Is Your Toddler A Picky Eater?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Does your child refuse to eat during the family meal? Or does he eat very little or only certain foods? If so, there’s no need to panic. Most young children are picky eaters as they enter toddlerhood (ages 1 to 3) and beyond.

Reasons for Picky Eating
Toddlers are just starting to learn about the world and everything is new. Once a child is able to walk, he will most likely be more interested in playing and exploring than in sitting down for a meal.

In addition, toddlers are naturally apprehensive about trying anything new, including food. They won’t always accept a new food on the first try. In fact, it’s more unusual for toddlers to just accept a new food without a struggle. Also, picky eating is one way for toddlers to exert a little control over their young lives.

Another reason for picky eating involves eating habits. In general, toddlers will eat a good breakfast, maybe some lunch, and then play with their food during dinner. They tend to “graze” by eating finger foods and drinking milk or juice throughout the day and, therefore, may not feel hungry during the scheduled mealtime.

The atmosphere of the meal also may play a role in how your child eats. Eating shouldn’t be associated with negative feelings. Don’t force your child to try a new food or to eat more that he wants. If he feels forced, he’ll do the opposite of what you want. Coercing, threatening, or rewarding the child to eat will only exacerbate the problem. Kids respond better when they eat in a neutral environment.

When a toddler rejects food, it might actually be mom or dad at the other end of the spoon who is reinforcing the picky behavior. If you don’t like asparagus, your negative feelings may come across as you introduce it to your child. Again, try to remain neutral during feeding time.

Nutrition Concerns
Parents—especially first-time moms and dads—may be overly concerned that their picky eater won’t grow properly or will have nutrient or vitamin deficiencies. To put you at ease, recognize that children won’t starve themselves. If a child doesn’t eat at one meal, he or she will make it up at the next meal. Despite their sometimes-limited diet, most children get their daily nutritional requirements and grow normally. It’s rare to see malnutrition in our culture as a result of picky eating.

You won’t need to be concerned about nutrition deprivation if you routinely offer a variety of foods, have regular family meals, and avoid catering to your child’s limited tastes.

Tips for Reducing Picky Eating
You can do many things to help your child try new foods and eat a nutritious diet.

  • Variety is very important for a healthy diet. The more new foods you offer your child, the greater the chance he or she will find ones to like.
  • Parents tend to misinterpret normal behavior, so when a child won’t eat a food the first time, they assume he doesn’t like it. When introducing a new food, don’t give up; it may take six to eight attempts for a child to accept something new. Don’t eliminate the food, just try again. Eventually, if the child keeps rejecting the food, then he may actually not care for it vs. just being a picky eater.
  • Provide many opportunities to taste new foods within a positive context.
  • Try to avoid comparing your picky eater to other children in the family. Each child is unique in his or her food preferences.
  • Children who are more picky tend get too much milk and juice. Toddlers love their sippy cups, but too often fill up on milk and juice, leaving little room for other foods that are rich in vitamins, protein, and fiber. Limit your child to 16 to 24 ounces of milk and half a cup of juice a day. Offer other foods that provide the health benefits found in milk and juice.
  • As a general rule, remember the concept of “division of responsibility.” You decide what and when your child eats and, he or she decides if and how much to eat. This helps relieve the stress of feeling like your child’s eating is only up to you.

Using Supplements
Children who are very picky may not be getting enough calcium, iron, and other nutrients. If you are concerned that your child isn’t eating a variety of foods, consider providing a multivitamin. These are available for toddlers as well as older children. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your child’s growth or continued problems with nutrition.

Dr. Darcy Fechner is a pediatrician at Columbia St. Mary’s Germantown Clinic. For more information, call 262-250-7800.


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