'Try It' and error: 'Picky' eaters

They go from breast or bottle to something mashed and messy — big grins and sticky hands. They examine individual peas and black beans before giving them a taste. They delight in the rite-of-passage, first-birthday frosting face; and they want to try everything on your plate.

And then, one day — suddenly and without warning — bananas are yucky. Applesauce? For the birds. Favorite foods instantly become sworn enemies; the word “no” resonates with unparalleled volume and vibrato. Tears are shed and mashed potatoes are flung. There’s worry and woe and promises of trips to the ice cream shop after just one bite of “real food.” 

Don’t compare kids.

You nervously feel out your playgroup. 

“So, does Jonah eat … um … fruits and vegetables?”

Your chest clenches in anticipation as you hope for that glorious moment of understanding — affirmation in the cold, hard truth that everyone’s toddler is on a Teddy Graham and whole milk diet. Oh, and olives. 

Olives, for whatever reason, are still yummy for now, though you swore that just this afternoon — as you were putting on a literal song and dance with some string cheese and a carrot stick — that the innocent handful of Spanish olives (pimento free, of course) were eyed with an air of suspicion. Just keep dancing, you sang — under your breath — to the sad little carrot and his sweaty cheese partner.

“Jonah? Oh he LOOOOVES veggies. Broccoli rabe is his fave. But don’t get me wrong…he is quite the little carb addict as well. The boy is crazy for quinoa!”

Sigh. 

Keep things in perspective.

You thought all toddlers were picky eaters. You thought this was just a part of your child’s whole finding-my-voice, free-will phase. For the most part, you thought right on all accounts. Take heart: Your friend’s quinoa is likely doused in organic maple syrup and followed by a bribe (a gluten-free macaroon).

I kid, but there is — get ready for your affirmation — an actual developmentally appropriate “picky phase.” 

Katja Rowell is a St. Paul-based author and family-practitioner-turned-child-feeding-specialist, affectionately known as “The Feeding Doctor.” 

When I spoke with her recently, she informed me that there are MANY reasons for a toddler to seem suddenly picky, turning down the foods that were previous favorites. 

“It’s actually a perfect storm,” says Rowell, author of Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Ending the Worry About Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles and More. “And if parents don’t understand what’s going on, what feels like the right way to handle the situation is actually likely to make things worse.”

So what does the storm entail? For starters, a child’s growth slows down at about 15 months — just after a rapid climb. He seems to eat less because he does eat less!

Additionally, the child is now mobile and becomes busier — getting into things, exploring, dancing. A few short months before this stage, food was the center of the universe and his main activity. 

Now, it’s an afterthought to all the books and toys and people and sounds that happily fill a day. 

Finally, this is — as we know — the age of assertion. The dinner table is a great place to experiment, testing boundaries left and right when you just want him to try lasagna. 

Give them space, time.

Rowell reminds us that we may have set ourselves up with some unrealistic expectations. 

The Feeding Doctor’s advice is simple: Don’t engage in the power struggle. That means no reaction to their rejection of your culinary creation, no bribery, no catering. 

Rowell also recommends following your child’s temperament. The one-bite rule, while not effective in her experience, might work for an easy-going child, but not an independent sibling.

Above all, don’t give up on your kid during this tricky phase. Labeling your child as picky might just fulfill the prophecy. If they go through a no-carrot phase, don’t take carrots off the menu forever. 

Kids cycle through foods and come back to them. Growth spurts come and go. 

And nothing’s set in meatloaf. Because we all know that meatloaf is certifiably yucky/yummy/OK.


Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is the mother of two. She's helped many Twin Cities families in her work as a postpartum doula. 
Send questions or comments to jwittes@mnparent.com.