(This is the second installment in a two-part series. The first installment, Eating Green, the Devious Way, was published in January.)
Food and your toddler. It starts out as normal toddler negativity: "Just Say No" is the toddler motto for life, after all. It doesn't take them long to realize that this one is a real hot button for mom and dad. He gets the best reactions, such a lovely lot of intense attention, when he refuses to eat something; she discovers that if she holds out long enough and loud enough, she will never have to eat anything but lovely pasta and raisins! Today. Tomorrow it will be Only Foods that are White.
But, short of holding their nose and popping something in when they gasp for air, what can you do? Not that this technique can prevent them from spitting it out, anyway.
In fact, I am often astonished at how much difficulty parents have with this one, because in the end, it's one you are bound to win. Really.
The first thing to establish is whether there's a genuine problem. Toddlers are faddish eaters; one day they only want white stuff, another day they only want beans. Track your child's food intake over a week. If their diet is balanced over the course of the week, there's no problem. Their daily intake may not make the grade, but if their weekly intake is balanced and healthy, you needn't worry.
Secondly, it's normal for the intake to decrease a bit in the second year of life, because, though they are still growing steadily, they are not growing at the incredible rate of their first year. So, if his intake has dropped, but it's still balanced - protein, fruit, vegetables, grain, dairy - there is no problem.
But what if they are really, truly refusing to eat a necessary part of their diet? Not refusing one particular item, but refusing an entire class of food? I've focussed on vegetables, because this is very commonly the issue, but the technique I'm about to reveal works for any food.
Before we start, are YOU ready? Look deep into your souls, mom and dad: are you ready to make a stand on this? Are you capable of being MORE stubborn than your toddler? Are you willing to let your child suffer the consequences of her own decisions? Said consequences will almost certainly be some mondo tantrums. (For assistance in dealing with trantrums, check out this, this, and this.) It takes some parental spine, but, if you've got that, the vegetable issue can very rapidly become a non-issue. Really.
So you've decided you can do this. Good. So here's the plan. It's very simple.
You prepare a meal. You dish it out to everyone except the picky child. The picky child gets ONLY the vegetable portion of the meal. A very small portion. In the case of phenomenally stubborn children, a single green bean on the plate. At this point, it's the principle of the thing.
So there you sit, you with your plate full of goodies, and your tot with his beans. Tot will look at your plates and say "What's with the bean? I want the good stuff!" And you will say, "As soon as you eat your bean(s) you may have the rest of your meal."
You state it clearly, firmly, non-apologetically. You do not coax, you do not wheedle. "As soon as you eat your bean, you may have the rest of your meal."
He will argue, he will roar, he will rail against the machine. You will repeat. "First your bean, then you other food."
But what happens if she entirely refuses? What happens if she WILL NOT eat that bean? Well, she'll get hungry.
ARGH! My baby will BE HUNGRY!!! What kind of a parent am I??
You're the kind of parent who knows that, given time and opportunity, your child will make good decisions for himself. You trust your child.
Your child will not starve himself. Unless he/she has some serious mental disorder, a healthy child will eat. Eventually.
So, there you sit at the table, you with your plateful of yummynutrtitious food, your toddler with their single bean. You are maintaining outward calm. Though you may be sweating a bit, you will not reveal this to your child. Your toddler is probably not quiet, at all. You toddler is probably ranting and roaring, livid with fury that YOU would do this to HER.
But remember, mommies and daddies: YOU aren't doing this to her. SHE is.
Give her long enough to know you're serious. Make it at least 90 seconds. But really, there is no reason you should have to put up with being screamed at during your meal, so at the end of 90 seconds to three minutes, you ask him, in a light and cheerful voice,
"So. You ready to eat that bean yet?"
The answer will almost certainly be an unqualified 'No!'." So then you say, again, in your oh, so light and up-beat voice,
"Well, then, I guess you're not hungry. Away you go and play." And you lift him down. If he stays to scream at your elbow, you gently but firmly take him somewhere else. If you don't have a time-out spot, his crib works fine. (You may ignore the screaming. The issue is the food.) "When you're ready to play quietly, you can come out." And you leave, back to your meal. When they calm down, you get them out. And not before.
What if the child is not ranting and roaring, but merely sits in sullen silence and refuses the single bean? You ignore her. Once in a while, no more often than every two minutes, you may ask/offer the reminder, "You ready to eat that bean yet? When you eat that bean, you may have the rest of your meal." If she refuses, you go back to your dinner conversation. You do not bathe her in attention. You do not look worried, you do not coax. It is the child's choice, and you are respecting it.
When you are finished your meal, you ask one more time, and then, if the answer is still no, you do as above: "I guess you're not hungry. You may get down now."
Now what? You've eaten, but your child, you know it, is still hungry. You can't let your child go hungry!!! And once again, I remind you: YOU aren't letting your child go hungry, YOUR CHILD IS. In an hour, you ask if he's hungry. If he is, you smile warmly (but don't go wild with delight) you bring him to the table, and you present him with -- That. Damned. Bean. Again. (If he's gone all contrary and says he's not hungry, Do Not Argue. "Oh, all right then," you will say, and move on to the next thing. We are removing the emotional charge to this subject, so it will be less attractive to the child as a button to push.) Lather, rinse, repeat, hourly or half-hourly.
The child will be offered nothing but the offending food until the next meal, when she gets a fresh start. With a different vegetable. (BWAH-hahaha...) But remember: nothing but this till the next meal.
Even if the next meal is breakfast.
You can do it.
How long will this take? It varies wildly from child to child. Some will cave during the very first meal. Others will persist, but I promise you: if you do this with 100% consistency, it WILL work, usually within five days.*
While you are sweating through the tantrums and trauma (and trust me, the trauma is far more yours than your child's!), bear the goal in mind. At the end of this, you will have a child who will sit down and eat what is on their plate, with no fuss. You do not quit with this program until this has happened. At the very worst, a stern look should be all that's required. At the VERY worst. Ninety percent of the time, it will be a non-issue. Focus on that goal in these difficult days: food will be a non-issue. It is not a pipe dream.
After this, you needn't worry about taking the child other places to eat. After this, you can kindly avoid serving the one or two items your child hates, because you know they're genuine dislikes and not knee-jerk negativity. After this, you will never again - never again! - have to wheedle and coax. After this, you can just cook a meal without breaking into a cold sweat. After this, mealtimes will be happy times once more.
You can do it!
*(Updated bit: When I say "within five days", I do not mean the child will eat nothing for five days! I mean the child will stop fussing about eating what they're given within five days. They may stare glumly and sigh, but they have accepted the inevitable: no more screaming and fighting.)
© 2006, Mary P