorn, peanuts, fruit punch), he eventually filled the list.
Case-Smith said rewards for increasing your child’s diet are a great idea, particularly if you find a reward system that has meaning to the child. But the most important thing you can do is to keep everything lighthearted and low-stress.
It’s not easy, especially when just getting dinner on the table feels like a monumental accomplishment. But making mealtime fun can go a long way on your kid’s journey from “picky eater” to “eater.”