Our cute, sweet little 2-year-old recently went through an awful, nightmarish picky eating phase. All the “get your picky eater to eat” tricks that should have worked were useless with our little monster angel.
Suddenly, she refused to eat foods that just a few days ago she ate with no problem. She also got panicky and went into hysterics if we even sat her in her booster seat at the table. At every meal and snack time, we braced ourselves for the crying, food-throwing, table-leg kicking tantrum that we knew would ensue.
Talk about frustrating.
But we got through it. Here’s what I learned about toddlers and worked with our picky toddler:
Toddlers throw tantrums for any number of reasons. They may be tired, hungry, overstimulated, or frustrated at not having the language to communicate their desires. Well, we put our foot down when the wild tantrums started. When she started to throw a tantrum, we’d simply ignore it. If she threw food or kicked or pushed, she went into a time-out until she was more composed. I know she doesn’t have the words to express herself, but giving in to violent behavior is never ok for me. Alternatively, every time she participated in a meal without having a tantrum, we gave her lots of praise for not yelling and crying. She responded very well to the positive reinforcement and soon the tantrums stopped. Understanding that she needed more attention, and more gentle communication helped us to understand why she was throwing tantrums.
Toddlers won’t sit and eat for as long as adults will, so we let them call the shots as to when they were done. She was happier and more relaxed when she knew she wasn’t going to be confined and strapped in at mealtime. Toddlers want to feel like they have some independence and control over their environment. So we focused on our priorities. It was most important to us (1) that she eat what was for dinner, and (2) to respect the family expectation that we eat at the table (as opposed to wandering around the house carrying your food). She was absolutely not going to sit in her booster chair, that was clear. Since she wasn’t going to sit at the big-people table, we at least wanted her to begin to develop healthy eating habits and good manners by eating at some sort of a table. So we set up the girls’ little picnic table and chairs in the kitchen and insisted that they sit to eat.
We reexamined how we talked to her at dinner time. She is a sensitive little thing to begin with and responds much better to soft voices. When we were trying to model excitement about what we were having for dinner, our voices were too loud and her fits would escalate. Toddlers need to know that you love them and are going to take care of them. A gentle voice lets a toddler know that you are in control and you love them, which should help the toddler to regain composure.
Sidenote: We also gave foods fun names. Peas was known as “green balls”, shredded chicken was “little strings”, Cheerios were “circle soup”. For a fun story about giving silly names to food, check out the children’s book I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato (Charlie and Lola).
We gave her more opportunities to be independent. One day she wouldn’t eat carrots with ranch on them. The next day we let her squeeze ranch on her carrots “all by herself” (read: Mommy did the squeezing, she just held the bottle) and she was cleaning her plate and asking for seconds. We let her get involved in the cooking process by picking out a tomato for Mommy to dice, washing the fruits and vegetables or placing sliced veggies in the steamer basket. She and her sister love getting involved in meal prep. Toddlers want to be helpful around the house. They also want to be able to do things “without help”. They thrive on positive attention.
Through persistence, love, and learning to understand our toddler, we all made it through our little one’s dinnertime tantrum stage.
If you have any other tips for managing a picky toddler, I’d love to hear them! … We’re not quite out of the woods yet.