Now that he can better communicate his eating preferences, your child may hassle you more than ever about eating. Children who regularly refuse food at mealtimes or demand diversions such as television and toys in order to eat are prone to what I have come to call food fits: They use food to gain attention and to manipulate their parents and caregivers. When adults chronically cave in to crying, screaming children, they perpetuate this behavior. Children crave attention of any type. So when you get upset, it's just as fun for them as when you praise them. Watching your reaction to their refusal to eat may actually be a sport for children who regularly throw food fits.
You can't stop a child from fussing about food. But you can control the way you react to her demands for special foods served in certain ways. The good news is that food fits don't have to turn into full-blown food fights.
Parents rule. Who's the boss of your house? You are. Parents decide what foods come into the home, where to dine out, and what type and how much television preschoolers are allowed to watch. Your child will surely put up a stink when he doesn't get the snack food or soda he wants while on a trip to the supermarket, or when she's not allowed to watch her favorite TV show during dinner. Yes, your kids will squawk and there will be times when you back down because you are just too tired to tangle with them. That's to be expected. But try to stand firm as often as possible to reduce food fits.
Be flexible. I just said that you are the decision maker, but you don't have to rule with an iron fist, especially when it comes to sweets and other low-quality foods. It's natural for kids to desire salty, fatty, or sugary fare that possesses few redeeming qualities. Occasionally giving in to a request for creme-filled snack cakes will not destroy your efforts to get your child to eat healthfully in the long term. There are no good or bad foods, only good or bad diets. A child's lifelong eating habits are influenced by the way your family eats most of the time, not by occasional splurges on high-fat foods.
Stay cool. Sometimes, you can't tell how kids will react to eating certain foods, so there's no reason to get uptight beforehand. Here's a case in point:
My oldest daughter, Hayley, was five before she ever ate at a fast food restaurant; Hannah was four. I'm sure you're thinking that my profession precludes me from visiting McDonald's and Burger King, but the truth is that I don't really enjoy burgers and French fries, and that's why I don't take my children to fast food joints. (Donuts and other pastries are a different story, however.) So, how did the girls end up eating fast food? A trip to McDonald's came on the heels of a field trip organized by my day care provider. I thought surely the cat was out of the bag then, and that my kids would hound me to no end for chicken nuggets and fries every rime we passed a fast food restaurant. I was wrong. They have never once asked for fast food, despite the fact that they loved the McDonald's meal.
Bore them, but only sometimes. Funny thing about stocking your kitchen with a variety of foods: The more choices kids have, the more they tend to eat. This works for and against a healthy diet. Let's say you keep three types of cookies in the cupboards. Your curious preschooler will be tempted to try them all and will probably eat more than you would like as a result (or surely try by pestering you for extra cookies). If graham or animal crackers are the only cookie option, chances are your child will eat enough to satisfy her hunger and be done with them. However, when it comes to pushing produce, variety pays off. How? Having on hand an array of different fruits and vegetables actually increases the likelihood of your child eating more of these nutritious choices.
Give it time. No one consumes an exemplary diet every day, particularly youngsters prone to erratic eating. A mere 2 percent of children ages two through six eat all of the recommended number of servings every day from the five food groups, according to government consumption studies. So don't judge your child's eating on a daily basis. Look at what your child eats over the period of a week or so before deeming his diet inadequate.
Be positive. Four- and five-year-olds may be ready to hear some simple facts about food and nutrition, particularly how it helps them get big and strong. Focus on foods that your child should eat, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meat, poultry, legumes, and whole grains, rather than what foods to avoid because they are "bad for them." My kids are beginning to pick up on certain connections between food and fitness. When Hannah drinks milk, she feels the bone in her thumb and tells us that it's getting stronger. I know that she doesn't quite fathom the reasons why milk makes for stronger bones, but it will sink in some day.
Respect their innate ability to regulate. Babies eat only until they are satisfied. Preschoolers are pretty good at self-regulating their intake, too, when left to their own devices. That's why parents who insist that preschoolers clean their plates are inviting trouble. If you belonged to the Clean Plate Club as a kid, you may believe that your child should polish off everything on her plate, regardless of hunger. If it makes you feel better to see a clean plate, offer very small portions to increase the likelihood that no food will go to waste. There is another approach you can take, however. You could respect your child's hunger level and excuse them from eating when they tell you they are full, regardless of what food is left behind.
Kids don't always abide by an adult's schedule. They don't eat by the clock; they eat when they are hungry. Take the hour or so before dinner. My kids invariably clamor for food, even as I am rushing to prepare a meal for them. But their small stomachs don't work on my timeline. When they're hungry, they want to eat. I give them a small snack to tide them over, and they typically eat a fine dinner after that. When you dismiss a child's hunger because it comes at an inconvenient time, that sends the message that needing food at the wrong time is bad.
In My Experience: Turn Off Television
The power of television never fails to amaze me. Every time Hayley and Hannah watch even a few minutes of commercial television (and believe me, that's not often), they ask me to buy some wacky snack food that they saw in a flashy, noisy, kid-appealing ten-second ad. What's a parent to do? Curb your kid's TV time. They'll protest at first, but youngsters gradually become accustomed to the limits you set for time spent watching TV, as well as for the type of programs you allow to come into your home.
Aside from encouraging poor eating habits, television is mesmerizing. Kids who get into the habit of eating in front of the television often consume excess calories because they are not focused on their hunger, so they keep on eating. In addition, excessive television viewing stifles a child's creativity and imagination. And watching TV cuts into time for the physical play that burns calories and helps foster lifelong weight control.