Meet Dylan,  a 2 1/2-year-old strong-willed picky eater. Meet Julian and Rebecca (J&R), Dylan’s very tired, sleep deprived and exasperated parents. Every evening Dylan staunchly refuses to eat anything offered to him for dinner unless it is French fries or some form of chocolate treat.  For months now, the routine has not changed: J&R prepare what they hope will be something Dylan is willing to eat.  After 45 minutes of supper songs, at-the-table videos of spiderman eating his veggies, and bribes of chocolate for micro-bites of broccoli, J&R finally give in.  They pull the fries from the freezer, zap them in the microwave and serve them up to a gloating young Dylan. The harder they try, the more tenacious and stubborn Dylan seems to become.

Nourishing a picky toddler is up there with some of the world’s most frustrating parenting experiences. Trying to ensure your child eats daily balanced meals (when it seems that all they’re willing to accept is KD and French Fries) can leave you looking to check in to the nearest looney bin. Any parent of a picky toddler knows well that the conventional parenting tricks to get your kid eating simply don’t work.  Bribes, demands, pleads, and outright begging only leaves your child stronger in his conviction to defy the laws of biochemistry by growing on carbs alone. It seems a different approach is more in order.

I hope this post gives you some understanding of the underlying reasons for picky eating in toddlers, and hopefully it will form the basis for helping you to solve the problem.

In many ways toddlerhood represents a child’s first try at adolescence. In their first years, babies have very little control, independence, or ability to influence their surrounding world. Suddenly, with emerging communication, mobility, and manual dexterity skills, they realize their powerful ability to influence the things and people surrounding them. In so many ways, this is a beautiful and wondrous developmental achievement. But too often these little wonders exhibit less-than-appropriate (read: disrespectful, unhealthy, unsafe) behaviors.  Worse yet, these are behaviors over which parents feel no control whatsoever setting the stage for the many epic battles that define the toddler years.

Toddlers can control but a few aspects of their life: sleeping, voiding, and eating.  Because their repertoire is so limited, they’ll fight with heroic determination to maintain their autonomy over these three domains. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that parents and toddlers battle most vivaciously with bedtime, toilet training, and feeding.  What parents often struggle to realize is that they are doomed to lose at the moment of engagement.  Rather than battle, empower and partner with your child instead.

Empowering does not mean letting your child eat whatever and whenever she wants. Rather it implies a partnership, a shared authority over what, when, where, whetherhow long and how much to eat. The goal is to be clear about which parts of the eating experience the child can/should have full control over vs. those that should be for parents to determine. In general, parents should have full say over what will be offered (What#1), when and where it will be offered, and how long the meal should last. A child should have full say over what she will choose to eat based on the options offered (What#2), whether she will eat at all, and how much she will eat. Picky behaviors gradually disappear as these ‘healthy eating’ terms are negotiated and established between parents and toddler.

There are four key points to take from this so far:

1) Never battle over food with your toddler. You have already lost at the moment of engagement.

2) Empower and partner with your child instead

3) Parents say When, Where, What#1, and How Long.

4) Toddler says What#2, Whether, and How Much.

Fully empowering a child does not stop at allowing her to make choices for herself. An empowered child also experiences the consequences of her choices. And this idea forms the basis for what I consider to be responsible and respectful discipline. So in this case, when a child chooses not to eat, not only should the parents respect her choice, but they should also allow the child to experience the consequences of that choice: that she will feel hungry.

When I am discussing this concept with parents at my pediatric nutrition clinic, it is usually at this point in the discussion when parents stop me and counter with something like: ‘I don’t believe in sending my child to bed hungry!’ or “How can you recommend that I starve my child!?”

Before addressing these valid concerns, let’s go back to J&R and Dylan. As is the case for many toddlers in this situation, the typical way that dinner plays out is …

Dylan refuses to eat his supper so that soon after he can ask for and receive a less healthy, ‘junky’ alternate food.  J&R, concerned that their child will go hungry (&/or not interested in hours of temper tantrums), ultimately give in and offer Dylan his fries and chocolate. In my view, this approach, though understandable, undermines the empowerment process. Dylan simply learns that choosing not to eat is the best way to get the junky food that he always would rather have. Offering Dylan (or rewarding Dylan with) fries and chocolate undermines in that it encourages his maladaptive behavior to continue on more often and with more vigor into the future.

The empowering way to approach this situation would be as follows: after Dylan refuses to eat what’s offered, after dinner time has lapsed, and after he requests his fries and chocolate, J&R gently and sympathetically say “sweetheart, we offered you supper and you chose not to eat it. Chocolate is not a supper food. You must be feeling hungry. This hunger is how it feels when you choose not to eat supper. If you’re hungry, I saved your supper in the fridge; you can eat it now to help make this hungry feeling go away.”

At this point, the options for Dylan are clear. He is facing a choice and it is fully his to make: eat supper and feel satiated, or refuse to eat and go to bed hungry.  This approach enables Julian and Rebecca to set clear limits.  It reinforces for Dylan that they are in charge of the ‘When’, ‘Where’, and ‘What#1’; but it also respects Dylan’s authority over ‘What#2’, ‘Whether’, and ‘How Much’.

J&R (as is the case with many parents) will likely feel that if Dylan chooses not to eat, and that if they don’t ‘give something’, they will be sending their child to bed hungry. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that this is not the case. Food is not being withheld. Dylan, if he goes to bed hungry, has made the decision to be hungry himself. Allowing him to make this decision respects the autonomy and control he so vigorously negotiates for. In my view, this is discipline at its finest … permitting him to learn from his choices in a loving, respectful and safe environment.

I don’t mean to say that Dylan won’t put up a masterfully epic battle – and I say this fully acknowledging that the learning point #1 states that one can never win in a battle of the wills with a toddler over eating. But the difference here is that now Dylan is working out his struggle within himself. He is coming to terms with a choice over which he has full control. Julian and Rebecca never engage and simply show love and warm support. This particular battle is fully worth allowing to play out. These are the struggles that, if well-negotiated, ultimately lead to maturity, responsibility, and a healthy respect for parent authority. Some children negotiate through this process within hours-to-days whereas others can take weeks or even months. Nonetheless, for children who never quite negotiate through this healthily, I worry that this sets the stage for more epic battles with higher stakes and more ominous pitfalls.

I hope this little discussion was helpful.  Please share your experiences or point of view in the comments section below.

In part 2 of this post, we’ll discuss simple straightforward and practical ways to empower your picky eater and help get things back on track.  Stay tuned…