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My son (currently 23 months old) attends an in-home daycare 5 days a week. The daycare provider cooks homemade meals for the kids, and provides snacks.

By every report she gives, our son gives her absolutely no trouble when it comes to eating whatever she presents him.

However, my wife and I are unable to get him to even taste most of the food we prepare, or even food we get at restaurants.

He has a small selection (of rather eclectic diversity) of foods that he will gladly eat, and a few other foods that he will generally be willing to taste (e.g. anything that looks like ground beef, or is wrapped in a tortilla, he'll generally take at least a bite out of).

However, the vast majority of foods, when offered to him, will result in him saying "no!" and turning his head away. Usually there is a small smile on his lips when he does this. With some persistence, we can sometimes get a small amount of it past his lips, but usually only because repeated attempts seems to turn it into a game for him, and I can sneak in a tiny mouthful while he's laughing.

Typically, we'll offer him a small amount of whatever we're eating. When he refuses to try it, we'll then give him something else that we know he likes (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, baked beans, unsweetened apple sauce, just about any kind of soup, grilled cheese, homemade pizzas, etc.). However, we'd really like him to at least try whatever we're eating.

We've tried not offering anything else, and he simply will ignore the food and want to go and play (my wife is not comfortable letting him go without any food, so eventually he will get a snack, or some milk, some time after dinner is over).

We've tried enforcing "you can't leave until you at least try a bite". That results in massive melt-downs that are wholly atypical for him. Our longest foray down that road lasted over 45 minutes, ending with him sobbing uncontrollably after coming out of a short time-out.

I feel that he may simply be too young for "you can't leave until you at least try a bite". At the same time, it seems pretty clear that not trying food has become a game he plays with us. He doesn't have any problem at daycare, but that may also be because he sees the other, older kids eating, and wants to emulate them.

What is the best way to get him to try new foods?

Edit to clarify:

The issue is not that he is refusing to eat meals, and is instead eating only snacks. He is refusing to try some meals, but eats others.

He's not refusing to eat dinner, and instead eating a dish of ice cream. He's refusing to taste pork chop, but will eat a bowl of vegetable soup; he's turning up his nose at a hamburger to eat a taco (with veggies); or he's pushing away fish sticks to enjoy a homemade whole-wheat pizza with bbq chicken, onions, and green peppers.

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My parents spent endless hours, over more than a decade, trying to get me to try and enjoy new foods. It never worked. But if your child is eating healthy/balanced foods, is there an inherent benefit in introducing new foods? As an adult, I still only eat a handful of different dishes, but my diet is balanced and reasonably healthy. If anything, I think it's made it easier for me to stay fit as I've gotten older. Not an answer, since it doesn't address your question; just an opinion. –  Rob P. Nov 30 '12 at 12:12
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@RobP. I believe there is a definite inherent benefit in being willing to try and enjoy a wide variety of dishes. I have friends and relatives who will only eat a handful of dishes, and frankly it is frustrating picking a restaurant with them, as it has to be one of the few that serves stuff they like (which I typically find rather bland and boring). Most importantly, though, and from a more practical standpoint, it makes travel much easier. You can't always get your handful of home-town favorites, particularly if you are visiting different cultures. –  Beofett Nov 30 '12 at 13:03
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9 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Children learn very early on that they can get Mum and Dad to do anything - at daycare, I'm assuming the staff don't bend quite as much.

Currently it sounds like your son knows that if he waits he will get the food types he wants. Clever, eh :-) The only real solution is to stick to a rule of

  • After you have finished your dinner you can then choose a follow up if still hungry. If you don't finish, you just don't get the snack.

This will cause some upset at first, and you have to make sure you are both strict on this, or the game will just change to playing you against one another to get what he wants (like I said, they are the world's best social engineers!)

Once he realises he just won't get what he wants and will just go hungry things should change - and don't worry about children going hungry: our doctors all agreed that once they are hungry enough they will eat anything, and that point will come a long way before any harm. At least at that age - teenagers have a much more complicated scenario, apparently, so I'm not looking forward to that...

