Like it or not, there are three things you simply cannot make a child do. You cannot make him eat, you cannot make him sleep, and you cannot make him use the toilet. Ironically, many of the power struggles parents face with their toddler and preschool boys are about precisely these issues. Anytime a challenge involves your son's body, he is in control of what happens. Your job is to set the stage, teach the skills, and let your son do the rest.
Mealtimes, Snacks, and Other Challenges
Young children and their parents often disagree about eating. Parents tend to like the idea of three meals a day; they want their children to eat healthy food, to eat what is put in front of them without complaining, and to cooperate about snacks and other food choices. Eating is actually much simpler than most parents make it: You should eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. When parents force children to eat, punish them for avoiding certain foods, provide sugary snacks, or cook meals on demand, they usually interfere with the natural process of eating.
You may worry about your son's eating because you want him to be healthy. It may help you relax to know that children usually eat what they need over time (barring illness or other special circumstances). In other words, your son may not eat all of the food groups every day. In fact, he may want to live on macaroni and cheese for days at a time. But if your son is active and healthy, he will usually choose to eat what he needs—eventually.
Supply Healthy Food
Your job is to make good food available; your son's job is to eat it. A little junk food won't damage your son permanently (you don't need to take away his Halloween candy, for instance), but do limit the amount of fatty, sugary treats available. Instead, provide fruits, vegetables, dairy, and other acceptable snacks.
Make Family Meals a Tradition
Try to get your family together for supper each night, but don't force your son to eat. Studies have shown that when a family sits down to eat a meal together at least three times a week, children do better at school, choose better behavior, and are less likely to become involved in drugs or alcohol. Be sure, however, that family meals are a pleasure rather than a battle. It is helpful to provide at least one item that you know your son will eat happily. Invite him to try new things, but don't leave him sitting at the table alone, staring at his unwanted lima beans. He will learn only to resist both you and eating. Focus on connection and conversation.
Get Children Involved
Get your son involved in meal planning, shopping, and food preparation. Children love to be invited; they usually resist being commanded. When your son is old enough, invite him to help you plan meals. You can give him his own short grocery list (use pictures if he cannot read yet) and help him shop. Even toddlers can rinse lettuce, put cheese slices on hamburger buns, and set the table. Your son is more likely to eat something he has helped prepare.
Cooking to Order
Do not cook meals to order! One frazzled mother of three young boys found herself cooking three meals every night. "They won't eat if I don't give them what they want," she said. Providing special service for your son will only create a demand for more of the same. Prepare one meal for the family; if your son refuses to eat it, let him know when the next meal will be. If your son is old enough, you might give him the choice of making himself a sandwich or other simple food. Remember to be kind and firm at the same time.
All children go through phases with their eating, and some actually do better when they are allowed to graze rather than having to wait for the next scheduled meal. Relax and do your best to create peaceful, nourishing mealtimes—and give your son a good multivitamin.
It is generally unwise to put your young son on a diet. Pediatricians agree that limiting food intake for growing children tends to set up power struggles and create emotional issues that are often as damaging as the physical ones. It is wiser to focus on the long-term: Pay attention to nutrition, encourage exercise, and get regular check-ups.
Creating a Healthy Lifestyle
If you have been watching the news recently, you are undoubtedly aware that doctors are increasingly concerned about childhood obesity. Weight gain that happens early in life tends to set patterns that are difficult to change later and may lead to lifelong health problems such as diabetes and hypertension. The preschool years are the perfect time to help your son learn to live a healthy life.
Of course, you will always be your son's best teacher. If you sit in front of the television all day snacking on chips and cookies, you will have a hard time convincing him that he shouldn't do the same. If you get regular exercise, eat reasonably healthy food, and limit television, video games, and other passive activities, your son will be more likely to do the same.
The best way to help your boy have an appetite for healthy food is to encourage healthy activity. This can be difficult for working parents whose children are in child care programs, but do your best to keep your son active. Plan fun family activities and enjoy working up a good appetite together.