Fussy eaters: My toddler is a fussy eater

Many pre-schoolers are now actually good company at meal times. They generally view eating as a natural response to hunger and meals as a pleasant social experience.

On the other hand, it is also common for three- to five-year-olds to develop (seemingly overnight) specific food preferences. In some cases, they'll eat only yellow foods or foods covered completely with apple sauce. In other cases, the selection shrinks to five foods in total, one of them chips. That can be frustrating, to say the least.

One thing a parent needs to accept

Inconsistency rules the day, so don't get flustered. Your child may be less hungry some days because she was less active the day before. She may have seen another child eating something that you'd never think of feeding her for dinner, such as a jam doughnut. Take heart: When children are stubborn about eating at this age, it is part of learning to be independent and in control.

Control and more control

Children often use food to display control, which is natural in a pre-schooler. Even at the height of these difficult periods, children will not starve themselves and they rarely lose weight. However, if you do suspect weight loss, or if you notice other symptoms of illness such as fever, nausea or diarrhoea along with a sudden change in appetite, you should consult your healthcare provider.

Meal time strategies that work

Here are some strategies to help you and your child have more pleasant meal times:

  • Offer your child nutritious foods and let her decide what and how much to eat. You are the supply agent, and she is the eater. You are in control of what's in the house and on the table; she's in control of what goes in her mouth.

  • Anticipate that she will imitate her peers with regard to likes and dislikes and that these will change constantly.

  • Battles about food are common, and eating gets lost in the struggle. These are really about control. Know what you can and cannot control.

  • The best advice is for parents and other frequent caregivers to be good role models. Children will eat in whatever way their family does, eventually.

  • Practise healthy eating behaviours, including serving/choosing a variety of foods, trying new foods and not overeating.

  • Try to eat meals together as a family whenever possible.

  • Foster a relaxed atmosphere at meal times, and try not to rush your child. On the other hand, if she takes longer than 30 minutes to finish, she's not really hungry, so give it up.

Eating for life

The basic eating habits that your child develops now will probably stay with him for the rest of his life. The following are general guidelines to help your child get enough (but not too much) food. Remember that quantities and selections may vary from day to day.

1. Offer small portions

with seconds only if your child asks for them.

A few acceptable child-sized portions include:

  • 120 to 180 ml (4 to 6 ounces) of milk or juice

  • 1 slice toast

  • 120 g yoghurt or cottage cheese

  • 4 tablespoons of vegetables

  • a 60 g (2 ounce) hamburger

  • 75 g cereal

2. Limit snacks to three per day

stressing lower-fat foods, fruit and fresh vegetables over soft drinks, sweets, pastries, and salty or greasy items. Additional snacks may decrease your child's appetite for meals. Plan the time for snacks and avoid grazing. 

Nutritious snack foods for pre-schoolers include:

  • Fruit

  • Fruit juices (limit juice to 120 to 180 ml a day)

  • Carrot, celery or cucumber sticks

  • Cheese sticks

  • Yoghurt

  • Toast or crackers with cheese

  • Oatmeal cookies

  • Finger sandwiches (meaning 1/8 of a sandwich) or bran muffins

3. Make sure that your child is actually hungry or thirsty

when she asks for food or a drink. She may just want some attention, so try talking or playing first. Try not to use food as a pacifier.

4. Limit milk intake

at this age to 480 ml (16 ounces) a day. Milk is a very important food, but too much of it may reduce your child's appetite for other important foods.

5. Encourage your child to try new foods

by offering small amounts to taste, not by insisting that she eat a full portion of an unfamiliar food. It takes seven tastes, on average, before a child will accept a new food.

6. Discourage eating while distracted

by the television, games or stories. These other activities are distracting. In addition, television advertising is influential in the choices your child makes about food.  Children this age are receptive to plugs for sugary cereals and sweets, especially after they've visited other homes where these foods are served. Less than 5 per cent of food ads during the daytime are for 'good' foods such as fruit and vegetables. The more commercial television that children watch, the more likely they are to demand less nutritious snacks and be less interested in healthier alternatives.

7. Let your child help choose and prepare food

Kids love to help and will feel proud to have contributed.

8. Encourage conversation

when everyone's at the table. Nothing like a pleasant atmosphere to aid digestion!

Consistent weight gain and proportional height and weight are the best markers of good nutrition. Keep up regular health check-ups and look at the growth charts at the health provider's office for reassurance.

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