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How I Won the Toddler Food Fight

Photograph by Twenty20

Is there any activity on this planet more frustrating than feeding a toddler? I mean, is somebody somewhere trying to clean a highway with a toothbrush? Empty out a lake with a teaspoon? Analyze a statement by Donald Trump? Not even kidding—these are the types of awful tasks you can compare to the nightmare that is getting a toddler to sit down and eat three meals a day.

If it isn't picky eating and refusing to touch vegetables, it's changing likes and dislikes daily, or skipping meals on a regular basis. I can almost see the mischievous gleam in my daughter's eyes as she rides in the grocery cart. It's like she's thinking "As soon as Mommy stocks up on my favorite foods, I'm going to suddenly decide I don't like them anymore. Sweet!"

This too shall pass, we tell ourselves. It's a kid phase like any other. But we still have to get through it with a few shreds of sanity and self-respect intact. After months of battle, I've discovered the key to surviving a meal with a toddler. Guess what? It has nothing to do with food.

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This magical solution is not about creatively hiding the veggies or cutting melon slices into miniature snowmen. (Who does that?! I blame Pinterest.) It's not about finger painting with hummus or offering truffles and Gorgonzola to your nine-month-old. The real challenge is dealing with your own anxiety about your child's nutrition and learning to trust that she knows how much she needs to eat.

I'm not the genius behind this solution. I want to give credit and tearful gratitude and maybe a case of champagne to the baby and child feeding guru, Ellyn Satter. Satter's book, "How To Get Your Kid To Eat: But Not Too Much" was my first introduction to the concept of "the Division of Responsibility." It was a huge revelation. For the first time, someone was telling me that it was NOT my job to get food INTO my child.

Satter explains the division of responsibility this way: "Parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and the manner in which it is presented. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat."

It sounds so simple and reasonable and freeing. But it goes against all your mom instincts. When your kid is a newborn and even an older baby, getting food into their tiny bodies feels completely like your responsibility. If you are breastfeeding, you have to physically get your nipple into your baby's mouth in order to feed her. If you are bottle-feeding, you have to hold the bottle to her mouth.

Satter reveals a truth that is so hard for parents to accept: all children know how much they need to eat.

If your baby doesn't nurse well or has problems gaining weight, the burden of guilt and anxiety becomes even more intense. Pediatricians start pointing at dots on the growth curve. Your mother-in-law criticizes whatever feeding method you use and recommends another one. You obsess over weight checks and ounces of breast milk or formula. It's scary and unsettling and inevitably makes you feel like you are doing something wrong.

Then your baby becomes a toddler, and suddenly all the rules change. You no longer have to get food into your child's mouth. But her eating habits and attitudes about food are now um, challenging. She might eat a huge lunch and a tiny dinner. She might demand oranges every day for a week and refuse to touch her chicken and broccoli. She might love peas today and hate them tomorrow. And this is all apparently normal.

Satter reveals a truth that is so hard for parents to accept: all children know how much they need to eat. You have to trust your child to eat the food and the amount that is right for her. Trying to get her to eat more or less, or something she doesn't want to eat, is just futile.

Satter breaks down the facts. "The average toddler eats from 960 to 1700 calories a day. Add on to that a normal 20% over and under day-to-day variation, and that child will eat between 760 to 2040 calories a day."

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It's a huge range. It can drive you nuts. But it's normal. And sadly, you can't control it. Here's what you can control. You can present a range of wholesome and kid-friendly foods at each meal. You can offer healthy snacks. You can model healthy eating for your child and insist on basic social behaviors at mealtimes. And no matter what your toddler eats, you can learn to smile and move on with the day. She won't starve. There is always another meal or snack a few hours away when she can make up for it.

Trust me, I'm still working on this. But I've mostly managed to tame my panic attacks when my daughter eats two cherry tomatoes and one pasta noodle for dinner, or announces that she's "all done" at lunchtime before I've even served it to her. And I've noticed that when I don't react to my daughter's eating, something changes. "All done?" I say cheerfully. "Okay, let's go play." She studies me, puzzled that I'm not taking the bait. And then she reaches for another bite.

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