Not once in becoming a mother was I prepared for the unexpected moment when my toddler would no longer eat anything I sat right in front of him. From pureed concoctions to swiping a handful of food off of my plate, it seemed like there was nothing he wouldn’t eat. But his newly onset toddler food strike has caused much of a dilemma in our daily mealtimes—and has caused me the utmost frustration.
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Things that were once his favorite foods now end up on the floor. Not to mention his newfound love for shaking his head “no” in refusal when I try to coerce him to eat. As a mother, I feel defeated by the fact that my child is now a picky eater, many times even wondering if my cooking is the causing factor in question. Yet, I have come to understand that this conundrum known as the toddler food strike is just another rung on the ladder of parenthood—and I must learn how to climb it.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jill Castle, pediatric dietitian and Founder of The Nourished Child® and Advisor to Brainiac Foods about dealing with a toddler food strike. Here’s what she had to say:
“It’s pretty normal for a toddler to refuse foods they once liked, or get stuck on wanting the same foods over and over. This has everything to do with their developmental stage. Toddlers want to separate from their caregivers and be more independent, yet they aren’t quite ready to go it alone. Hence, the push-pull nature of toddlerhood and the desire to be in charge of their bodies—including what goes in it.”
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“Toddlers are also learning about the world around them, which is interesting and distracting. Parents might think they’ve done something wrong to cause food strikes and picky eating, but it’s quite typical for the 2 to 6-year-old crowd.”
If you—like me—find yourself in this same predicament of wondering where you’ve gone wrong and trying to decide what to do when your toddler refuses to eat, all is not in vain. Here are some helpful tips that may just get us through the horror of a toddler food strike.
How to manage a toddler food strike
1. Practice patience
If you don’t know what to do when your toddler refuses to eat, try being patient. Perhaps the easiest thing to do when your toddler refuses to eat and throws their food all over the place is get agitated. I’ve been there one too many times in the past few weeks with my son. But the biggest lesson I am starting to learn is that patience is my friend in times like these. A couple of deep breaths and a reminder to myself that this is just a phase helps to settle me in the midst of such chaos.
I also focus on controlling my temperament so that I am not displaying my upset emotions toward my son. I simply allow him the chance to eat the food placed in front of him. Once he starts signaling that he is done, I simply take the remaining food away, say “all gone” and remove him from the kitchen setting. Eventually, once he realizes that he is still in fact hungry, he may return for more later.
2. Don’t hover over your child
Ever heard of a helicopter parent? Yeah, that’s totally me when it comes to my child’s eating. I have a tendency to hover over him, trying everything I can to compel him to eat. As of recent, I’ve decided to take a different approach.
I sit my son in his highchair and place his food in front of him. I eat my dinner alongside of him and when I’m done, I simply get up and begin tidying the kitchen by doing things like loading the dishwasher or putting up the leftovers for my husband. I’ve noticed that when I’m not breathing down my toddler’s neck, he often eats more than he does when I’m pressuring him. Loosening my grip on the reigns and allowing him a sense of independence has helped far more times than not.
Related: How I stopped worrying about what my kids ate (or didn’t eat)
3. Offer multiple eating opportunities
“The best thing parents can do in this situation is to make sure they are offering ‘opportunities’ to eat,” said Castle. “Generally speaking, this would be three meals and two to three snacks per day. These food ‘offerings’ are nourishing, balanced meals and snacks offered every three or four hours. Parents can offer these meals and snacks and let their child eat the quantity of food that satisfies the child’s appetite.”
“The key here is to offer several opportunities to eat nutritious foods throughout the day. Let the child decide whether or not, and how much, they’ll eat. Parents can also choose kid-friendly food items that are extra nutritious. Remember, ‘making’ a child eat often ends up in more picky eating and food strikes.”
4. Don’t make a big deal when your child doesn’t eat
As mentioned above, when my child signals that he is done eating, I simply say “all gone” and remove him from the kitchen setting. Castle advises not to make a scene when your child doesn’t eat, as this could worsen the toddler food strike more than it can help.
“Focusing on what and how much a child eats may turn into perceived pressure. Some kids don’t do well with eating when parents push, cajole and nag them to eat. Rather, staying on a routine of meals and snacks at predictable times and not ‘trying’ to get a child to eat usually results in quicker resolution rather than creating opposition at mealtimes.”
5. Know when to seek medical attention
Though refusing food is a normal stage in toddlerhood for most, there may be some times where it calls for medical attention. If you’re becoming more concerned about your toddler’s eating habits and notice worrisome or unusual behaviors that accompany your child’s rejection to eating (such as losing weight,) this could be more than a normal toddler food strike—and a sign to seek medical care. Talking with your child’s doctor can help you figure out if there are any underlying issues causing your toddler not to eat.
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No matter how challenging the toddler food strike may present itself, there is always a way up and through. So when your toddler refuses to eat, remember that this is just one phase of parenthood with many more to come—and you’ve got this one as well as all the others
Jill Castle is a pediatric dietitian and Founder of The Nourished Child® and Advisor to Brainiac Foods.