Toddlers and preschoolers are notoriously picky eaters. Starting at the 1-year mark, even previously voracious eaters suddenly seem to lose interest. As they get older, toddlers develop strong opinions about what goes on their plate (and where it is on their plate). Because feeding is at the heart of nurturing, a child's rejection of our carefully prepared food cuts to the core. At such times, it's important to see the big picture. You're teaching your child healthy eating so she can take care of herself over a lifetime. Seeing things from her perspective helps you in this task.
This picky fussiness is normal behavior for 1- to 3-year-olds. Your child is trying to establish her independence and let you know that she wants to take charge of herself. She's also settling into a growth pattern that will lead her toward her genetic body type. The roly-poly baby of slender parents will begin to look more like the rest of the family in these years.
At his first birthday, your child is probably more fascinated with learning to walk than with eating. As such, his interest in food plummets: He's just too busy to spend any time eating. But this is normal: Your child grows more slowly in the second year, and his appetite will decrease appropriately. The extra fat he stored in the first year will help fuel this exciting movement. Don't expect any long meals right now.
Still, tots this age need energy to keep going. A 1-year-old can run out of gas quickly and may get frantic or irritable. It's best for him to have five or six small meals throughout the day, including two or three healthy snacks. Give him food in very small portions, adding more if he finishes. A lot of food overwhelms a toddler and just invites him to swipe it all overboard from the high chair or table.
No Time to Eat
Because it's so hard to pin him down, every bite counts for a busy toddler. Empty calories in cookies, sweets, or juice are a waste of your child's time and appetite. Click here for tips on healthy snacks for toddlers. If you or your health care provider thinks your toddler needs to consume more calories, you'll need to look at increasing the nutritional value of every bite rather than increasing the amount he eats. Think about putting an extra spread of butter or cream cheese on toast or a thicker slice of cheese on a muffin, for example.
Offer your child nutritious food at your regular mealtimes as well, but don't force him to eat. Young children who are allowed to decide for themselves when to stop eating grow up to have much healthier eating habits. Your job is to be sure that healthy, appealing foods are offered regularly and in the same eating place. Your child is in charge of whether or not to eat at that time. If he passes once, he'll be hungrier at the next scheduled time.
Having your child sit down with you at regular mealtimes,Â no matter how little he eats, will eventually teach him to eat when meals are served. Toddlers and preschoolers love to eat at the table with the family, and it's the perfect opportunity for them to learn about socializing and table manners. If your child resists or throws food, he's letting you know he's done. Set him down or give him a book to read, but don't coax him to eat more food. It sets up a battle that you can never win.
The Big Mess
Your child learns a lot from "playing" with his food. Dropping food on the floor, squeezing it, and smearing it are all ways he learns about food and how to enjoy eating it. He probably can't use a spoon well, but he should have one anyway, for practice. Toddlers want to feed themselves, and you should encourage it by letting them, no matter how messy they are. Your may also be learning how to use a cup —Â again, this means a lot of spills. Your best option is to learn to live with the mess by using (and wearing)Â easy-to-clean materials.
If your child decides he'll only eat pasta bows, for example, talk to your health care provider about whether you should give him a baby vitamin. In general, children don't need extra vitamins, but if your child is really putting up a fight about food, it may help you feel better. Don't give him adult vitamins — they can be toxic to children.
No Meals on the Go
Setting up good eating habits means eating in a regular eating place, such as in a high chair or chair in the kitchen or dining room. It does not mean in front of the TV, in the bedroom, or walking around the house. Toddlers who walk and eat are at risk for choking, as well as long-term bad habits.
Your child needs less food now than she did during her first year. Surprised? Don't be. She's just not growing quite as fast, and so many other exciting developments are competing for her time.
Children this age are very picky about what they'll eat. Don't force-feed your toddler or require a clean plate before she leaves the table. She knows how much she needs, and she'll eat appropriately if not pressured. Forcing her will only result in a food battle —Â one you won't win! It can also lead to eating problems when she's older.
Binges and Refusals
Your child can eat many of the same dishes the whole family eats. Just take out her serving before you add salt and strong spices. Of course, she may not necessarily agree to eat what you're eating. Toddlers this age tend to fixate on one beloved food and eat only that for days. These "binges" are normal, however, so don't worry. If what your child is eating is nutritious, it doesn't matter how often she eats it. Offer her a variety of foods anyway, a little at a time, to get her used to the sight and texture of new foods. Generally, you have to offer a food about 10 times before a child this age will accept it, so don't be upset or daunted by the first or second refusal.
Make sure you give your child plenty of opportunities to feed herself — she's ready to practice using a spoon and a cup. Avoid foods she could choke on, however, such as whole grapes, nuts, or raw carrots. Hot dogs are the most-choked-on food! Cut them into small pieces lengthwise and also across so she won't choke if you're going to serve them.
