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How to Avoid Food Fights With Toddlers

Photograph by Twenty20

Ah, your darling toddler, so curious, so full of energy, so ... picky! Many babies are epicurean adventurers, happily eating black beans and mango salsa or clamoring for pork chops and sauteed spinach. Then one day you wake up and all they will eat is rice and cheese. It's tempting to launch into "Operation Convince Baby," a well-intentioned campaign where you end up cajoling your child to eat, making clown faces out of pork chops and adding spinach to brownies, all to no avail. It's not personal, most moms have tried and crumbled under the tyranny of toddlers' palates. But don't lose heart, there are ways to surrender the battle and still win the war.

Lose Gracefully

Toddler food fights are about power. Being a concerned mom, you want your little one to have the best possible nutrition, which means a balanced diet. What you may not know is, as kids transition into toddlerhood, their appetites diminish, often making them super picky about what they put into their mouths. Cut to you plying her with food she doesn't want and her gagging, throwing it on the floor or spitting it out, while you seethe with frustration. A huge part of winning the food fight is deciding to stop buying into the power struggle. To your little critic's delight, it appears as though she's won, though you know it's merely a temporary diversion.

Be Patient and Keep Trying

Pediatrician Laura Jana, co-author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insights, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup, advises, "A lot of principles are the same from age to age. Once you extract all the fundamental principles, you can basically apply them to just about any food fight that arises." One of these principles is called the "No Thank You Bite," where you simply ask your toddler to take one bite of an unwanted food. If she doesn't want more, let it drop, you've already reached a compromise. Kids at this age may require 10 to 15 bites of a new food before they warm to it, so serve the food in your regular repertoire of meals until it becomes a staple.

MORE: 10 Habits of Healthy Kids

Keep Expectations in Check

As you've probably noticed, toddlers are very sensitive to their parents' "energy" around certain issues, such as potty training or feeding. Even if you don't say anything, toddlers can pick up on Mom's tension or worry about mealtimes and whether they're eating enough. During this stage, let go and make mealtimes about your toddler's right to choose, letting her decide how much is enough and when she's done eating. Give tiny portions of a few different foods and if she wants more, she can ask for more. If she starts pushing food around, or throwing it, simply take the plate away. Try to avoid very many between-meal snacks so that your little one will be hungry for meals.

Feeding the Whole Family

A good strategy for avoiding toddler food battles is to simply prepare one meal for the whole family. You may be a super-mom, but that doesn't require you to be a short-order cook. This also diffuses tensions about serving the "right" foods, eating out and eating at other people's homes. If your child isn't hungry, or doesn't like the meal, she doesn't have to eat. She can wait until the next meal, instead. Some parents ask that the child sit and socialize with family and friends until a reasonable amount of time has passed. Since even half an hour can be agony for a toddler, try 15 minutes and then let her play quietly nearby.

Get the Facts

If you're having trouble letting go of anxieties about your little one's health, Jan Faull, child development specialist, says, "Check to see if he's growing, healthy, sleeping and energetic. If he is, then he's getting the food and nutrition he needs. If he's not, then talk with your pediatrician, who can recommend a consultation with a nutritionist." Once you know all is well, it can be easier to trust your toddler's tastes and let her explore this phase without any drama with mama.

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