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Please see my edits above. He's not holding out for milk and cookies. He's holding out for a bowl of vegetable soup, or a grilled cheese sandwich. –  Beofett Aug 14 '12 at 12:18
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Okay - edited accordingly. –  Rory Alsop Aug 14 '12 at 12:22
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It took a while, and we had quite a few periodic bouts of sobbing over not getting different meals, but after repeatedly sticking to our guns, it seems to be working. Last night he decided to try his "I don't want this" routine again. After about 20 minutes of crying, he tried complaining that the food was too hot. When that didn't work, he complained that it was too cold. When that didn't work, he agreed to eat both his soup and chicken! Definite progress. –  Beofett Oct 18 '12 at 19:29
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Excellent news - I tend to believe that most things are phases that just need to be endured as best you can while doing the right thing :-) –  Rory Alsop Oct 18 '12 at 23:05
    
@Beofett: thanks for reporting back! As always when discussing human behaviour, every statement seems so "subjective", but reading about experiences really adds weight to an answer. Thanks! –  Konerak Jan 3 '13 at 11:05
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Some insights ... my daughter is 18 months old and we had the same kind of issues with her food a few months ago.

  • Our doctor definitively said that there is no risk at this age to let them skip a meal or several. If she does not eat what we propose, we can safely not insists or offer sth else
  • my wife and I (also my mother who takes care of her quite often) have very different ways of feeding the kids. We have noticed that all of them work, but NOT TOGETHER ! So now we decide before the meal how feeds her and nobody else interacts.
  • Food in small pieces that she can pick up with fingers seem to work better. It can be healthy and simple too such as small vegetables cooked in the microwave.
  • Also she likes to eat things separately, such as meat first, then yogourt, then mashed potatoes. We discovered it was sometimes useless to have her eat potatoes before the desert.
  • What went best for us when she wanted a conflict like that is to simply ignore her for a few minutes (turn away or quit the room). So when she starts throwing away the food, we simply put it out of reach and wait a few minutes until she calms down. Fighting on the food never produced any positive results (from bottles to solid food now). So if he seems to enjoy this fight with you around "tasting a bite" I would quit it for a few weeks until he forgets about it.

Do you allow any toys at the table ? It seems much easier for us to feed her when she either has a doll, any toy she likes, or simply when we let her eat with her fingers. She also tries to use the spoon a little now.

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He is allowed to bring toys to the table, but generally if he's eating, he has no interest in toys, and vice versa. Being able to self-feed with a spoon or fork has helped some (it brought some foods he had abandoned back into his repertoire), but for many foods it seems to make no difference if we let him finger feed, use a spoon himself, or if we try to offer it to him from our plate. –  Beofett Aug 13 '12 at 17:37
    
Have you tried new toys / toys he isn't using so often ? Or singing a song or telling a story ? My daughter eats so much better when she does not realize it. –  Michel Daviot Aug 13 '12 at 19:59
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I have a few suggestions:

1) Take a day off work and ask the day care provider if you could observe a day to watch what allure is making your child want to eat. Observe. Emulate. It could be a difference in presentation - at home you may have set meal time hours and sit down but the day care provider could be doing a buffet presentation and kids eat when they want.

2) At 23 months old, children are seeking their independence. Are you giving your child foods they can easily feed themselves? My 2.5 year old niece is considered a picky eater. Her parents and grandparents still spoon feed her. I have made her steamed broccoli and grilled cheese (cut in "fingers") allowing her to feed herself and she ate plenty.

3) Try giving your child the power over preparing the food. Take them to the grocery store to pick out some veggies and have them help (washing and help them cut with your hand on their hand with the knife) and let them observe you cook it. Tell him all the steps you are doing.

  • Let your child use a cookie cutter (most of them have a rubbered top to safely push down on) to cut up a sandwich into a fun shape
  • Let your child do some mixing. There are miniature versions of a lot of cooking utensils like whisks and spoons
  • I let my 16 month old daughter stir the eggs in the pan when we make scrambled eggs. I carry her and of course take every precaution to make sure she doesn't get burned. She stirs for a few seconds then I say it's my turn. I still carry her while I cook the eggs.

