Article Jan 27, 2015

Toddlers and picky eating: It's all about trust and control

Toddlers are an interesting bunch. They have their own plans about what they want to do and when they want to do it. And they will pick their attitude while they are doing it, thank you very much!

So, what do you do when you have a toddler who’s a picky eater?

Three basic strategies

  1. You will eat what we are eating, or you will eat nothing.
  2. You will eat what we are eating until I get worried enough, and then I will give you what you want.
  3. You will eat what you want to eat (I will make you your own meals).

Because picky eating (or at least, refusing to eat) is almost always a phase, children will survive with all three. I have seen about 1000 different strategies for handling this situation—some work for one child but would never work for another.

Ultimately, picky eating is not about eating…it’s really a matter of trust and control.

A matter of trust and control

TRUST: So, why should your toddler trust you? They’ve only known you two years.

Your child is still learning to trust that you are someone who has his or her best interest in mind. They do not know that the awful broccoli you are forcing them to try is actually good for their body in the long run. Their minds simply cannot see the big picture the way we can.

Sound familiar? Do we ever have trouble trusting that God has our best interest in mind? I know I do. Growing up I memorized that I should “trust in the Lord with all my heart (Prov 3:5),” but that’s not so easy in the moment. I know that “God works everything for good for those who love (Him) (Rom 8:28),” but when things are not going my way, it doesn’t exactly make sense.

CONTROL: In addition, every toddler desires control. At this same stage of learning to trust you, your toddler is also learning that they don’t have control over their lives. You tell them where to go and when. Oh, and before we leave, you have them sit on this huge toilet and go potty first. They will push back in some areas.

Maybe they will become a touch more defiant. Maybe they will refuse to be potty trained or have stool withholding and constipation. But, picky eating is probably the most common area that toddlers attempt to regain some control. It’s a good choice for them because you cannot forcibly cause them to chew with a hand on their forehead and chin. (Even if you could, how would you force them to swallow?)

Does this sound familiar? Do we ever have trouble letting go of control? Guilty. As someone who managed medical school and maintains a busy schedule as a full-time pediatrician and a part-time writer, surely I have some measure of control over my schedule, right? Yes, until, I’m overdue on a deadline, supposed to round on newborns at two hospitals, and need to take my son to school (On a snack week. Thanks for the heads’ up!).

Choosing a strategy

So, what do you do with your picky eater? I think you pick one of the three strategies and go with it. Don’t fret over what everyone else will think or if you are doing the right thing. The strategy is not the important part.

The main goal is avoid turning mealtimes into a battle ground. Yelling and screaming probably will not encourage your child to eat, and in the long run, might backfire. Fortunately, we have a God that doesn’t bully us into trusting Him. He comes alongside us and acts trustworthy (Psa 111:7). He doesn’t force us to give up control, but he shows us that in doing so, we will actually be more at peace (Isa 26:3).

At the same time, you can and should talk with your toddler about the heart issue surrounding their eating habits. Their hearts are ripe for the harvest. Some helpful phrases are:

“Did you know that mommy loves to give you good things? That she wants what is best for you? I know it is hard to understand now but I want you to eat because it is good for you to help you grow big and strong.”

“Remember how daddy wants to give you good things? That’s how God is. He wants to give us the best for us also.”

At this age, you are setting the framework for how you and your child will interact for years to come. I think it’s a great time to establish a relationship of trust and love despite the stress involved. Having trouble? Look to the example of how your Father loves you through your picky tendencies, eating included.

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