When your child refuses to eat or will only eat a limited range of foods it is easy to lose your patience or give in to demands for the sake of the family peace. Having an eating action plan in place means that you can tackle picky eating with a level head before the issue escalates into a battle of wills.
• Always remember that you are responsible for what is offered to eat and the way it is presented, your toddler is responsible for eating and choosing how much to eat.
• No healthy toddler ever starved through refusing food. When toddlers are truly hungry they will eat.
• Don’t rate parenting according to how well a child eats. All children are different. Some will eat more than others and some will take longer than others to eat.
• Keep a food diary for several days, writing down everything your toddler has to eat and drink. You may be reassured that he/she is eating quite well.
• If you feel your child really isn’t eating enough, use the food diary to discuss your concerns with your health professional – Plunket Nurse, GP, Practice Nurse or Dietician.
Establishing a routine:
• Toddlers enjoy predictability and structure. Establish a regular mealtime routine. Plan small meals and nutritious in-between snacks for regular times throughout the day.
• Most children need a 1 ½ to 2-hour gap without food before a meal in order to be hungry.
• Meals need to be timed so that the child is not too tired. Sometimes it may be easier to offer the meat and vegetable meal midday when a toddler is not so tired. Then in the evening offer a sandwich, spaghetti, or eggs on toast and maybe finish with fruit and yoghurt.
Planning a menu:
• When introducing new foods, start with small amounts and offer these with familiar foods.
• Remember, servings should be sized to suit your toddler. Toddlers don’t eat very much. Serve less than your child will eat and then let him or her ask for more.
• Check milk intake and make sure your toddler is not filling up on juice. As toddlers are always ‘on the go’, they often prefer the quick, easy option and would rather drink than eat.
• Two cups of orange juice is equivalent to eating between two and ten oranges.
• While milk and milk products make up one of the four basic food groups, and are very important for toddlers, milk in excess can take the edge off or dull appetite for food. Milk alone cannot supply all the nutrients toddlers require.
• Some ideas for nutritious snacks include: pieces of fresh fruit, small sandwiches, crackers and cheese, yoghurt, mini muffins and pikelets. Dried fruits such apricots and raisins should be given in limited amounts as they are high in sugar and dietary fibre, and can be filling. Foods like lollies, chocolate, chips and fizzy drinks are not nutritious snacks and should be restricted to special occasions only.
Keeping it interesting:
• Let your toddler select the foods he/she wants from what is offered. Include the favourites with the not so favourites, and let them decide. You are controlling what is offered, but your toddler feels he/she has some independence.
• If particular foods are continually refused, try preparing or offering these in different ways.
• On most occasions toddlers should feed themselves. Make food easy to eat. Provide finger food that is easy to pick up and chew. Your toddler will master knife and fork skills as co-ordination improves and the desire to imitate adults develops.
• Make meal times sociable. Turn off the TV, and sit together to eat. It is often more practical for a child to eat dinner earlier than the rest of the family. If it is not too late when the rest of the family eats, let your toddler sit with you and have fruit, yoghurt or dessert. Eating together also helps encourage your toddler to try new things. Children learn through imitation, so seeing their parents and siblings enjoying food may encourage them to try it.
• Often dinner is the most difficult meal. If your toddler refuses dinner then give only water (no milk/juice or ‘preferred’ foods) before their normal routine and bedtime. Breakfast next day may then be earlier, but offer this before any milk or juice – emphasising the importance of food. If, when dinner has not been eaten, you offer another food or milk, you are confirming to your toddler that the behaviour is acceptable, which it isn’t. Be careful!
• Bribes, games of persuasion and distractions aren’t the answer and are counterproductive. ‘You won’t have any dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables’, leads to foods being perceived as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in your toddler’s mind.
• Avoid ‘force feeding’ or stand-over tactics, this only puts unnecessary stress on you and your child.
• Praise good eating and, as much as possible, ignore undesired behaviour.
• Encourage older toddlers to help with food preparation, and talk about the food you are preparing. Washing fruit and vegetables may stimulate an interest in eating them. When children are served a meal they are not so keen on you can remind them that they helped prepare it. You’ll see the difference when they are praised for being such good chefs!
• Parents and family members need to support each other, be consistent with the action and message, and be good role models.