Picky Eaters!
Dealing with mealtime battles

You can lead a toddler/preschooler to the table but you can't make them eat!! Remember this when your child refuses a food or a meal. Your concern is shared by most parents with young children. Because your toddler/preschooler is more active, you may expect him to eat more. What you may not realize, is that there is a decrease in a child's growth rate at this age, and he may eat less than he did before. Although it is "normal" for your child to consume three small meals and two snacks a day, expect that his appetite and tastes may be inconsistent. A child can go 3-4 months without gaining an ounce. Unlike the first year of life, we can only expect approximately 4-5 pounds per year after the first birthday. Children are naturally sensitive to their body's needs. They eat as much as they require for growth and energy in response to the brain's appetite center. Therefore, a decrease in their intake will not lead to poor health or a nutritional deficiency. Indulging in your child's requests for the same foods is okay as long as the basic food groups of fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein are included. If your toddler/preschooler insists on eating pizza or peanut butter every day for months, don't panic! Continue to offer variety; your child will invariably try something new.

There are a number of tips to help you deal with this natural change:

  1. Teach children to feed themselves as early as possible;
  2. Put the child in charge of how much he eats;
  3. Never feed a child if they are capable of feeding themselves;
  4. Limit milk consumption to less than 16 oz. per day; for children under two, use whole milk, for children over two use 2% or less;
  5. Serve small portions of food;
  6. Daily vitamins - remember they are a supplement not a make-up for poor eating;
  7. Make mealtime pleasant;
  8. Avoid nagging conversations about eating;
  9. Don't extend mealtimes;
  10. Avoid "irrational" feeding practices i.e. coaxing, tainting food with color, withholding playtime;
  11. Limit television viewing time during mealtime;
  12. Avoid nagging, forcing, bribing;
  13. As long as his request is nutritious, constantly eating the same foods, a "Food Jag", is normal and will pass;
  14. Dessert is a part of a whole meal not a reward for cleaning one's plate.
  15. Limit excessive use of fruit juices and sodas;
  16. Avoid excessive snacking and too much junk food.

A parent should be concerned if the child is losing weight, has no weight gain in 6 months, has associated symptoms of illness, or if someone is punishing the child for not eating. You can't dictate your child's tastes and preferences, but you can offer varied nutritious foods and quell mealtime battles. Don't feel guilty or inadequate if your child's appetite changes. Always check with your pediatrician for reassurance that your child's growth is normal.

Roberta Lockhart, MD is a practicing pediatrician with the Milford Pediatric Group, P.C. and the mother of one preschooler. NOTE: This information should not be used as a substitute for the medical care & advice of your personal physician.


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