Once upon a time, you had a beautiful little baby who drank her milk eagerly at four-hour intervals, slept soundly through the night, and smiled at you with a big, gummy grin. But suddenly the fairy tale ended, and you found yourself standing toe to toe with – gasp! A two year old!
This child doesn’t seem to eat, ever, although she appears healthy and of average weight. One day she might love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and the next day she throws a kicking and screaming tantrum when you put peanut butter on her bread. She hates fruits, vegetables, most meats, and would survive on soda and cookies if you let her. She turns up her nose at the spagetti you serve the rest of the family for dinner, yet five minutes after you clear the table, she demands your instant attention because she’s hungry.
Many Toddlers and Preschoolers Go Through a Fussy Eating Stage
Yes, dear parent. You have on your hand every parent’s nightmare, the finicky eater. Is there no hope? How can you deal with the tantrums? You’re just shooting yourself in the foot if you send her away from the table without eating something, as she’ll never sleep through the night on an empty stomach. But why should you prepare her a separate meal any time she doesn’ t like what the rest of the family is eating? Shouldn’t she just learn to eat like a normal person?
There are several methods for coping with this phenomenon. No one method will work all the time in all situations. You must try them each until you find one that works best for you. No one said this was going to be easy, but as your gooey little guy gives you a bear hug, leaving jelly smears on your cheek, you know that it is all worth while.
Method one: The Repeat Performance
Method two: Grin and Bear It
Ignore your child’s food peculiarities and pray she outgrows them. Continue to learn about good nutrition, so you will serve a variety of wholesome, healthy foods. Model good eating behaviors. Keep mealtimes pleasant. Your child learns everything else by watching you. She learned to talk, walk, and use the toilet by your example. Eating should be no different.
Method three: Junior Chef
Method four: Extra Credit
Formally teach her about food. Start one week and focus on apples. Serve an apple at every meal and snack for the entire week. The first few days, serve it only raw. Later, serve it in home-made applesauce (your child helps to make), or apple bars, cinnamon apple rings with pork chops, or even dried apple slices in the gorp snack mix. Take a photo of your child holding an apple and grinning. Place the photo on a wall chart under the foods your child has tried. Next week, move on to a vegetable. Focus the whole week on, say, celery. Serve it raw, serve it with peanut butter or cream cheese. Color it (stand it in a glass of water with a few drops of food coloring, unless your child is allergic to food colors.). Chop celery, add it to tuna salad or apple salad. Take a picture of your smiling child holding a bunch of celery. Add it to the poster. You don’t serve ONLY apples, or ONLY celery, you just serve it at every meal. The idea is that some preschoolers just get comfortable with the familiar, and there is such a wide variety of food to try that they become fearful. You are helping them to become familiar with the food, and the photo chart will reinforce that familiarity.
There are may other methods, but these are the ones I’m aware of. Method three is my favorite, but if it doesn’t seem to be working for you, then you should try one of the others.
Basic Rules on Feeding Children
There are some basic rules that apply, no matter what method you wish to pursue:
Set Times to Eat
Serve mealtimes and snack times at regular intervals at about the same time every day. This will help ensure that your child is, indeed, hungry when he comes to the table. If your life is more chaotic, you may often find yourself in the grocery store with a hungry child, when the fastest, and easiest thing to do is give him a candy bar or bring home a frozen pizza. Neither is very good for his overall health.
Keep snacks small
A snack is not a meal. One graham cracker and two to four ounces of milk is enough. Second helpings are not necessary. If your child fills up on snack foods, he will be less hungry when dinner time rolls around. Also, few parents or caregivers take the time to make snack more than just a cracker or juice, so your child isn’t filling up on enough fruits and vegetables if all he eats is snacks. Yet, snacks are necessary. An active preschooler requires about 1,300 calories a day, yet his stomach is not big enough to consume that much in three meals.
Be a good role model
Your child is never going to drink his milk if he sees you drinking soda. Our children do what we do, not what we say. If you tell your child that sleep is important, but you stay up all night yourself, he will fight naptimes. If you put sweet potatoes and green beans on his plate, you’d better be eating them too.
Do not let mealtimes become a battleground. Keep the meal pleasant. Encourage your child to taste everything, but do not make it a hard and fast rule. If he refuses to taste the fresh pineapple on his plate, you can model it, showing him how much you absolutely love fresh pineapple. Then let him chose to leave the table hungry, but do not be angry about it, and do not, under any circumstance, offer him something else. He has two choices – eat what’s on his plate, or go hungry. That’s it. If he chooses to throw a tantrum, so what. He’ll get over it. And it really does not hurt a child to miss a meal or two. It is far more hurtful to offer that child something else to fill up on, allowing him to grow up with a limited palette, which will ensure that he overeats yet remains undernourished.
Setting is Everything
Set the table, and eat there. Do not get in the habit of eating in front of the television, or the backseat of a moving vehicle. Use pretty plates, even if they are paper. Use placemats sometimes. Put fresh cut flowers on the table, or light candles. Play soft dinner music. Make a list of topics to discuss at mealtimes, if conversation doesn’t happen naturally. Don’t talk about failures and finances. Keep talk pleasant. Tell a few jokes. Laugh. Ask questions. Make dinnertime one of the best times of the day, something your child will want to be a part of. Make being sent away from the table a punishment, not a chance to spend more time on the video game.
A Little Bit Goes a Long Way
Go light on salt and spices. Children have more sensitive taste buds than adults. Your chili may actually be too spicy! If you must, add extra spices to your food at the table. If your child wants to copy you (because he will) put a tiny amount of extra spice on a corner of his food. He won’t like it, but maybe he’ll go ahead and finish the part that wasn’t spiced. On the other hand, don’t just avoid cooking with spice. You want your child to grow up eating the same food that you do. You don’t want to be cooking separate meals for each of your kids and your spouse – you are not a short order cook!
Start Small, Offer Seconds
Serve him proportionally smaller servings. Learn what a serving size is, first, then serve him a third less than that. A serving of chicken for an adult, for instance, is three ounces! Most chicken breasts are much more than that. Picture a deck of cards, and that is the size of the meat you should be dishing yourself. The preschool child needs 14 ounces of milk a day – not three eight-ounce glasses. Don’t let your child fill up on beverages, because then there is not enough food in his belly to sustain him.
Do not promise him desert if he will only take a few bites of his vegetables. That only teaches him that deserts are yummy foods and vegetables are yucky foods. In fact, don’t serve deserts. Keep your meals low fat, low calorie, low sugar meals. Your family will thank you for that some day. If you must have sweet foods sometimes, serve them instead of a snack, not as a reward following dinner.
Grow Your Own
Have him plant his own garden. Grow a garden of your own. Some children won’t eat cooked peas. But they are actually quite delicious raw! Especially if picked while they are still small. Some children hate cooked carrots, but will dig up the carrots from the garden and eat them raw, the dirt still clinging to them. Gardening could be an enjoyable family affair.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Offer a variety of foods. Anyone would get tired of eating the same old same old. Concentrate on foods grown locally for you, as these will be the more cost effective and healthful options. But serve foods from other parts of the world, too. You might pick one night a week for ethnic cooking. One week you serve Mexican, with tacos, burritoes, quesadillas, and refried beans. Another week might be Chinese, or Italian.
Love Conquers All
Most of all, love your finicky eater, and chant this little saying whenever you get frustrated with him. “This too, shall pass.”