Time was, your infant ate with little encouragement from you. Your two-year-old is a different matter, however. You find yourself cajoling, begging, and playing games to interest your son in food. You become locked in a battle of wills, and before you know it, you've branded your child a picky eater for his lack of interest in food.
Not so fast. Calling a child picky because he or she won't eat the foods that you want him to when you want him to isn't entirely fair. Picky is a negative term that overlooks what is really going on with a toddler. Let's call such children "limited eaters" instead. Limited eaters don't like a wide array of foods, or they may show a general disinterest in eating for weeks or months on end.
There is a tendency to overreact to a toddler who does not want to eat. Rejecting foods has nothing to do with you or your parenting skills, so don't take it personally. One- and two-year-olds are more often interested in their surroundings than they are in food.
As children age, they learn quickly that refusing food gets a rise out of you that they may actually regard as entertainment. So it behooves parents early on to learn to relax about a child's supposed finicky attitude toward food. Here are some tips for doing just that.
The Do's and Don'ts of Getting Your Child to Eat
- Don't allow grazing. When children have access to food all day long, they may lose interest at mealtime and demand certain highly appealing foods or just refuse the foods they would normally eat if hungry.
- Do serve meals and small snacks at regular intervals to whet a young child's appetite and put off "picky" eating.
- Don't fear nutritional inadequacy. A parent once complained to me about her daughter's limited eating, prompting me to ask just what her child consumed on a regular basis. Turns out, the child's meals and snacks had a lot going for them, even if they lacked an array of foods. Her daughter's diet had no glaring nutrient deficiencies, largely because it contained at least one food from each of the five food groups that she ate in sufficient amounts every day.
- You are the parent, ergo, you are the boss, and you decide what to eat. Does that mean you should serve food your family dislikes in the name of good health? Well, sometimes it works out that way, especially when kids are trying out new foods. They may reject a novel food initially (research shows as many as ten times), then come to love it, and even (dare we hope?) request it. Serving dinners that most family members favor cuts down on the aggravation of food rejection. But if I lived by that rule, we'd be eating chicken cutlets, mashed potatoes, and mandarin oranges every night of the week. You can allow kids to make some food choices without losing control, however. Choosing food for the family is empowering for a child but should not be overdone. Once a week, I allow Hayley and Hannah to decide on dinner, and we usually end up eating pancakes, French toast, or pizza.
- Do capitalize on favorites. Hannah is by far my most limited eater, especially when it comes to vegetables. But she does love potatoes, and she'll tolerate corn. That's why I serve one of those two vegetables with most dinners, alongside a small amount of another less-acceptable vegetable such as broccoli or cauliflower.
- Don't become a short-order cook. Your children won't starve because they don't like tonight's entree. When a kid turns up his nose at what you have to offer, letting him "order" a favorite food for dinner sets a precedent you had better be prepared to live with for a long time. Serve at least one food that everyone likes at each meal, such as bread, rice, potatoes, or pasta; fruit; and milk or cheese, so that you can rest assured your child is getting some nutrition.
- Don't worry that your child is not eating enough. Kids eat when they are hungry. Unlike most adults, young kids have yet to learn to override their instinct to regulate their own eating. For example, babies eat only when they are hungry and stop when they are full. This diminishes with age, when we keep eating because food tastes good rather than because we are hungry. Resist the urge to offer favorite foods to a child who leaves the table without eating his meal. He'll make up for the missing food later.
- Do allow an eating jag to play itself out. Kids typically tire of favorite foods within weeks, so that meal of macaroni and cheese he requests twice a day could be history a month from now. Have faith. Do maximize nutrition. When your toddler refuses vegetables, sneak them into the meatloaf or spaghetti sauce she loves, or allow her to dip them into salad dressing. If milk is low on your two-year-old's list of favorite foods, add yogurt to baked goods, top vegetables with melted cheese, or sneak a piece of cheese into her sandwich to boost calcium.
Another thing to consider with kids: While experts, including myself, talk about daily requirements, what's really important is a child's intake over a few days or even a week. That's good news, because a toddler's eating tends to be all over the place. They may fill up on fruit on Monday and Tuesday, then not be interested again until Friday.
You've made a kid-friendly recipe for dinner and you're sure your two-and-a-half-year-old will love it. But when you present it, she won't even give it a chance. As a rule, toddlers don't particularly like new foods. Toddlers spend their days encountering new things, so they may prefer the comfort of foods they recognize. That's why it's normal for your creations to be rejected on at least one of the following counts.
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