Feast or famine: Your toddler's varying appetite

Generally, toddlers are consistent about only one thing; being inconsistent. This is especially true of their eating habits. Toddlers like what they like exactly in the moment they like it, and liking something one day is no guarantee that it will still be a favorite tomorrow. More than that, toddlers often have a hard time expressing why they like something or why they don’t, and a hearty eater one day can do little more than pick at her food the next.

Handling a toddler’s inconsistent appetite

Offering a little bit of everything can allow her to choose between protein and vegetables, fruits and cheeses, and, among all the variety, to find something she likes. It can feel unpleasant to prepare food for your toddler to completely ignore half of, but really, for these next few years, trying things out and making choices between different options is going to be her way of learning about her environment, and learning how to assert herself as an individual. There’s a good chance the portions you’re making for Baby at this point are nothing you can’t polish off yourself, and in cases where there are truly a lot of leftovers left after a meal, there are usually ways to dress them up as something new the next day. Recipes like soups and casseroles can help you put a new face on leftovers for you and Baby to enjoy alike.

If you want your child to try a new food, or to have an open mind about food in general, one of the most effective ways to encourage her is by being adventurous yourself. Seeing you snacking on vegetables will encourage Baby to do the same. Having a handful of berries as an afternoon treat shows her that these foods can be a sweet and delicious pick-me-up. Talking to or around her about how yummy chicken is, but maybe you’ll try a ham sandwich today, allows her to see that change, at least as far as food is concerned, is a good thing. The positive effects of modeling healthy and adventurous eating habits may not start to show up right away, but they’re likely to have a long-term effect on the way your toddler thinks about food as she grows.

As with everything related to raising children, there's a wide range of behavior that is totally natural. This can mean that a toddler may have all the appetite (and table manners!) of a lion one day, and the delicate finickiness of a grazing peacock the next. For most tots, though, their diets balance out over time. One Monday may be all about vegetables, but Wednesday may see your little omnivore digging into whatever protein source is on the table, and by Friday, she may want nothing more than a little dry toast to munch on. While any of these individual days might not sound like an example of a healthy, balanced diet, when taken together, they’re a sign that your toddler’s appetite generally knows what it’s doing when it comes to getting her the nutrients she needs.

Toddlers tend to have much smaller appetites than many adults would expect, because, after they’re about a year old, their metabolisms start to slow down, to match the way they aren’t growing quite as fast anymore. This, combined with a common, growing suspicion of new foods, and of foods with a bitter flavor, like vegetables, especially, can mean that a toddler’s eating patterns can be frustrating to parents. These changes are often unexpected, too, since having a baby who’s happy to try new foods can feel like half the battle. Your toddler’s tastes and appetite will continue to change as she grows, though. The bright side is that if her eating habits get a little tricky for a little while, there’s a good chance her tastes will change again before you know it.

Troubleshooting

On the other hand, what seems tasty to your toddler isn’t always a perfect guide for healthy eating. If you start to notice a preference that is worrisome, like avoiding all green foods, for example, you can help start to build positive associations with eating vegetables (or whatever food she suddenly can’t stand) by incorporating learning about food into her routine, or by getting her more involved in the food-preparation process. This might mean growing your own tomatoes, or, if you’re a little short on time, visiting a farm, or even just a farmer’s market, to help her understand a little more about where foods come from, and maybe get her more interested generally.

Even a trip to the supermarket can be a great place to get Baby started exploring new and interesting foods. Take a little extra time with Baby to notice that fruits can change colors, that different vegetables come in all sorts of sizes, discuss the smell of apples versus the smell of oranges, etc. Making food an experience for all the senses can help your toddler adjust to, and even become interested in, different textures and colors and smells. Additionally, when it comes to introducing new foods, you don’t always have to “win” the battle in order to succeed in the long-term war for your toddler’s adventurous taste in food. All children experiment with saying ‘no,’ and allowing that experience will help Baby feel comfortable saying ‘yes’ more often.

Patience with your child and with yourself during stretches of time when she experiences food aversions, or tries testing your limits will help your family get past these stages, and on to new and exciting ones. Adventures in food experimentation, both good and bad experiences, are an important growing experience for everyone.
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