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Ask Dr. Sears: Selective Eater

Q. My 15-month-old daughter is not eating very well at home. She goes to my mother's house and will eat what she has. I buy some of the stuff that my mother feeds her, but she will just not eat anything that I try to give her. What do I need to do to get her to eat for me?

A.
Don't take it personally. It's common for toddlers to eat better when someone other than their parents feed them. I suspect this is because children, in general, "behave" better for other caregivers than they do for the parents. It seems that children at all ages are freer to express their quirks in front of their parents than other caregivers. Not to mention there is, most likely, less pressure to eat when your child is at your mother's house.

Toddlers don't sit still to do anything, let alone to eat. Being a picky eater is normal toddler behavior. Think of feeding your toddler as a combination of good nutrition and creative marketing. Here are some tricks to get your picky eater to eat better for you at home:

Present a nibble tray. Here's a tip from the Sears' family kitchen. Use an ice cube tray or muffin tin and put bite-size portions of colorful and nutritious foods in each compartment. Give these finger foods fun names like "banana wheels," "broccoli trees," "cheese blocks," "avocado boats" (a quarter of an avocado), "egg canoes" (hard-boiled egg wedges), and "little O's" (o-shaped cereal bits). Remember, toddlers have tiny tummies, about the size of their fists. Let your child graze on the nibble tray frequently throughout the day. As she sits in a high chair, put the nibble tray in front of her and let your toddler graze without your interference. Certainly don't hover over her while she eats. Instead, simply show her how much you enjoy eating your own food and hopefully she will catch the spirit.

Make dips. Toddlers love to dip. Reserve two compartments in the nibble tray for nutritious dips, such as guacamole (without the spices), yogurt, cream cheese, or melted cheese. Encourage her to dip her finger in the dips and lick her finger. Or, let her dip the finger foods in the nibble tray.

Make fruit & veggie art. Our toddlers enjoyed pancake faces. Use banana slices for eyes -- with a raisin pupil -- avocado slices for eyebrows, yogurt for a beard, shredded cheese hair, tomato ears, and a cooked green-bean smile. Try whatever fruits and veggies your child likes and make art with them.

Offer toddler toppings. Help broaden your daughter's finicky menu. Put nutritious and familiar favorites on top of new and less-desirable foods. Top toddler toppings are: yogurt, melted cheese, tomato sauce, apple sauce, and nut butters.

Share your plate. Toddlers will often eat better if they sit on your lap and enjoy mashed table food from your plate. You take a bite. Then baby takes a bite.

Use sit-still strategies. It's often overlooked, but one reason toddlers don't sit still at the family table is that their feet dangle. Try sitting on a stool while eating. You'll naturally begin to squirm and want to get up and move around. Get her a child-sized table and chair so her feet touch the floor. Place the nibble tray on her table and let her enjoy a bit of a private meal.

Make every calorie count. If your toddler continues to be a picky eater, offer her nutrient-dense foods -- those that pack a lot of nutrition in a small amount. Top nutrient-dense foods for toddlers are: eggs, avocado, yogurt, nut butters, sweet potatoes, tofu, kidney beans, salmon, squash, and cheese.

Don't worry if your child continues to be a picky eater. Toddlers don't need to eat as much as they did the first year. During the first year, your baby tripled her birth weight. Between the first and second birthdays she may gain only five pounds. Relax about feeding your toddler. Your job is to buy nutritious foods, serve it creatively, and the rest is up to her.

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