Here is an email I received from a frustrated mom of an almost 2-year-old: “What happened to my child? He was happily eating all the baby food from the moment we started solids and until recently never refused a mixed dish I served, like fried rice or soup. And then, all of a sudden, he hates when things are mixed together in his bowl and keeps diligently picking the smallest bites of rice while refusing to eat everything else.”

What changed?

Many kids go from enthusiastically enjoying pretty much anything put in front of them as babies to refusing mixed dishes or food that touches as they turn into toddlers. This can be quite a shock to many parents who are used to smooth mealtimes and tested and tried recipes. And since mixed dishes are such an easy way to “sneak” less liked foods like meat or vegetables, it is not surprising that many parents are desperately looking for an alternative.

Here are some of the reasons your toddler does not want his food to touch:

Developmentally appropriate picky eating phase. Most children may start refusing previously liked food at some point roughly between ages 18-24 months and 5-6 years. For the kids on the extreme side of the picky eating spectrum or selective eaters, especially those who are sensitive to certain textures, smells, and flavors, it may be especially hard to try or even see certain foods. They may be disgusted by some foods to the point where they gag and even vomit when presented with them. Those with a milder degree of pickiness never seem to be bothered by food touching. The majority of kids are somewhat in the middle of the spectrum and able to outgrow the picky eating stage by 5-6.

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Neophobia or fear of new foods. Neophobia is possibly an adaptation mechanism that prevented children of our ancestors millions of years ago from ingesting a potentially dangerous substance while drawing around. Once kids become more mobile (sometime between 1 and 2 years), they become more suspicious of new foods.  So when they see a familiar food touching a new food, it may signal that the former is not safe. Instead, they prefer to be able to taste each food independently.

Need for control. Let’s admit it, there are not a lot of things our little ones get to be in charge of in their everyday life. And since it is you who decides what’s for dinner, kids naturally feel compelled to make their voice heard when it comes to choosing how the food is presented.

Why your toddler does nto want his food to touch

How to bring peace back to the table: 

Choose your battles and do not sweat over the small stuff. Arranging food on the plate in a certain way does not require a lot of time or resources but can make a difference between a stressful and relaxed meal. If the way you arrange food on your child’s plate becomes a source of power struggle, the mealtime environment will suffer. Looks like toddler tableware with dividers was invented for a reason!

Serve meals family style and allow your child to serve himself what he wants.  One of my kids went through the “food-does-not-touch” phase at the point where she was not using the plate with dividers anymore so she requested 3 or 4 small plates at each meal. To avoid trips to the kitchen, I just placed a stack of small plates next to her at each mealtime and she served herself the way she wanted. Yes, I did end up washing a couple three or four more small dishes, but it is a small price to pay for peace and quiet at the dinner table.

Sofia's plate

Serve mixed dishes like salads and casseroles in their “disassembled” form more often. Instead of rice and beans in one bowl, serve them in separate bowls. Instead of mixing a salad before serving, place each ingredient on a big platter or in separate bowls in the middle of the table and let them pick and choose.

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Talk to a professional. If the nutritional status of your child is of concern, like in children with low iron levels or poor growth, serving mixed dishes may be the only way you could deliver the important nutrients in a covert way. If such a child starts refusing mixed dishes, it is best to talk to your doctor or dietitian to help you balance the diet with other foods or help you fine-tune your feeding strategy.

For example, many small children do not like iron-rich meat whether served in mixed dishes or separately.  If your child needs more iron in your diet, your health professional may recommend you to experiment with other iron-rich foods like cereal fortified with 100% RDA of iron, tofu, white beans or dried raisins or choose a supplement. Besides, pressure at mealtimes can slow down your child in his efforts to learn to like challenging foods so having a professional identify ways to keep meals more relaxed may help your child accept more foods sooner.

Eating is a skill and children need time and a patient teacher to practice it over the course of many years. You can become such a teacher if you remain calm and neutral at mealtimes, focus on a long-term goal of raising a child with a healthy relationship with food  and allow your child to learn at his own speed, whether through enjoying mixed dishes or eating in the “foods-d0-not-touch” manner. 

More related articles on picky eating:

How to end mealtime struggles with your picky eater

10-step plan to help a child who is anxious at mealtimes

How to help your picky eater get enough iron

How do/did you cope with this frustrating behavior without losing your sanity? Please share below.