Noodles, noodles, noodles ... and more noodles? Among the most frustrating type of picky eating for parents is the oh-so-common food jag, an eating pattern in which your child gets stuck on a certain type of food and rejects anything else for toddler meals.
Picky eating can take many forms, and food jags are just one. Some children don’t like certain textures or smells; others invent certain rules for toddler meals, like the potatoes can’t touch the peas. Though parents may worry about it, finicky eating is common during toddlerhood. Fear of new foods even has a name: “neophobia.” And it peaks between the ages of 2 and 6.
Food Jags in Toddlers: Why So Particular?
Kids have a natural preference for sweet and salty foods and reject bitter and sour flavors, which partly explains why food jags are seldom built around leafy greens. Fussy eating during meals is partly a control issue, too. As your toddler grows more independent, she realizes that she can exert some say in her life. Unfortunately, when you’re a toddler, you don’t have too much choice, so what she puts in her mouth and swallows can become a really big deal. Toddlers also develop a fondness (some might say rigidity) for sameness and predictability during this phase of big change. They may ask to wear a certain shirt or cling to a favorite toy—and they want to see the exact same meals on their plates, day after day.
How to Get Your Toddler to Eat
The most important thing to do when your toddler is food jagging is to stay calm. Not making a big deal about a food jag is the best way to keep it from becoming a battle. Never force your child to eat something she dislikes; simply present the food and let her choose to take a bite (or not). Also, avoid nagging, begging, or bargaining to get her to try something besides her chosen food. That puts too much emphasis on the issue and sets you up for a power struggle during toddler meals. What to do:
Drop over-worry about nutrition. Over time, if you keep offering a variety of healthy foods, your child will get hungry and eat a balance of the nutrients she needs. A toddler’s stomach is only the size of a fist, so it doesn’t take much to satisfy.
Keep offering your child the same foods you make for the whole family. She can choose to eat them or not. It’s OK to mix in the preferred food every once in awhile; just avoid catering to it and serving only that food.
Reintroduce rejects. Remember, it can take 15 or more (sometimes, many more) tries before your toddler will accept something new.
Try a little positive peer pressure. Look for opportunities for your toddler to eat with bigger kids. Seeing other children eating different foods might make your toddler more interested in trying them herself.
Be patient. Some food jags pass in a few days or weeks, while others last years. But most picky eating is outgrown during the early elementary years.