Written By: Julie Cunningham, R.D.
Parenting is the hardest job in the world. When you’ve got a picky preschooler, it can feel like every meal is a new battle, and you’re losing the war. What can you do to get back to peaceful dinners, and how do you know when your child’s picky eating is something you need to address?
Trust Your Child’s Appetite
Children are born with a drive to survive. When they’re babies, they let you know when they need to eat by crying, and they let you know when they’re full by pulling away from the breast or bottle. Babies grow rapidly, and most have good appetites and will eat a variety of foods. When babies grow into toddlers, two things happen:
1. Their rate of growth slows down, so they have smaller appetites than they did before
2. They start to figure out that they can assert themselves. (That’s why they love the word “No”!)
You might feel worried when your baby becomes a toddler and starts eating a smaller amount of fewer foods, but this is perfectly normal. A healthy toddler will eat when he is hungry and stop when he is full. As parents, we get into trouble when we try to cajole our children into taking “one more bite” or cleaning their plates. If we’re successful, we teach our children not to listen to their own appetites, and that can cause more serious problems later in life: disordered eating and overweight, to name two.
A Parent’s Job When it Comes to Feeding
Many parents feel like it’s their job to get their child to eat, but our job as parents is to provide healthy food on a regular schedule. It’s a child’s job to decide whether they are going to eat, and how much.
Here are parents’ feeding responsibilities:
1. Shop for and cook nutritious meals and snacks.
2. Serve 3 meals a day.
3. Serve 2-3 snacks each day (mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and bedtime).
4. Keep the meal and snack schedule consistent.
5. When it’s time for a meal or snack, call your child to the table and ask him or her to sit for a few minutes (the younger the child, the less time he or she will be able to sit still —for example, a 3-year-old can only be expected to sit still for 5-10 minutes).
6. Let your child decide whether to eat at all, and if so, how much he or she wants to eat.
7. If your child isn’t hungry, that’s OK. Let them know when the next meal or snack will happen. For some children who are used to constant snacking, it can help to set a timer that will count down to the next meal or snack.
8. Avoid commenting on how much or how little your children eat. Trust them to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Some days they will eat very little, and some days they will eat 3 helpings. Either way is OK.
What if My Dinner Table is Already a Battlefield?
If you feel like your family’s eating habits have gone off the rails, it’s not too late to turn things around. If you have a preschooler, begin to trust your child with his or her own appetite. At first, it will probably be really hard for you to keep from prodding your child to eat. Bite your tongue if you have to, and don’t give in to your child’s begging for junk food in between meals. Over time, your child will learn that you’re not a short-order cook, and you will learn that you can trust your child’s appetite to help them get the right amount of nutrition.
How Do I Know if I Need More Help with My Child’s Eating Habits?
If you’re still concerned about your child’s eating habits after reading this article, here are some “red flags” that may indicate a need for more help:
1. Your child avoids entire food groups. For example, there is no fruit or no vegetable that he or she will eat.
2. Your child is willing to eat less than twenty different foods.
3. Your child has stopped eating some foods they used to eat, and is not adding any new foods. In other words, your child’s world of food is shrinking, not expanding.
4. You’re concerned about your child’s weight.
5. Your child chokes or gags on their food frequently.
6. Your parent’s intuition tells you that something is just not right.