Mealtime with young children can be an ongoing battle for parents. Children can seem to go for days without eating anything substantial. While it is frustrating to parents, it truly is normal for children to eat one good meal every three days and endlessly pick at their food in between.
When evaluating the nutritional value of a child’s intake, it is important to look at what your child ate over the course of a week, not in one day.
There are a few things parents can do to try to make mealtime a positive family experience.
Your child may not have the stomach capacity to eat a large meal and may do better with multiple small meals instead of three larger ones. At snack time, serve small portions of a variety of foods that you would have served at a meal.
Also, try not to use dessert as an incentive for cleaning their plates. Sweet desserts are best offered just few times a week. If you offer it every day, picky eaters will hold out for dessert every day.
Avoid juice or other sweetened beverages
Sweetened drinks are empty calories that will decrease your child’s appetite for more nutritious foods. Provide lower fat milk at mealtime or a small amount of diluted juice. In between meals, stick with water. Children often are happy to drink water out of a fancy cup with their favorite character on it. Too much milk will also decrease your child’s appetite. While milk is a good source of protein, it does not contain some of the vitamins and nutrients gained from eating a wide range of foods.
Offer new foods and keep trying old ones
Except for foods that are choking hazards or potent allergens, toddlers and young children can eat whatever the rest of the family eats. If a child sees the rest of the family eating a food, they are more likely to try it. While it is a natural impulse to, for example, stop offering broccoli after a child has thrown it on the floor for the third time, resist the urge. Children need to see, touch and smell a food repeatedly before they will eat it. Keep putting small amounts of these types of foods on the plate and encourage the child to take one bite.
Make your food interesting
Children eat with their eyes the same way adults do. And kids love to dip their food. Try serving cut-up vegetables with ranch dressing or melted cheese, or cut-up fruit with yogurt or whipped topping. Try cutting sandwiches into different shapes or even placing eggs in an ice cream cone.
Encourage family mealtimes and set a good example
Setting aside time for meals is beneficial for children and families in so many ways. Mealtime is a great time for communication, and this is not lost on toddlers and young children. They enjoy being part of the family meal. Additionally, children who watch their parents and siblings eat a variety of healthy foods will imitate that behavior and look forward to sitting and eating with their family.
Your pediatrician will weigh and measure your child and share his or her growth percentiles with you. If your child is growing normally, there is less reason to worry about their picky eating habits. Many different types of multivitamins can help supplement your child’s intake. If your child is a poor eater and is truly not growing well, there are other medical issues that you and your pediatrician can discuss, such as sensory issues, problems with texture or low oral-motor tone.
Eventually, most children’s eating habits will mature and improve. Until that time comes, keep mealtime calm and avoid the power struggles.
Dr. Sheinkop is the mother of three girls and has been a pediatrician in Chicago’s northern suburbs for 25 years. While she treats most pediatric issues, she is passionate about the topics of parenting a child with special needs, relationship building and asthma. She currently treats patients for PediaTrust/Lake Shore Pediatrics, a new private partnership of seven pediatric practices located in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
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