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Picky Toddler? Try Buffet-Style.

It was almost too good to be true. My son, from the moment he started eating solids, seemed willing to eat pretty much anything. I remember it being a few months before his second birthday when my husband and I marveled at the fact that he had a more versatile palate than most of the children we knew, many of whom were years older. In fact, on one occasion, after dining out with a couple whose sons wrote the book on pickiness, we actually had the gall to (privately) criticize our friends for letting their children get away with eating nothing but macaroni and cheese most nights during the week.

Yes, we certainly were spoiled back then. And naive.

Our smug little toddler food bubble burst right around the time our son turned two. At first the changes in his attitude toward food were subtle – he’d reject chicken from time to time, or beg for something that wasn’t on the table every so often. But within a month of his second birthday, our son had transformed from an open-minded foodie to a picky pain-in-the-neck.

Everyone assured me that it was just a phase, perhaps brought on by the stubbornness that tends to rear its ugly head once little ones reach a certain age. But now, six months later, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my formerly wonderful eater is now a classic picky toddler.

Thankfully my son still loves fruits and vegetables – I’m not sure what I’d do otherwise. And he’s an avid fan of cheese, yogurt, beans, tofu, and other such protein-rich staples. But the child won’t eat many of the things that most toddlers will, like bread, or cereal, or pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, and most other foods you’d find on a breakfast table. He’s wishy-washy about eggs, he won’t touch chicken, and aside from the occasional piece of fish or serving of meatballs, he’s basically a vegetarian. Given the option, my son could – and would – eat macaroni and cheese for dinner every night of the week and be completely satisfied. Talk about ironic.

To combat his pickiness, the first strategy my husband and I employed was to put food down in front of our child and insist that the items on his plate were the items he needed to eat in order to reap the benefit of dessert (which, in our house, is usually fruit, so a win for us too). But we quickly realized that strategy wasn’t going to cut it. Rather than give in to peer pressure, my son took a more aggressive route, which, on better days, involved a simple refusal to eat, and on worse days entailed a food-slinging session that made our dog very happy and our floor very, very messy.

After weeks of going through what seemed like a power struggle, we decided to try a different approach: Rather than prepare a plate for our son, we started putting a variety of foods out on the dinner table and letting him choose which items – and how much of each item – he wanted. And lo and behold, this method actually worked. My son felt like he was given the power to choose his own meals and really seemed to enjoy the process of looking around the table to see what was available. Also, it gave him a chance to watch us fill our plates with a variety of choices and then copy Mommy and Daddy, ‘cause that’s just what kids like to do.

These days we don’t always serve our meals buffet-style, but at the very least, I’ve learned to give my son a say in what he eats. I’ll typically offer him a few vegetable options, two different grains or starches, and a protein, with tofu and cheese as my default backups. On a good night, he’ll agree to eat fish sticks or a hamburger; but if he says no, I try not to force the issue.

I’m really hoping he’ll eventually move past this picky phase and learn to embrace his former foodie habits. But until that happens, I’ll just have to do my best, even if it means becoming that parent who lets her child get away with feasting on macaroni and cheese multiple nights a week.

Buffest-Style Menus for the Picky Eater
Winter Menu
Main Courses
* Turkey meatballs with couscous
* Pasta with marinara sauce, peas, and kidney beans
Sides
* Steamed broccoli
* Cooked Squash
* Baked Sweet Potato

Summer Menu
Main Courses
* Tilapia topped with mild salsa and corn
* Baked beans topped with salsa, corn, and cheese
Sides
* Brown rice tossed with diced peppers and onions
* Cucumber and tomato salad
* Guacamole or avocado slices

Fall Menu
Main Courses
* Herb-crusted chicken
* Marinated tofu
Sides
* Baked Potatoes
* Roasted Pumpkin
* Quinoa with green beans and dried cranberries

Spring Menu
Main Courses
* Grilled Salmon
* Baked falafel with hummus
Sides
* Barley with diced carrots, peas, and mushrooms
* Roasted Cauliflower
* Sautéed string beans with garlic

Maurie Backman is a writer and editor who loves to feed others and share her recipes with the world. You can check out some of her sweet concoctions at busybakingmama.com.

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