4) Get a kid sized table and chair for your son to eat at. Teach your son to set his table, clear it, and clean it. Put his plates, glass, spoons, and fork on a shelf that he can reach on his own. This is a Montessori suggestion for "practical life exercises". You show the child how to set the table the same way each time because kids like repetition. Clear the table the same way each time as well and remind them to push their chair in.

Good luck!

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Great suggestions, thanks! He mostly feeds himself now, and is getting pretty good with fork and spoon (he uses both the same way still), although messy. –  Beofett Aug 13 '12 at 18:18
    
Glad he is making great progress with utensils! Remember that a toddler's (age 2) stomach is about the size of their 2 fists together so perhaps he is filling up on liquids first? –  Rhea Aug 14 '12 at 2:20
    
We are in on a poor schedule with liquids (the first thing he wants when we come home from daycare is a cup of milk, and dinner is typically an hour later), but he will eat just fine... so long as its one of the foods he's familiar with. It's getting him to try food he doesn't recognize that seems to be the problem. –  Beofett Aug 14 '12 at 12:17
    
Oh I see. Definitely keep introducing new food. Children go through waves of like and dislike. Have him see other children eating a new food and say at a party, point it out. You can give him the power with choice as well by posing the question: "Do you want to try newFoodA or newFoodB?" and showing what they look like. Some kids don't like foods mixed together and prefer them separate so you can try a plate with dividers. My daughter will eat anything her dad eats even hot tortilla chips - I give her the plain chips but she did try the hot. Can try to see if he will mimic. –  Rhea Aug 14 '12 at 20:22
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If your son is eating much better at daycare than at home then find out what sort of meals are being eaten there, and try to cook them on your own. Try and make it more familiar around meal time, and as Michael notes above remove distractions at the table to keep things calmer. If you can, try and get an idea of how meal times are handled at day care, it may also be the attitude of the day care provider where she has a no-nonsense attitude that your son responds to. I know mine often acts out more at home with me and my wife, than he does when he is alone with other people, often he will also eat more at restaurants, as if the change of scenery is enough to get him to eat.

I've also done things where we modified our eating location so that we had a slight change to make things different enough it seemed as if the excitement of the new location helped in getting my son past his reluctance. Eating outside, if an option, can help - make it a picnic where you provide the same food at home and see if the new scenery helps.

We often left meals without my son eating much, but I provided healthy snacks that gave him the same nutrition as a meal without him knowing.

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My husband developed a "two spoons" approach that works well with our son (16 months). Mind you, it took some crying until he agreed to the rules of the game, but in the long run I think it's for the best.

The approach is to offer him two spoons with different things. Both are shown to him, both are held in front of him. In one spoon, there is something that he surely wants to eat, and in the other, something he's being picky about at the moment. The rule is, once both spoons are eaten, both get refilled.

We never push too hard, and if he's clearly unhappy eating the thing he's not keen on at the moment, we stop after one or two spoons. But he does try it, does chew, does swallow, and gets rewarded with the thing he likes immediately after. After a while, we let him continue eating only the thing he prefers. Like you, all the things offered are healthy, and at mealtimes, all are savory.

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This is a great idea! –  bobobobo Aug 14 '12 at 15:46
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One of the things none of the other commenters have commented on is the group effect of daycare. Even if you did everything exactly the same, same food, same presentation, same time of day, simply the fact that other toddlers are eating it can make some picky eaters suddenly a lot less picky. It seems to be a common phenomenon at daycares.

As far as what you can do about it at home, you can control what is offered, and when it is offered. Do not offer ice cream as a substitute for dinner, if that is not an acceptable alternative in your book. Do not offer him snacks close to lunch time if they're spoiling his appetite. It is okay to bring back dinner back out of the fridge, cold, and offer it again if he demands a snack after dinner. Normal, healthy children will not intentionally starve themselves, if they are convinced it's this food or no food, they'll almost always choose to eat what is presented. If they think they can sweet talk mommy into a treat or more yummy snack instead, they'll keep pushing till you give in. Consistent parenting between you and your spouse and other adults in your household (if any) is important in this regard, agree on what's ok and what's not and stick to it.

