Is your child's nutrition — or lack thereof — about to drive you to distraction? Children's nutrition creates worry for many parents. Fortunately, picky eaters can get the nutrition they need.
Consider this scenario: Your preschooler has refused to eat anything other than peanut butter sandwiches for every meal and snack for the past two days. Your toddler, on the other hand, wants nothing at all during meals. You can barely drag her away from her toys to sit at the dinner table.
Young children become picky eaters for a variety of reasons. Understanding what may be behind this behavior can make it less frustrating for parents. It can also provide clues to what strategies might help you cope with the behavior. If your child's picky eating is actually compromising his or her growth and development, the same understanding can suggest tips for better child nutrition.
Slower growth reduces appetite
After the age of 2, your child's growth rate slows dramatically. Babies typically quadruple their birth weight by the time they turn 2. But between the ages of 2 and 5, children gain only 4 to 5 pounds each year.
Young children tend to eat only when they're hungry. A parent's job is to provide several different types of nutritious food at every meal and snack. Your child will make decisions on whether to eat, what to eat and how much to eat, though you can help guide this process.
Tiny tummies hold less food
A young child's stomach is only about the size of his or her fist. That's why small but frequent feedings work best. Prohibit snacking for one hour before meals so that your child can come to the table hungry and motivated to eat.
Toddlers and preschoolers often can fill up on milk or juice, and simply have no room for a wider variety of foods. Some juice products — even those containing 100 percent juice — provide more sugar and calories than sugared sodas do.
Doctors recommend that juice be limited to less than 6 ounces a day. The United States Department of Agriculture's new dietary guidelines, issued in 2005, recommend that children ages 2 to 8 consume 2 cups of low-fat milk products a day.
As toddlers begin asserting their independence, the dinner table can become a battleground. It can be helpful to give them some control over the situation by providing only small portions, so they can finish them and then ask for more. A good rule of thumb is 1 tablespoon per each year of your child's age.
Don't force children to clean their plates. Threats and punishments only reinforce the power struggle. Don't appear overly concerned about what does and doesn't get eaten. Over the course of a week, most children get plenty of variety and nutrition in their diets. If your child is energetic and growing, he or she is doing fine.
How to introduce new foods
Introduce a new food in a neutral manner. Talk about the food's color, shape, size, aroma and texture — but not about whether it tastes good. Be patient with your child's investigative habits. Young children often touch or smell new foods, and may even put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again.
Children often need at least 10 exposures to a new food before they accept it, so be persistent. Try these tips:
-Start small. Begin by placing a small portion of the new food on your child's plate next to familiar foods. And remember — new foods will seem more appealing at meals if your child hasn't just finished a snack.
-Make it fun. Sometimes children will try a new food if it's fun to eat. For example, serve broccoli with a favorite dip or sauce. Cut foods with solid textures into various shapes with cookie cutters.
-Involve your child. At the grocery store, let your child help select new fruits, vegetables, whole grain items and yogurt flavors for the whole family to try. At home, involve your child in food preparation.
-Be a good example. Children often mimic their parents. The more frequently you eat a particular food, the more likely your child will be to eventually try it.
Mixing and unmixing
If you want your child to eat more vegetables, you might add them into familiar foods. For example, you could add broccoli to macaroni and cheese, or mix grated zucchini and carrots into muffins, meatloaf and soups.
In some cases, you may have better success if you "unmix" the food. Many children prefer to eat the ingredients of a salad or sandwich separately.
Routines are helpful
Young children feel more comfortable with predictable routines. Bedtime routines help children go to sleep when it's time to sleep, and feeding routines help children eat when it's time to eat. Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day.
Toddlers and preschoolers can be distracted easily. Help them concentrate on eating by turning off the television during meals. Also enforce a rule against bringing reading material or toys to the table.
Don't fall into bad routines, such as bribing your child with food. Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food. That message may increase your child's desire for sweets above all other foods. You may, unintentionally, be implying that eating healthy foods is an unpleasant experience — one that must be endured if the child wants a reward.
Picky eating rarely persists
As children mature, they tend to become less picky about food. Still, everyone has food preferences, so no child is going to like everything. Keep things in perspective and try not to make mealtimes a battle of wills between you and your child.