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.
Reason he's refusing: It really does taste “yucky” to him.
What's happening: As humans, we're designed to prefer sweet foods and dislike bitter ones. Sweet equals survival—think breast milk—and bitter may mean something's toxic. Some foods might register as a big “yuck” with your child because he actually has more taste buds than you do (we lose them as we age), so the flavor of foods is amplified for little ones. Your child could also be genetically wired to be more sensitive to bitter foods, as research clearly shows some kids are.
Work with it: You've no doubt heard that it can take 10 or even 15 tries before a child will accept a new food, so keep presenting (but not pushing) the options, says Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of Food Fights and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Stack the odds in your favor by preparing foods in ways that may be “easier” to eat: Roasting vegetables, for example, brings out their natural sweetness. “And sour counteracts bitter,” says Katie Webster, a recipe developer and mom of two in Richmond, VT. “So I add lemon juice and zest to broccoli, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, and green beans.”
Also try switching things up: Serve raw those veggies your child shuns when cooked instead (as long as they're not a choking hazard), and vice versa. The problem may be texture—or even temperature, says dietitian Melissa Halas-Liang, R.D., a mom and founder of superkidsnutrition.com: “A lot of kids who don't like cooked peas will eat them frozen, right out of the bag.”
Reason your child's refusing: She's just not hungry right now.
What's happening: Young kids can seem finicky simply because “after that first year, growth levels out a bit and appetite isn't quite the driver anymore,” says Castle. Days of awesome eating can be followed by ones when it seems as if your child is following some sort of trendy fast.
Work with it: If you're worried your child's not eating enough but her growth rate is on target, according to her doctor, “your perception of how much she should be having may be a bit off,” says Dr. Jana. Keep in mind that a serving for young children is a tablespoon per year of age—basically, a bite or two of the heaping helping of peas you may have piled on her plate.
Use your kid's appetite to your advantage to introduce a new food. “At dinner, we start our kids off with a couple of bites of the food they're least likely to eat—usually veggies—and save their favorite stuff for last,” says Ashley Renz on Facebook. “Our theory is that they're so hungry when they sit down, they'll happily eat whatever is on their plates, getting in the healthy stuff first.”
Reason he's refusing: Dinnertime is just too rigid.
What's happening: Getting a kid to try a new food is hard enough when he's in the mood to eat. When he resists even coming to the table, forget about it. “It's probably unrealistic to think that your child will sit for much more than ten to fifteen minutes,” says Halas-Liang. Yes, meals with little ones can often be chaotic, but they're worth it. Eating dinner as a family may help kids be less fussy about food, suggests research from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.
Work with it: Entice your child to the table by making family dinners fun. “Rolling out a meal in three phases keeps my kids engaged,” says Holly Tedesco, a mom of two young kids in Forest Hills, NY. “I'll offer a glass of milk, and a piece of cheese and olives on a plate to start. Then comes grilled-cheese triangles with a side of pears. The third course is a handful of sliced grapes. It's like serving tapas, but it keeps them eating.” Also consider what time you serve dinner. Melissa Hourihan, a Lancaster, MA, mom of four kids all under the age of 6, swears by the Early-Bird Special strategy. “Dinner is between five and five-thirty. Anytime later and it's bound to be a battle because the kids are tired, cranky, and much more reluctant to try something new.”
Reason she's refusing: What you're serving is booor-ing (no offense).
What's happening: “Research shows that kids will eat more fruits and vegetables when they're presented in visually interesting ways,” says Halas-Liang. Giving foods catchy names seems to boost their appeal, too. Researchers at Cornell University found that preschoolers ate twice as many carrots when they were called “X-ray vision carrots” versus “carrots.” Go figure!
Work with it: Encourage imaginative rebranding. Halas-Liang's daughter took to cauliflower after dubbing it “snowpuffs,” and Dr. Jana's son was most excited when dinner was “Ryan's Lasagna.” Pull kids into menu planning and meal prep, too. “My kids love looking at cookbooks and food magazines like Bon Appétit,” says Nancy Tringali Piho, author of My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything. “We sit together and talk about what it is and how good it must be.” Flip through the books on your shelves and tell your child he can pick anything he'd like to make from them.