Fighting with a picky toddler about what they eat seems to be a rite of passage for most parents. In a healthy feeding dynamic, parents choose how, when, where and what children eat, without being overly restrictive or controlling. Within those boundaries, kids choose how much and what to eat, but can decide not to eat, as well. This gives the child a sense of independence, and they begin to learn what it feels like to be full – something that can get hijacked if parents force kids to ‘clean their plate’ or to eat certain amounts of foods.
When parents are excessively restrictive about eating, two things happen: kids learn to eat when they are not hungry; and the struggle gives food more power than it should really have (kids are very intuitive about how they can use that as leverage). The long-term result could be dysfunctional thinking about the role that food has in a child’s life.
Additionally, there are three key areas where parents’ feeding roles are breaking down:
Parents often let their kids eat anywhere in the house – like in front of the TV.
Parents are telling their kids how much to eat.
If their child didn’t like what was served, many parents are behaving like short order cooks and fixing alternative meals.
Parents have the ultimate control because they decide what to offer their child to eat. However, giving children the perception that they are in control is important, and it can help them establish a healthy relationship with food.
Here are a few tips:
Take dessert off its pedestal. Try making a small dessert part of the regular meal rather than a reward for eating everything. Take the crown off the cookie and make it less sparkly. Yes, your child will eat the dessert first for a week or so, but then it will lose its luster.
Serve smaller portions of everything. This opens the door for offering seconds on what they want to eat, plus maybe a fruit or vegetable. This teaches the child about feeling full while having their opinion respected, and that grows trust.
Let your child choose snack time. After lunch, ask your child what time they want to have a snack. If they get hungry before then, you can remind them that they picked snack time so they feel in control.
Does your kid spit out veggies? That’s actually progress! Negative reactions to the way your toddler responds to new foods can be interpreted as “being bad.” Keep finding ways to introduce the food again – with flavors like butter, salt, or ranch dressing.
Only serve food in the kitchen. You might bend in other areas, but this is an absolute.
Choose your words wisely. Assess how much time you spend talking to your child about food — this includes talking about healthy foods, too! If you feel it is too often, you are probably right. Overdoing it may create more anxiety for you and your child. Scale it back.
Pick your battles. Always serve at least one thing you know your child will eat. That way, if they choose not to eat anything else, you know they’ve gotten something. Once your child realizes that feeding time isn’t going to be a battle of wills, they will eventually start eating what you give them. Stay positive and firm, and remember that children have the ability to learn healthy eating if you will just let them!
Ihuoma U. Eneli, MD, MS is medical director at the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of Clinical Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
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