OK, would you just settle for a better eater?
Kids’ pickiness at the table drives moms and dads crazy. Sometimes parents get so desperate they go to extremes.
I once had a mom tell me, “My daughter is so picky I had to BEG her to try a brownie!” Personally, if my kid wouldn’t eat a brownie, I’d just think, “Good! More for me!”
But I do understand her distress. I’ve watched my granddaughters start life eating just about anything – from spicy Asian noodles to spinach with capers, anchovies, and feta cheese — then suddenly become so picky they’d hardly eat a thing except crackers and string cheese.
Parents know instinctively that eating, growing, and good health all work together. So it’s exciting when a toddler is learning to eat and enjoy family foods. We feel so successful! Then when they stop chowing down, we feel worried, and a little scared, as if we’re failing.
But here’s food for thought. Feeding a child the same amount of food every day won’t make her grow at an even pace. Growth happens in cycles of fits and starts. You sort of know this, because her clothes fit for days, weeks, or months, then suddenly she grows so fast that her wrists and ankles are showing, and she can’t snap or zip her pants!
Children get hungrier when they’re getting ready to grow. When they’ve finished a growth spurt, their appetites really back off. The difference can be startling.
That sudden change in appetite is most noticeable for the first time around the age of two. Most parents have heard of “the terrible twos,” and quickly think of temper tantrums and endless use of “NO!” It’s all a part of growing up. Two-year-olds are trying to think for themselves and make decisions on their own. So, no matter what you want them to do, they want to do the opposite!
But two is also the time when children begin to grow more slowly, so they just don’t need to eat as much. Imagine (or remember!) the perfect storm that erupts when you fill your child’s plate just like you did before, but she isn’t so hungry. She picks at her food. You encourage her to eat. She say , “NO.” You push harder. She screams “NO!” and maybe throws her fork. Nothing good happens after this….
I sometimes think nutritionists’ teachings make this problem worse. So often we preach, “Your child needs to eat this many servings from each food group daily.”
When your child doesn’t eat it all, you begin to worry that poor nutrition will wreck her health. So you encourage. Then push. Then bargain (you can have candy if you finish your dinner), become a short order cook, or even worse, start buying fast food. (One mother told me, “My three-year-old won’t eat anything but McDonald’s.” Really? How did she get the car keys?)
There are many steps you can take to reverse this cycle of picky eating distress. I’ll share one with you now to get you started, then we’ll talk about some others in later posts.
Step 1: Let Your Child Choose.
Scary, I know, but kids have an amazing natural ability to know how much they need to eat. So put your child in charge of quantity. Here’s how.
Start offering foods from all the food groups daily, then let your child decide how much of each food to eat, or whether to eat any at all.
Serve about half of what you think she’ll eat, and let her ask for more if she’s still hungry.
Serve three sit-down meals and snacks daily, offering several of those healthy foods each time.
Give her a choice (“Would you like a pear or a banana?”) That gives her some power, while cleverly reducing her chance to say, “No!”
Sit down and eat with your child. Talk a bit about fun things (not how much she is or is not eating.)
Don’t beg, plead, force, or change the menu.
And especially don’t fill the between-meal gaps with junk food. Just be the grown up. Bravely and gently remind her that snack time is coming soon. Then distract her with some fun play, a walk to the park, or a dance video.
And relax. Your child will not starve or become malnourished in just a few days. However, you two will begin developing a much more comfortable feeding relationship. I’m not saying all the tantrums will immediately stop. But things might settle down a bit if you begin to let your child have some control over how much he eats. You still control what you offer, when you offer it, and where you offer it.
These are baby steps on the road to better eating. But they can make a big difference.