How to Teach Selective Eating Habits for Toddlers

When your toddler consistently uses his new favorite word — “no!” — during eating time, you might reconsider the “I’ll never bribe my child” phrase you uttered when he was born. If only your toddler would eat anything you gave him like he did when he was a baby, you wouldn’t have to bang your head against the wall and give in by making the macaroni and cheese yet again. While some of this behavior is “normal” for toddlers, extreme selective eating could be a real problem for your child’s health.

What is Selective Eating?

Selective eating includes extreme reluctance to try new foods, and toddlers might choke, gag or vomit when they try a new food, according to nutrition therapist Diane Keddy on RaisingHealthyEaters.com. Keddy suggests this reaction is caused by underlying anxiety. In 2010, the American Psychiatric Association proposed an addition to the DSM-V — selective eating disorder; however, there is no record of this addition on the online draft of the DSM-V in 2013, the proposed release year of the document. This information is not intended to scare you, but it does suggest your child’s eating habits might be cause for real concern.

Selective Eating Versus Picky Eating

Please don’t freak out! Not all picky eaters will develop selective eating. While picky eaters might just simply prefer certain foods, selective eaters will altogether reject foods, often an entire food group or type of food — for example, selective eaters might eat only white foods. Toddlers with selective eating might also have a sensory issue, such as those associated with autism, which might make them react to foods that feel weird or disturbing in their mouths, such as squishy foods.

Picky eating is relatively short-lived, while selective eating persists into childhood. If your toddler will touch or taste at least a bit of a new food or will eat from various texture groups, you likely just have a picky eater on your hands — and the frustration that continues until he outgrows it.

How to Deal With Selective Eating

You live with the symptoms every mealtime with your toddler, so now what? You and your doctor can determine if your child shows the symptoms of picky or selective eating, and your doctor might recommend a course of action to address your child’s anxiety or underlying cause of the problem behavior. Some doctors, according to social worker Abigail H. Natenshon on ParentingBookmark.com, might recommend giving your child a vitamin to make up for any lack of nutrition from food and not pay too much attention to the eating problem, which could make it worse.

The USDA and Choose My Plate suggest letting your picky eater choose fruits and veggies with you at the grocery store. Develop happy attitudes during mealtime, so joke and laugh with your toddler rather than arguing.

Additional Tips

Your toddler’s attitude about food might change his perspective about eating it, so make eating a pleasure. Let your toddler help you prepare a meal, or make foods into interesting shapes and characters to make your toddler smile — and yes, he’ll hopefully chow down like he’s starving. Choose My Plate suggests you give your toddler some choices; rather than just making carrots to go with dinner, ask your toddler if he wants carrots or peas. Offer only one new food at a time rather than bombarding your toddler with an overwhelming amount of new things.

Don’t give up on the first try — if your toddler refuses a food after trying it and scrunching up his nose a dozen times, you can move on to the next option.

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