As a baby, my son, Julian, was what you'd call “a good eater.” He took to nursing like a champ. He loved purees from his first bite of pears—and ate pretty much anything we offered: beets, parsnips, rutabagas. Finger foods were a hit. Bits of salmon, squash, beans—he ate them all. I was proud. And then I was humbled. Right around Jules's second birthday, he stopped eating spinach. He quit carrots. He still ate corn—but only if it was off the cob.
“Picky eating is a normal rite of passage,” says Jill Castle, R.D., a pediatric nutrition expert in Nashville and a mom of four. “All toddlers at some point demonstrate some level of pickiness.” Fortunately, fussy eating is usually a fleeting stage (true for Jules, who, now 3, eats mostly anything). The thing is, your kid's dissing of what you're dishing up rarely has anything to do with the food itself. Knowing what's behind it, though, can help you push through a finicky phase much faster.
Reason your child's refusing: Two words—Miss Independent.
What's happening: If “the orange one” is the typical answer you get when you ask your child whether she wants to wear the red or the blue shirt, are you really surprised when she scoffs at what you're serving for dinner?
Work with it: The “polite one bite” rule is great, but leave it at that, says Castle: “The goal is not to get them to eat the broccoli today but to help them actually like the broccoli long-term.” Susan Miller of Franklin Lakes, NJ, employed this strategy when feeding her sons as toddlers. “I made sure there was at least one thing on their plates I knew they'd eat,” she says, “but they had to taste the other foods, too. If they didn't like what they tried, fine, but what eventually happened is that, having been exposed to a wide variety of flavors, my sons now eat almost everything.”
But when you've got a kid who refuses to eat anything on her plate, anxiety often kicks in, leading you to make desperate offers of healthy staples you know she'll like: “How about a bowl of cereal?” or “Let me get you a container of yogurt.” Instead, consider giving her some control over the menu. At my house, make-your-own-burrito nights are a hit. I put out bowls of fillings—rice, beans, shredded cheese, and diced avocado—and let Jules create his own culinary masterpiece. Giving him the opportunity to “make” his own dinner gets him excited and eager to eat up.