No food other than a lightly toasted English muffin with a smear of grape jelly will pass Amanda Saddlers little lips. To the frustration of the two-year-olds parents, she was a really good eater until last month. Now Mom and Dad are worried.
Marco Gonzalezs grandma has become a short order cook. She is a wizard at whipping up something special for Marco, who almost always refuses to eat what the rest of the family is eating.
The common denominator for Amanda and Marco is that they refuse to eat food they once enjoyed, and they balk at trying new foods.
What is a Food Jag?
If you have a child in your care who only wants to eat few foods, you are definitely not alone. The phenomenon is so common it has a name. It is called a food jag.
Starting at about age 2, and sometimes lasting until the ages 4-5, this behavior is believed to go along with a childs developmental quest for independence, ability to speak, make decisions, and say no.
Most adults have food quirks, and children are no different. Do not be surprised if a child will eat only the inside of a sandwich, but not the breads crust. Or, if he will eat a sandwich cut in strips, but not triangles. So what can you and the childrens parents do?
A few bites might be all it takes for that little tummy to feel full. Studies show that adults usually overestimate how much food a young child needs. A rule of thumb is that when a well-balanced meal is served, a youngster needs about a tablespoon of each food for each year of age.
High food costs compound the situation. Meal refusal may have severe economic implications for families and childcare programs. The frustrated adult may view the waste of food as a loss of hard-earned money on a tight budget. The result could be excessive anger aimed at the child.
Provide three balanced meals and two nutritious snacks each day, and remain calm in the face of a flat refusal to eat a specific food. Nonchalantly say, Try eating a bite of this. Suggest trying the food twice.
Encourage pleasant mealtime conversation that does not focus on the childs eating. If a child simply will not eat, and your mealtime setting allows for appropriate supervision, you may ask the child to please leave the table.
Take a deep breath and consider the following tried and true techniques to help you cope with food fussiness without mealtime warfare:
- A relaxed atmosphere at the table is important. If a child refuses a certain food, do not make a big deal of it, and no arguing at the table!
- Children are great imitators. If you are concerned about the childs diet, then look at your own. Are you fussy? Do you refuse to eat vegetables?
- All humans prefer to have choices. So do children. Have them assist with with meal planning. Ask, Do you want carrots or green peas for lunch?
Get children involved in food preparation. Even a two-year-old can put a slice of cheese on bread to make a sandwich.
Take another step toward getting children involved. Help them plant a small vegetable garden. Children are less likely to refuse food they grow themselves.
When menu planning, remember that young children usually dislike strong flavors. Also, they prefer food lukewarm rather than hot or cold.
Be patient when introducing new foods. Try introducing a new food with an old favorite. Do not be disappointed if it takes the child many exposures to the food (often only smelling or touching it) before taking the first bite.
Timing and atmosphere
Timing is everything! In childcare settings, it is good practice to let at least two hours lapse between meals and at least an hour and a half between lunch and an afternoon snack. If the child comes to the table hungry, chances are she will be more likely to eat.
Establish the routine of serving meals and snacks at about the same time daily. Serve foods in bowls on the table (sometimes called family style), and let everyone, including children, serve themselves, if possible. This way, the child will not be overwhelmed by being served what you think he should eat.
Sit with children and eat the same meal. Be sure to have a positive attitude, and talk about the foods color, texture, where it comes from, and similarities and differences of foods you are eating.
Respect and Understanding
Avoid bribing children with food or offering dessert as a reward. These actions may lead to increased value placed on foods beyond the nutritional benefit they offer--and possibly lead to eating disorders later in life. Instead, offer fruit as the dessert and serve it at the same time as other meal components.
Do not force a child to eat a food he honestly dislikes. Remember, just like you, children have preferences, too!
Respect the childs hunger or lack of it. Unlike many adults, young children tend to eat only when they are hungry, which is called natural regulation.
Never force food. Allow a child to stop eating when she or he is full. Encouraging eating beyond satisfaction may lead to obesity later in life. Never punish a child by withholding food. Food is necessary for life.
When to Seek Help
Remember, regardless of how little you think a child is eating, no healthy child will starve herself. Even if she eats poorly at one meal, missed nutrients tend to be made up by eating better at the next meal. And when a child is hungry, she will definitely let you know.
However, if a child is extraordinarily fussy about eating, lacks energy, does not seem to be growing as expected, and/or certain foods seem to make him or her ill, consult the childs doctor or dietitian immediately. Their clinical exam may include having you keep a food diary of everything the child eats and drinks for a week.
In the meantime, stay calm with the knowledge that although the childs meal behavior will not change overnight, and for the majority of youngsters, it will eventually pass. By following the tips above, you are setting the foundation for a lifetime of not only nutritious eating, but also of a healthy relationship with food.
Paula Mydlenski, MS, RD, CDN
Migrant & Seasonal Head Start Technical Assistance Center
Keep Kids Healthy, www.keepkidshealthy.com/parenting_tips/picky_eaters.html
Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com/health/childrens-health/HQ01107
UCSF Medical Center, www.ucsfhealth.org/childrens/edu/pickyEaters/index.html