How much should your toddler drink? In general your child shouldn't have more than 4 to 6 ounces of juice each day, and all of that should be from a cup. Juice is mostly just sugar and water, and fruit is better for her. Juice addicts have poor growth patterns and are at risk for "toddler diarrhea," tooth decay, and nutritional imbalance. Your toddler doesn't need more than 24 ounces of milk, either.
If your child is still sucking on a bottle, you should start trying to wean her now. A "sippy" cup is a good alternative to a regular cup if you can't stand the constant spills. Don't let your child take her bottle to bed. It's not good for her sleep or her nutrition and could rot her teeth and make her more prone to ear aches.
Learn to love a mess! Your 18-month-old needs to try feeding herself to bolster her emerging sense of independence, as well as learn how to use utensils and cups. A big bib will help protect her clothes from the worst of it, and you might put a plastic mat under her high chair. Get used to messy mealtimes. And don't forget to change out of your nice clothes when it's feeding time.
At the same time, don't tolerate airborne food. If your toddler starts to fling food all about and has stopped eating, it means she's done. Put her down, and don't try to coax more food into her.
Your 2-year-old is still a picky eater, but he's watching you like a hawk so he can be just like you. Providing him with nutritious foods and eating well yourself are two of the best ways to get him to eat right. Be aware that he's picking up your bad habits as well as your good ones.
Your child is growing much more slowly than last year, so he really doesn't need as much food as you might think he does. He's also extremely opinionated about what he'll eat (and where he'll eat it and when he'll eat it, as well as in what bowl he'll eat it). He may continue to "binge" on favored foods for a while, only to suddenly reject them later.
Pick Your Battles
If you give in to these picky habits quietly, your child won't fight for them as hard. Insisting on your way will only make the battle that much more important to him. You can't win. Just be sure all the foods you give her are nutritious, and it won't matter if he only eats one of them every night for a while. Don't ask him what he wants to eat —Â that choice gives too much power for a very small person to handle. You make the selection from reasonable, kid-friendly foods.
Make sure your child eats at the table. People who eat at a set time and place usually get the best nutrition and are in the best physical shape. Establish this good habit early. Keep meals out of the car or bed and away from the TV. If your child won't drink much milk, give him calcium in the form of cheese or yogurt. He should be weaned off the bottle entirely now.
If your 2-year-old refuses to eat anything you put in front of him, you've gotten yourself into a feeding war that you can't win through confrontation. Try these methods:
Ask your day care provider when and what your child is eating during the day. If his diet isn't ideal, discuss the matter with your day care provider. If your provider can't supply what you want your child to eat, offer to send a lunch pail for your child. But don't be too fussy; children learn from different care environments, and there is a lot of leeway in children's diets. If possible, stop in for lunch with your child from time to time.
Although your 3-year-old still has very definite ideas about what she wants to eat, she's more willing to try new foods than she was last year. She'll probably like certain foods because of their colors or shapes, and she may still insist on food being arranged "just so." She'll also enjoy helping out in the kitchen, as long as you're patient with her limited assistant skills.
The reluctant eater of this age may accept foods that are presented in a new or interesting way, on a special dish or in an unexpected shape. So it's time to get clever and have fun together.
Three-year-olds learn so much about eating and socialization at the dinner table with their families. Studies show that children who eat at least one meal a day with their families have better vocabularies, as well as better diets. Now is the time to get your child in the habit of sitting at the table with you, not in front of the TV. Turn the tube off during mealtimes and talk instead. And have meals at regular times, at a regular place, such as the kitchen or dining room table.
Your 3-year-old is really ready to learn table manners. Teach her to say "please," "thank you," and "may I." She should only spill a little and not throw at all. She can and should help set the table. She's likely to enjoy the habits and rituals of family meals.
That is, she will if you can get her to the table at all. Preschoolers are often so busy playing that they can hardly be bothered to stop. Don't let your child get into the habit of eating on the go, however. Easy-to-eat, easy-to-carry foods are often high in salt, fat, and sugar. And don't ask your child to decide what's for dinner. It gives her too much power and sets you up to be a short-order cook. Your job is to decide what's for dinner; her job is to eat it. Don't set yourself up for long-term haggling with a 3-year-old.
Here are a few important things to remember about feeding your 3-year-old:
Make mini pizzas with your 3-year-old! You can pack a lot of nutritious vegetables and meats (even leftovers) under melted cheese. Use an English muffin or half a bagel, well-minced or pureed vegetables, chopped up chicken, or even a minced hard-boiled egg. A red sauce will make them stick, and the cheese will glue it all together. Your child will love this pizza even more if she gets to help make it.
Use cookie cutters to make shapely sandwiches! Great fillings include smooth peanut butter, cream cheese and jam, and finely minced tuna, meats, or eggs. Allowing your 3-year-old to cut out her own shape will make it more fun for her.