Q&A: again with the toddler not eating

Someone who didn't leave her name writes:

"I have a 20 month old who will not eat anything if it is not a cracker, chip, or cookie.  There is the occasional mashed potato that he will eat.  Other than that good luck.  We have been having this problem with him for about a year now.  When it was time for him to start eating chunkier foods he wouldn't, then he stopped eating the smoother foods altogether until he was just drinking milk and eating crackers every now and then.  While in the grocery store one day I saw the Gerber veggie and fruit puffs.  He loved those he would eat them all the time.  Then all he would eat were crackers; goldfish cheez-its, Ritz, if it was a cracker he ate it. I was never too concerned because he's been in the 50-75% for weight since birth.  Now that I'm home with him and my husband works I really see how he isn't eating food.  For the last 4 days I have started his day with some hot cereal for breakfast.  He hasn't eaten it yet but I make a habit of sitting there for 5 min. to see if he will eat it. Know the other night I was able to hide a whole meal in his mashed potatoes.  I mashed up some chicken and put in some peas and carrots.  I had the lights down so he couldn't really see the veggies and he ate the whole bowl.  It was great to see him eat I know he felt better.  But what can I do for breakfast and lunch I don't have the patient to make mashed potatoes all day long.  Help!!!"

What is with these kids? Seriously. They chug-a-lug for the first year, and then ingest almost nothing for the next few years, driving us crazy in the process. It's like some highly-organized plot that they all catch wind of as they pass each other in the pediatrician's office.

This eating question comes up again and again in my mailbox, and I always give the same answer:
Don't worry about it. Unless your child has an actual metabolic disorder, s/he won't allow herself/himself to starve. And unless your child will never eat anything that isn't smooth, s/he doesn't have any kind of issue with texture that would require intervention*.

The refusing to eat is all about control. Kids that age can't control much, but they can control what they eat or don't eat. So they exercise that control.

I would try to stop caring, if I were you. I don't mean stop making food or stop providing nutritious choices, but instead stop being emotionally invested in whether he eats or not, and definitely don't let yourself fall into the trap of taking it personally or thinking it's your fault he's not eating. There is no magic meal that he'll devour consistently. (Besides French fries and ice cream, of course.)

In reading your particular case, the only thing I'd try to change is getting a little more protein and some more vegetables into him. Hiding them in the mashed potatoes is a great idea, although, as you say, it's a little tedious making mashed potatoes all the time. Will he eat muffins or pancakes instead? You could make muffin or pancake batter and keep it in the refrigerator for when you need to use it. Or you can make up half a dozen muffins or pancakes and then just hand them out to him over the course of the next couple of days. (Kids will eat room-temperature muffins, but who would eat cold mashed potatoes? Ick.) Muffins and pancakes travel well.

Other than that, I'd just try to let him graze. Sometimes they don't realize they're eating food if they eat a little bit here and there as they're playing. You can leave a plate with some cubes of cheese, cut vegetables (cucumber, slightly-cooked carrot, zucchini, bell pepper), and/or cut fruits (cut melon, apple, segments of orange) sitting on a coffee table near where he plays to see if he'll just eat some when there's no pressure.

If he watches TV or videos, make sure he's sitting in his high chair while he watches them, and put some nutritious food in front of him. He may eat a bunch of things he'd normally refuse, just because he's too engrossed in the video.

If you think he's really not getting enough nutrition, make sure he takes vitamins (not the gummy kind) just to make sure you've got his basic vitamin and mineral needs covered.

At our house the food wrangling is just starting to ease now that my son is over 4 years old. I think most kids go through some form or another of this resistance to eating the food we want them to. As long as we're still offering nutritious choices, what our kids actually eat is not a reflection of us as parents but instead a function of how much control our kids want to exercise over their own bodies.

I do think that parents with kids who don't eat a big variety of foods need to make sure that our kids get a lot of running-around time to make sure that they don't end up as carb-addicted couch potatoes. (Has anyone been kind of baffled at that "Honey, We're Killing the Kids" show? How do these parents think it's fine for the kids not to move around every day?)

Good luck. It sounds like your son has a healthy will!

* I don't know about where you live, but in NYC the doctors are very proactive about referring kids to Early Intervention for any speech, physical, or developmental delays. Whenever I hear someone mention "intervention," I always imagine all the other babies in the playgroup coming and gathering around the baby, saying, "We've been worried about you for a long time. You're always late to playgroup, you never play with your teddy bear anymore, and you won't even eat mashed carrots. We love you. Please let us get you help."