by Linda Jonides, R.N., C.P.N.P.
Many toddlers and preschoolers are now actually good company at mealtime. 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 3- to 5-year-olds to develop (seemingly overnight) specific food preferences. In some cases, they'll eat only yellow foods or foods covered completely with applesauce. In other cases, the selection shrinks to five foods total, one of them potato 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 you'd never think of feeding her for dinner, such as a jelly doughnut. Take heart: When children are stubborn about eating at this age, it is part of learning to be independent and in control.
Children often use food to display control, which is natural in a preschooler. 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 diarrhea along with a sudden change in appetite, consult your child's healthcare provider.
Here are some strategies to help you and your child have more pleasant mealtimes:
- 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.
- Practice healthy eating behaviors, 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 mealtimes, 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.
The basic eating habits your child develops now will probably stay with him 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:
- 4-6 ounces of milk or juice
- 1 slice toast
- 1/2 cup yogurt or cottage cheese
- 4 tablespoons vegetables
- 2 ounces hamburger
- 1/2 cup cereal
2. Limit snacks to three per day, stressing lower-fat foods, fruit, and fresh vegetables over soft drinks, candy, 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 preschoolers include:
- Fruit juices (limit juice to 4 to 6 ounces a day)
- Carrot, celery, or cucumber sticks
- Cheese sticks
- Toast or crackers with cheese
- Oatmeal cookies
- Finger sandwiches (meaning 1/8 of a sandwich), or bran muffins
3. Make sure your child is actually hungry or thirsty when he asks for food or a drink. He 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 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 he 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 or other screen devices, games, or stories. These other activities are distracting. In addition, 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 percent of food ads during the daytime are for "good" foods such as fruits and vegetables. The more commercial television 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 checkups and look at the growth charts at the health provider's office for reassurance.