When Your Toddler Doesn't Want to Eat
Mother & Child

What to Do When Your Child Won’t Eat

If your child eats like a bird don’t despair. You are not alone and the problem can be solved.

Feeding children who are somewhere between the Terrible Twos and Fabulous Fives can be an endless, demanding, and demoralizing experience for many a new parent. With the toddler at the table, family meals too often end up with an adult-sized temper on one side and a pint-sized tantrum on the other. And that’s too bad because mealtimes should be joyous occasions!

Why these mealtime disasters? First of all, a lot of the havoc stems from the inevitable conflict between a child’s ego and the demands of civilized behavior. There’s not much to be done about that, except to combine gentleness with firmness and wait it out. But there are other ways to make the transition from baby feeding to adult dining more pleasant and to pave the way for a lifetime of healthy, happy eating.

But, keep this basic goal in mind: youngsters should eat wholesome meals that provide essential nutrients as well as sufficient but not excessive calories. They should also be establishing good eating habits along the way. This is not as hard as it may sound.

Now let’s take specifics. “My child eats like a bird” is one of the commonest parental concerns. Rest assured: no child will become ill or die of malnutrition in a few weeks. What’s more, from two to five years of age, children do not grow nearly as rapidly as they did during the first year of life. They don’t need as much food for energy as they did before. Their activity varies daily and even hourly, so appetites may well swing up and down just as rapidly. Children also need to eat more often than adults to sustain their energy levels, so they may snack ravenously, then seem full at mealtime.

What seems like a reduction in appetite is often compounded by the fact that first-time parents do not realize, how little food children really need. So before you panic, try measuring the amount of food against the portion in an old baby-food jar. Serve just a bit more and then see what happens. Let children come back for “seconds” if they are still hungry.

It’s certainly less trouble to feed everyone at once but what they eat is more important than when.

Preschoolers are tremendously active, which means they can quickly generate healthy appetites. Yet, time and patience permitting, you can manage to feed them at their “off-hour” hungry periods. A piece of cheese, fruit, or a peanut butter sandwich can hold off hunger and be nutritious, too – and you don’t have to become a 24-hour, short-order cook to whip up these mini-meals. Make them join the family at mealtime, even if they’re not particularly hungry.

The perennial problem, of course, is dessert. Should children be allowed to eat dessert if they have not finished the main course?

The best way out for everyone is to control what you serve for dessert. Concentrate on fruits, ice cream low in fat, cheese, and dry biscuits, or unsalted nuts. Save cakes and biscuits for special occasions. If you don’t emphasize high joule, nutritionally-empty sweet desserts, children won’t get the idea that it’s the best part of the meal.

Another tip: many children will go back to the main course after dessert if they’re still hungry. Keep the main course handy for delayed “seconds.”

Taste also affects how much and what children eat. Most parents don’t realize that a child’s sense of taste is very acute. The foods some adults eat are too highly seasoned for youngsters. Yet this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to introduce new tastes from time to time.

What about the foods children refuse to eat just because they don’t like the taste? No different from adults, children have certain foods they’d rather not eat. If your children’s dislikes are confined to a few items, like carrots or fried eggs, there’s no need to worry since such preferences usually disappear in the long run. Offer the offending food on more than one occasion, but don’t force the issue.

The big problem comes when children reject whole categories of foods, such as all vegetables, or all meats. Fortunately, such sweeping dislikes are rare and usually short-lived. So continue to serve the food and replace rejected categories with nutritious equivalents. Substitute cheese, eggs, fish, and poultry for meats, for instance, or fruits for vegetables. One caution: don’t cater to such preferences by preparing substitute dishes for each meal. Just make sure the equivalent foods are served and eaten at other times. For example, eggs for breakfast will help counter a meatless meal at dinner time.

The business of mealtimes can be trying for children for other reasons. For instance, adults can eat and hold a conversation at the same time. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet children find it terribly difficult to even hold a fork and eat at the same time. The mechanics of eating – managing large utensils, big plates, and glasses and eating from a high table designed for grown-up folks – can give kids trouble. These obstacles are unavoidable though, so be patient. One suggestion: if a child habitually takes longer to eat than the rest of the family, try serving him first so he can get a head start.

Another thing that may help shape eating habits is nursery school or kindergarten. Besides the regimentation and social pressures of a classroom, children discover that out in the world food is not nearly as available as it is at home. For this reason, frequent snacking soon gives way to three meals a day. Foods once abhorred at home often seem worth trying in a new setting.

Believe it or not, one day your difficult toddler will be sitting quietly through the meal, talking, eating, and behaving just like everyone else!

In the meantime, in order to get from here to there, the very best advice I can give is, relax. Preschoolers show much more sense in choosing nutritious foods than people give them credit for. Watch them and see.

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