In some cases you may find better success if you adjust your mealtimes to fit your child's schedule, rather than expecting them to adjust to your schedule choices. If they're having snacks because lunch or dinner is too late, offering lunch or dinner earlier, and at the same time every day (ideally, matching the times the meals are at daycare), you may find he'll eat a lot more. I know my son usually gets hungry for lunch earlier than I do, and if I serve him food when he's hungry, he'll eat a lot more.

Also, at your child's age, he is probably also at the stage where he wants to feel in control of his environment, and choosing what and when or whether to eat is one of the few things he truly control. Giving him simple choices in regards to food may help him exert his control, and deflect the battle from whether or not he eats to whether he'd rather have cheddar cheese or string cheese, or whether he wants meat or just fruit, what part of his plate should you pour his ketchup on, etc.

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WOW! you have a lot of answers here and I admit I did not read every-single one, so I apologize up front if I'm duplicating.

Rory sums up the gist of what I would recommend, but I would add a few tweaks in this way.

  1. Give your child the number of bites that match his age as the rule to enforce "trying." I believe he is two now, so he should try two bites of every new food. Put about three to four bites of everything he will be given on his plate. If he takes two bites of everything and wants seconds on some part of the meal that is his favorite, he has done his job and can get a little more of the parts of the meal he likes. By giving him a couple of extra bites of each thing, if he does like it, he can enjoy a few extra bites, if not, you aren't setting yourself up with a kid that thinks he has to finish everything on his plate (bad news later on)
  2. When you speak about eating habits with your son, always stress (I know, "groan" right) balance You give him equal amounts because a healthy diet is one that is varied and includes lots of different yummy things. We also spoke with her about good manners include trying the food a trusted and loved person has made for you without a big fuss.
  3. A Food he won't try gets served at every meal until he tries it satisfactorily. He will soon learn that if he tries his two bites the first time, he doesn't have to look at the food over and over again for the next expanse of time. After he has tried a food (and not liked it) wait a month or so before attempting another try. This sets up a natural reward system that is only somewhat contrived and not contrived enough that at this age he will notice it. He then feels as though it is his decision, even though in reality you are setting things up so that he will eventually decide to try.
  4. I agree with Rory and bobobobo that a child will not go hungry to their detriment at this age. They can be ravenously hungry and eat everything in sight and then hardly need any food the next week because of the way growth works, but they actually are pretty good at knowing what they need when we let them listen to their own little bodies (and don't introduce tons of sugar, fat or salt - which it seems you are being cognizant of).
  5. If you wife feels horrible about just saying, "but you didn't eat dinner." Why not replace that with, "Okay here are your left-overs" and then re-warm them?

As I said in chat, this worked really well for us until Alice figured out she could just gorge on breakfast. If that happens, seriously just serve the left-overs for breakfast - problem was solved for us within two weeks. She now (sometimes grudgingly) tries six bites of everything she is given without any sort of fight and then moves on to eating more of the parts she really liked.

I would also add that Anabel Karmel has a number of great cookbooks that offer tons of ideas about presentation of foods that makes them "fun" and more appealing for kids - including specifics for this age group and creating "finger foods" for them is one way she goes about appealing to their tastes.

Raising our own veggies and then having Alice help harvest clean and wash them also made a huge difference in her outlook toward the foods. I believe @Rhea mentions this general idea from what I skimmed and I second the notion.

ADDITIONAL FIND: Since I originally wrote this answer, I have also encountered food "pouches" which are working really well with the 11 month old I currently care for - who will only eat what he can feed to himself at the moment. Sprout is the company the family I work for uses most for this purpose and I must say there is some really healthy stuff in those pouches! One of the baby's favorites is the broccoli mash and he happily eats one that has Kale as a main ingredient as well! - so long as he is the one holding the pouch. Perhaps, using a product like this in conjunction with other efforts will reassure you he is getting the nutrition he needs, while allowing him the freedom to feed himself (without as big a mess?)

btw - I have a much easier time getting this little one to let me feed him than his parents do too - I'm much more willing to let him be hungry for a little while (we are talking 15-20 minutes tops here, I really do mean a little while), feed him the stuff he hates first and then give him what he likes last than mom and dad are - I think it is part of the natural order of things - so don't feel alone on the matter.

