Q: My 15-month-old son has recently become very willful. I’m afraid I’m losing control of him. One area is mealtime. He is a highly picky eater. I offer him a variety of foods, but he settles on a favorite and often throws from his tray what he doesn’t want. I want to make certain he is eating enough variety. How do I maintain control of mealtime at this age and going forward without depriving him of the food he needs? – a mother in Lockport, N.Y.
The best course to take: Create matter-of-fact boundaries at mealtime, but detach yourself from mama drama.
“Present a neutral and relaxed attitude even if your child is flinging something off the table,” says Jeannette Lee Bessinger, co-author of “Best Food for Your Baby and Toddler” (Sterling, 2010, $14.95).
Toddler pickiness typically sets in soon after a child’s first birthday. Then many parents resort to feeding their children lots of milk, sweets and empty-calorie snacks just to get them to eat, says Bessinger, who developed a nutrition- and cooking-based obesity prevention program with a grant from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Step back and look at the bigger picture,” Bessinger says. “Sometimes we think there’s a problem, and there really isn’t.”
The toddler years are all about control, says Tracee Yablon-Brenner, a registered dietitian. She and Bessinger are co-founders of www.realfoodmoms.com.
“At 15 months to 2 years, children are interested in stepping into their power,” Yablon-Brenner says. “They are finding their independence.”
Here are strategies to cope with their new attitude:
First, keep in mind: “Parents have the job of deciding on the types of food on the plate,” says Bessinger, a nutrition educator and mother. “The child is responsible for what he chooses to eat.”
If you’re offering a new food to your toddler, or something he has refused in the past, just offer it alongside his more accepted choices at mealtime. Don’t draw any special attention to it, Bessinger and Yablon-Brenner suggest.
Fanfare made over certain foods can backfire, and your child will refuse them as part of the control issue. Also, avoid cajoling or bribing your child into eating certain foods. For example, avoid statements such as, “If you eat your broccoli, you can have dessert.”
Continue to try giving small amounts of new foods that are nutrition-packed even if they are rejected. You may need to offer a food again and again, even as many as 15 times, before your toddler accepts it, Yablon-Brenner says.
Give your toddler some measure of control over his food, such as:
Provide a little shaker to sprinkle on cheese.
Give him two dipping sauces.
Let him bring napkins to the dinner table or help in
food preparation, if possible.
Offer food that is easy to pick up, such as beans and rice. Recognize that toddlers are going to want to explore their food, smash and roll it aroundbefore they dare to eat it.
Also keep in mind that toddlers go through phases, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for three days in a row. That’s normal. Don’t look at the nutritional value of one single meal. Look across a week of meals, the co-authors experts suggest.
If your child is stuck on peanut butter, try adding something new each time you serve it, such as a small helping of sliced bananas.
If you’re concerned that your child is not getting enough to eat, jot down what your child is eating over a week’s time and show your pediatrician or health care provider.
Sneak in “invisible nutrition,” such as make a smoothie with a frozen banana and add whey protein powder and oats.
Don’t offer your child sweet drinks between meals, such as juice or soda, that will fill him up.
Make treats and desserts as healthy as meal options.