Food Issues and Toddlers


by Donna Fish

Anyone out there have a kid who now is demanding food, or sweets a lot of the time? Worrying about how to handle it and how to say no without creating World War 3 or stressing that you might create or are seeing weight problems with food demanders? Although picky and ‘beige food’ eaters as I call them are very typical of childhood, so are food demanders. In fact, just as your preschoolers start to establish their identities by insisting on wearing that fairy or superman costume day after day, they can start to fight you on food and it can be very easy to be held hostage by your worry that however you handle it might create a problem.

So what’s a parent to do?

Some things to keep in mind:
Just like your kid came into this world with their body type and other personality traits, they can be more or less interested in food. Some kids are ‘foodies’ as I call them; often they are children who are very sensual, sensitive and artistic, and their palates have developed early. These kids can often be very intense, demanding, and strong willed. Why not fight about food since it is the first thing they can control?

You know how other kids have trouble transitioning and you need to give them at least two warnings before you leave the playground or turn off the television for dinner? Sometimes these kids can’t ‘shift gears’ as I call it. They are on the same track, and now that they are at the dinner table, they can’t seem to leave!

These children can be at risk for developing compulsive eating patterns, or at best, eating more than their bodies need since they aren’t stopping when the old signal ‘DONE’, or ‘FULL’, registers. They either ignore it, or need more time for it to be clear.


1) Don’t be afraid to say ‘NO”. Don’t get held hostage by your fear that you will create a problem if you need to help them set more structure for themselves. Use your usual firm and limit setting parent guidelines.

2) Don’t be too rigid either. Establish clear rules about treats but give them some control. They can choose when to have the treat, or treats. Stick with the decision they make and remind them if they aren’t happy they can change it tomorrow.

3) Don’t over worry about whether they eat sweets before the meal. This usually creates more problems than diminishing much of an appetite. Not the end of the world. Remind them to check for themselves if it does ‘spoil’ their appetite. “What else are they eating to help their body run or climb up the slide that day?” Connect nutritional info to things they love to do.


1) These kids need the time for a warning and may need to learn that it takes them longer to shift gears when they are eating. Teach them how to wait.

2) Teaching kids to WAIT is useful to help them clue into their bodies. I tell kids that some bodies take longer than others to send the signal to the brain that their tummies are full. Suggest doing an activity with you, helping clear the table, the dishes while they are waiting to see if they still need another portion.

For both of these kinds of kids, and of course remember that there are overlaps:

Kids will often think they are hungry, or use food if they are bored. If they say they are hungry and you are pretty sure they can’t possibly be hungry, distract them. Don’t be flustered by their demands and remember that it isn’t your job to stimulate them if they are bored. Let them sit with it. More often than not, they will find something to occupy them, and you have given them something valuable; the ability to not use food to preoccupy them, and how to shift gears and calm down into a calmer state by themselves; often a state of mind that opens up their creativity.

Most importantly, don’t be worried about overriding anything at times if you know they don’t need to eat and simply say: “No, you have had enough!”

Happy Feeding!


Donna Fish is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Manhattan, where she lives with her husband and three daughters, writes her own blog and blogs for The Huffington Post. With the publication of her book: Take the Fight Out of Food: How to Prevent and Solve Your Child’s Eating Problems, she has appeared on and in NPR, Parenting Magazine, Weekend Today Show, Fox News, USA Today and MSNBC and has lectured at Early Childhood Centers of Sarah Lawrence College, Wellesley College, Georgetown University and trained the Head Start Staff of NYC. She lectures to private schools in NYC: Bank street, Village Community School, Dalton, Chapin and more. Donna blogs for us biweekly and she has her own Expert Page on this blog, as do all of our Experts.