Toddler Food Wars


Lately the families I work for are dealing with issues around food. In one household, I am told that the toddler has decided not to eat her dinner one evening and so as a consequence I am not to give her any food if she asks. They hand me a full sippy-cup of milk that the toddler has disdained and mention that is her only option. I felt uncomfortable denying food but also knew she was generally well fed and that if she didn’t eat anything that night, it would in no way compromise her nutritionally. As it turns out she was either too stubborn or too unaffected to ask me for anything at all. Toddler-1. Parents-0 .
In the other family, the almost toddler has suddenly given up many previously tolerated foods. Chicken, once a staple, is thrown from his highchair post with flourish—watch me toss what you’ve offered on the floor, he seems to say. He likes to swipe his hand across the plastic surface and send whatever is sitting on it flying. Of course, a half hour later when I offer him his favorites—avocado, black beans and string cheese—there are no complaints, they go down in massive quantities. A child could in theory live on that alone. After all, he does still accept pureed spinach, and with that green add-on, his diet would be balanced if boring.
The problem is his parents don’t want to feed him just that. There’s a sense that giving into a picky eater perpetuates it, that if they can’t be convinced to keep trying things now, they never will. I admit to some belief in that direction. In the privacy of my mind, I have judged parents, thinking, well, if you had just offered them more diverse choices throughout their infancy, they wouldn’t solely eat pb&j’s or grilled cheese. But then maybe they would.
My parents ate hippie style—lots of veggie stir-fries—and my brother subsisted, as though in protest, primarily on chicken nuggets for most of his youth. I joke that since you are what you eat, his tan blond coloring makes sense given all the nuggets—he’s the exact same shade as a nugget. I can’t say that he is the next Anthony Bourdain these days—he lives in a frat house and his idea of chicken has hardly expanded. But I can also proudly say that he has learned what to order in most ethnic restaurants, even if it’s chicken satay, so his life isn’t restricted by the manner in which he eats.
My plan for my kids is to feed them at the table with me as I eat, in my lap, or once they get too grabby with my food, with one of those booster seats that latches on. I’ll serve them whatever I am eating since I eat healthy enough, and blended into a puree when they’re younger. Eating will be a messy and tactile experience—maybe I’ll cord-off an area without carpet or put down a big washable mat and just let them go at it, whatever they manage to get in their mouths. But from my experience with kids, even with those who I spoon feed in high chairs, the tough part is it feels like so much goes to waste. I definitely grew up in a “what about the poor starving children of the world?” household where wasting food was seen as a sign of decaying morals. Try telling a toddler that though. They are notoriously picky eaters and they’ve got control issues. Eating becomes a battle of wills. The food on the floor is the clearest casualty.
The surplus of food has changed things in the culture of parenting. Back in the day, people made dinner and if the kids didn’t eat it, they went hungry. That was assuming that they weren’t hungry after dinner anyways. It is in conjunction with privilege that the issue of control around food has developed. Kids know there is more where that came from and that if they hold out, a snack will probably be offered in a few hours. Possibly something more to their liking than dinner anyway.
I also think the expectation that children should eat a diversity of foods is based on privilege. Kids don’t generally eat kale and it is only recently that we expect that they should. The upper classes have embraced the idea of healthy eating and it has become a status symbol, like the thousand dollar stroller. The notion that we should regularly offer children a variety of foods that may well be rejected in order to “expose” them to good eating choices didn’t happen in the past. This is partly because ready made food options weren’t as plentiful (we can now pop by Trader Joe’s) and partly because people didn’t hold a diverse diet as a virtue. You ate whatever you ate and were lucky to have it. Even the rich had a much more limited diet, restricted by geography and tradition.
The idea that your Anglo toddler should love baba ghanoush is quintessentially modern American. I say all this as a suggestion for parents to question their own motivations in challenging what I see as natural toddler behavior. Not that we should let children eat whatever they want—I have seen toddlers drinking soda out of baby bottles and it about broke my heart (their poor teeth!). But if your child subsists on 10 or less foods and most of them are beige, the answer may be a multivitamin instead of a recurring argument you’re unlikely to win.


  1. While I agree in essence, I do think that kids only need to “try” what is served. A child should not dictate what is served at mealtimes. I grew up liking most everything, as my parents insisted that what was served was what we ate. If we didn’t like it, but ate at least 1/2, that was enough. Some things I didn’t like (but still had to eat a bit of) and don’t like to this day, but I’m proud that I can try most anything and appreciate it. My children (Ethiopian) are growing up much the same way. They don’t have to eat everything, but they must try it. Turns out there is very little they don’t like after trying!

  2. Beth I totally agree with you. I am not an order chef. I do try to be realistic and I make sure only to ever include one new food or something I know they aren’t a huge fan of as part of their dinner. They must at least try one piece but are off the hook after that. My biggest revelation is what hunger does to appetites. Since we’ve moved to Bangkok and there is no access to endless snacks here and there – and having made the decision to implement the rule I had as a child during my summers in France that if I was hungry outside of official meals (Breakfast, Lunch, 4pm snack and dinner) I could have a piece of fruit.

    My kids have always been decent eaters but meals were often a struggle pleading for another mouthful, lasting for way too long, constant negotiations about how many more spoonfuls, etc.. Now with this change, they are clamoring for whatever I put down and eating heartily, finishing their plates. The whole meal experience has improved drastically and I am starting to wonder what sort of bad food habits we are creating when we teach toddlers that anytime they fuss, seem bored/annoyed/unhappy we shove a snack in their face. Seems like a recipe for a very unhealthy relationship to food.

  3. I agree, Kellen. I think so many times meals turn into a fight for control, and parents are so anxious over food issues. The kids figure out this is a hot button and there you go! I like a no pressure approach to meals, such as Ellyn Satter’s, where parents serve up the meal and it’s up to the kids to then eat (and how much) or not eat what they are served. I’m lucky with the kid I have, but in our experience, having them part of the meal you eat works best (as well as it’s easier to serve them what you are eating already). It seems to be the conclusion of many studies as well. In my opinion it’s more important to make meals be pleasant occasions for being together as a family, than to force some kind of “healthy” or “diverse” diet.

    I do share your pain over wasted food, but in the end I’d rather waste food than have stressful tantrums and battles of will, which I’ll lose. It’s a problem of privilege too, I suppose. Then again I would think toddlers are still picky in less plentiful circumstances. However, throwing is discouraged – at our house throwing food means you are done with the meal and leave the table, but that’s more about teaching manners than eating.

    I do agree with the other commenters that continuous snacking probably interferes with the meal structure. And I share the discomfort with offering up food in response to fussing.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here