One of the most frustrating transitions in parenting is when your baby-who-will-eat-anything becomes your toddler-who-will-only-eat-pasta. But this, too, shall pass. (Really.) We asked nutritionist Hillary Baron Irwin of Simply Beautiful Mom for advice on how to keep little diets varied and how to coax stubborn protestors into trying new foods.
StrollerTraffic: Are there rules for introducing foods? Should babies try certain foods before others?
Hillary Baron Irwin: Fruits before vegetables or vegetable before fruits—there are theories supporting both tactics. Some people think that babies will be more accepting of vegetables if they try them first, while others argue that offering fruit first will help them adjust to solids better. Focus instead on offering a variety of healthy foods—and continue that approach throughout their childhood.
ST: What’s the best shot at getting a finicky toddler to broaden his palate?
HBI: Teach by example. If you want your kids to eat a healthy, varied diet, then you need to eat a healthy, varied diet, too. Children love to try what their parents are eating, so sit with your kids, eat a variety of healthy foods, and let them try everything you make.
ST: So, we should all be eating the same thing?
HBI: Kids do not need kid food; they need smaller portions of grownup food. It’s our job as parents to teach our children many things, like being polite, brushing teeth—and to like brussels sprouts, salmon, quinoa, beans, and cauliflower.
ST: Well, what happens when they protest? How hard should we push?
HBI: Don’t force it. Instead, make mealtime choices as appealing as possible: as kids get older, you can serve food family style and encourage them to fill their own plates. Serve colorful, flavorful foods and let the kids help with the prep whenever possible.
ST: And if that doesn’t work?
HBI: Make sure they are hungry for meals (beware of snacking), and serve the healthier items first. Try putting vegetables and protein on their plates first, while the pasta is cooking. If they are hungry, they are more likely to try what’s in front of them, even if it’s not their first choice.
ST: Good idea. But what if they absolutely refuse specific foods or textures—no matter when it’s served?
HBI: Try different preparations of the same food. It’s important to continue to encourage a variety of foods and textures.
ST: Should we worry if after trying all these tactics our toddlers still only eat a small range of foods?
HBI: Many toddlers do go through phases of having a diet that’s not very balanced and is too high in carbs. Just keep offering a variety of healthy foods, have cut-up fruits and vegetables out for snacks, use fun little bowls to make the food more interesting . . . be as creative as you can, and don’t give up.
ST: Where do you draw the line between picky eating and a full-blown food aversion?
HBI: A picky eater prefers a few foods, like chicken nuggets or pasta, but will typically try what is put in front of her if hungry enough. However, a child with a food aversion will likely refuse entire food groups even if very hungry. Signs include the inability to eat food outside the home, or gagging, vomiting, or anxiety or tantrums when new foods are presented.
ST: When is it time to call in a pro?
HBI: Talk to your pediatrician if your child is not growing, is very fussy, has dry diapers or is not urinating, is extremely gassy or has constant constipation or diarrhea; these could all be signs of more serious problems.