Age 1 to 5 has been described as the “Age of Beige.”
Beige and bland - the color and taste of foods eaten by picky toddlers and preschoolers.
So, how can you win the Battle of the Plate with your toddler or preschooler? At Carolina Kids Pediatrics in Raleigh, our pediatricians offer these ideas for vanquishing your picky eater:
RULE #1: AVOID SHORT-ORDER COOKING. So, what can you do if your toddler rejects the pasta and broccoli you have just worked so hard to prepare? Do you fix the peanut butter and jelly sandwich (with the crust cut off) that you know they will eat? Don’t. Do you force your toddler to eat the food you just spent 30 minutes cooking? Again, don’t. Instead, force a smile, and say, “Not hungry? That’s OK, I’ll save your food for you in case you get hungry later.” Then, leave the food out - the top of a chair works well, as a toddler can change their mind, come back, and the food is available at eye level. Just remember to put the dog outside first, or he’ll think that food you left out on the chair is all for him!
RULE #2: SAYING “NO” TO EATING IS OK. By allowing young kids to say “no” to the meal we prepared, we are supporting their sense of autonomy. However, by not short-order cooking their favorite meal instead (or getting out the packaged snack foods), we avoid giving them more choices than they can handle. A child who gets chicken nuggets and fries every time they reject a meal will end up eating…nuggets and fries, and very little else. By providing a child access to the rejected meal until it’s time for another meal, we are insuring they don’t go hungry and can reconsider their choice when they do get hungry. The hardest part? Don’t suggest your child go back and eat it. Let them figure that part out themselves, and let it be their choice. Kids almost never lose weight or become malnourished when we allow them to say “no” to a meal this way.
RULE #3: ABANDON THE 3-MEAL-2-SNACK MYTH. Many toddlers and young children eat a mid-morning snack, a mid-afternoon snack, and even an after-dinner snack. Often these snacks are packages of processed food – cheese sticks, goldfish, crackers, etc. Remember that your toddler or preschooler may only need about 1200 calories a day – if they have 3 snacks with 300 calories each, it’s no wonder they don’t want to eat that nutritious meal we cook for them at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Skip the packaged snack foods. Instead, allow kids access to the previous unfinished meal if they get hungry before the next one – or just offer some sliced fresh fruits or veggies.
RULE #4: DUMP THE LIQUID SUGAR. Many young kids become juice-a- holics quickly if given the opportunity. Juices, sodas, and other sweetened drinks offer sugar and very little nutritional benefit – and they often fill kids up, which leads to the “hunger strike” at mealtimes. A cup of milk with each meal is great – but stick to water in between.
RULE #5: WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE IS GOOD FOR THE GANDER. THIS MEANS YOU. The most powerful motivator for healthy eating habits is watching a parent or an older sibling eat well. Even if life gets too busy to swing family meals every night, make sure at least one adult is eating at least a small meal with your young child – and that you are eating the same thing. If you are planning a meal at a different time, just have a small plate of what your toddler is eating and take a few well-timed bites. It also takes the pressure off – there’s nothing that gets a toddler to reject food as much as an adult staring at them and not eating themselves.
RULE #6: TODDLERS ARE NOT SMALL ADULTS. We routinely over-estimate portion sizes for toddlers. Try the “palm of the hand” rule – a portion of food for a child should roughly equal the size of the palm of their hand – not your big, grownup hand. Use smaller plates for little people to remind yourself of this rule. And never ask kids to clean their plate. If they learn to eat to please you instead of eating until they are full, we risk excessive weight gain, and all the health risks that come with it. Remember that toddlers and preschoolers naturally have a lower body mass index than they do at any other time in life – it’s probably OK if you can see and count their ribs!
RULE #7: WE’RE HERE TO HELP. Although most young picky eaters can be well-managed with these rules, real health problems are out there also. If you think your child is underweight, has chronic abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea or constipation, or signs of food allergy, please contact your Raleigh pediatricians – contact us here at Carolina Kids Pediatrics by calling (919) 881-9009 or sending us a message through our patient portal.