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#3 is interesting! Obnoxious but effective, which is probably just as it should be. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 28 '12 at 16:15
    
totally obnoxious! and left overs just get less and less appetizing too. –  balanced mama Nov 28 '12 at 16:16
    
Just saw your edit... that's exactly what we did to supplement his diet! We use mostly Ella's and Plum brands, but there are a couple of others he likes. He now likes broccoli because of these! –  Beofett Feb 11 at 19:05
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Toddlers tend to prefer simple foods - ie carrot sticks, broccoli, meat by itself to complex foods - ie soups, salads, etc

Offer a variety of foods at every meal. Include some that you know he will eat and others that he doesn't like or has never seen before.

Toddlers need to see a food many times before they feel comfortable with it and will want to try it. Adults can be convinced to try something the first time they see it. Toddlers may need to be familiar with the food 5 or more times before they are willing to try it.

Set an example by eating the food but don't make a big issue about it if he doesn't eat his.

Our kids will often go through phases and will stop eating something that was their favourite from month to month.

BONUS: If you want them to try something, make sure it is on your plate but not on the toddlers plate. This worked very well with one of our toddlers - the food tastes better from someone elses plate.

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My view of this whole question is nature should take it's course.

That is, the child will eat the healthy food if he's hungry enough.

Look, you're not feeding him crap. You're feeding him honest to goodness, great, healthy quality food. As long as somewhere in his subconscious mind he knows there will be cake or cookies instead if I just hold out, he's never going to eat healthy.

First of all realize that snack foods have poor nutritional benefit. High sugar foods can cause diabetes etc. I'm not dietician, all I know is sugar has no nutrients in it but calories (hence the term "empty calories"). What's more is sugar has a lot of calories - 1 gram of sugar has 4 calories.

Compare:

Ok now then, how're you going to get him to eat healthy food? Simple.

  • Make it delicious. Totally delicious. Don't be afraid to use olive oil, or other such ingredients to make it delicious. Fats are used in brain development. Balance it out.

The rest is yours. You have to come up with a tack for minimizing junk food and maximizing good food. If it's up to them, it's 100% junk food. And that's no good for a growing human. Some junk food is ok, but you really need to control the amounts. The funny thing with junk food is that it is addictive, the more you have, the more you crave.

I really think that the reason he eats well over at the other person's house, is because subconsciously he knows what he's offered by her, is likely all he'll get.

Remember children are complex creatures and in the brain there isn't only conscious decision - just like us (adults) children also have subconscious things going on that influences how they make decisions.

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The food that he eats easily is not really all junk food, and it is certainly not that we're giving him a ton of sugar (I'm a diabetic, btw). Sure, the hot dogs aren't terribly healthy, but the tacos, unsweetened apple sauce, chips and salsa, and homemade whole-wheat pizzas he loves are a far cry from the issues you've suggested. –  Beofett Aug 13 '12 at 17:34
    
I think I misunderstood your problem: I thought you were saying they wouldn't eat meal food and only eat snack food. If that is the case then my point is I think it's the snack that is causing the problem. Let him get hungry, when he's hungry, feed him the dinner food. No snack food in lieu of eating a proper dinner. If he's not eating at when you want him, that's simply not a problem, merely an inconvenience, of having to reheat the food later (which really you shouldn't consider a problem - just a bodyclock thing that can't really be changed but should normalize over time). –  bobobobo Aug 13 '12 at 19:01
    
So my points are 2: 1) Make sure that it is delicious. 2) Make sure that he is hungry. –  bobobobo Aug 13 '12 at 19:04
    
Other thing: Make sure you remove all the gristle or other yucky bits from the meat. –  bobobobo Aug 13 '12 at 19:06
    
Actually, I think there may still be a misunderstanding. He eats just fine... if we give him one of perhaps half a dozen different meals. He'll eat hot dogs, or chicken nuggets, or grilled cheese, or tacos, or pizza, etc.. for us with no hesitation. But he won't even try anything that isn't on that list. At daycare, he'll try just about anything, apparently, but for us, if he doesn't recognize it, he won't even taste it 90% of the time. –  Beofett Aug 13 '12 at 20:04
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