Is your toddler/preschooler making you insane with their new eating (or not eating) habits? There is good news and there is bad news. First the good news – few kids head off to college while still tossing food from their high chairs or screaming that they will only eat round food. The bad news is
Kids can be weird about food…..really weird!

But, wait, there’s more good news, there are a few things you can do to make the situation better. I promise.

First, take a step back from the situation. If it’s at all possible take an afternoon or an early evening and go (alone or with your partner) to a family-friendly, sit-down restaurant. Your mission is to watch people eat. Do enjoy the meal and the quiet but, keep sight of your main mission. Watch adults order their food and watch them when the food arrives. Notice the lady who opens her sandwich and scrapes off the mayonnaise. Behind you, listen to the gentleman request that his side dishes be placed on plates separate from his entrée. Now, check the couple across the way with the child in a booster seat. Watch the child pick at the food on her tray, tossing some, eating others and getting vocal about the green beans.

You are now ready to head home and face your little person. On the way home, think about what you’ve learned. Everybody has “issues” with food, the biggest difference between a 2-4 year-old and an adult is manners. Does this mean you should give up and start serving your child according to his demand-of-the-day – of course not.

Your goal is three-fold:

  • Feed
  • Finesse
  • Fine Tune

Feed. Remember your once fearless baby who would happily eat just about everything you gave them? If your child has turned 2, 3 or 4 recently, they are a new person. They are developing their own preferences, have become keenly attuned to you, they can sense your stress levels and they are starting to recognize they can potentially control your behavior with their own. Just like above, focus on this mission – your job is to feed your child.

Keep in mind that a 2-4 year-old’s stomach is about the size of his fist. (Go ahead, try it., can you fit your fist into your mouth – Yep neither can your child.) That’s not a lot of food, so as a reminder trace their fist and tack it to the fridge as a reminder. Throughout the day, water should be the drink of choice, only offering milk or water with meals. Skip juice, juice boxes and soda unless it’s a birthday or holiday. Those are the basics.

What do you do when your child refuses food of a certain color?

It happens, you wake up one morning and your little person insists they only like white food for breakfast for example. Oatmeal is not white enough, so check the fridge, do you have leftover rice or potatoes, or have any fish in the freezer? Try not to make a big deal out of the new demand as children all over the world eat rice and/or potatoes for breakfast.

What if your child refuses to eat meat?

For a lot of small people, texture is a big thing with meat. Try ground meat, small bits of chicken, tuna and even things like ribs or wings (for kids over 3). If they are really resistant, back off and try a new approach to protein – eggs, hummus, beans/rice and peanut butter.

What do you do with a child who freaks out over vegetables?

Many families eat the same vegetables over and over because that is what they prefer. When you add a new person to the mix, you might learn that they don’t share your preferences. Introduce new choices, plus offer dipping options such as cheese, sour cream, yogurt, ketchup, mustard, etc.

Keep your cool!

You are not running a diner. Offer at least one choice at each meal that matches your child’s new-found desire. Don’t make it a big deal. If that’s all he eats for a meal, it’s okay. If you are living in a developed country, your child is not going to get rickets or starve. The key here is that you are offering him a choice without completely making him a new meal.

Be firm

If you find yourself with a child who melts down at every meal, be prepared to shut him down. You’ve offered an option and that’s all you offer. If your child starts tossing food, making gagging noises or shouting simply put him in a time out. (Take time to learn how to use time out effectively. It’s a pain to do but, it is well worth your time and serious attention.)

If your child flips out by different food touching each other, pick up a few plastic plates with dividers – problem solved. If you have a child that only likes things in bowls – feed them from a bowl. Let your 2-4 year-olds feed themselves and have them use different silverware for a test run. It’s not pretty, but it’s easy enough to make bath time right after dinner.

Finesse

You know what to expect from your child, plan for it. With kids 3+, get them involved in planning and preparing meals. Yes, this will slow you down in the short-term. In the long-run, teaching your kids basic meal-planning and cooking skills from an early age pays off. Get a sturdy step-stool and put them to work.

Offer Two Choices

Ask your child if they would like grain or rice. Do not offer them everything in the cupboard. Once they pick, get them involved in making the dish. A three-year-old can help you measure water and scoop out the amount needed. They also get a kick out of putting the lid on the pot and taking it off (while wearing very cool oven gloves).

Skip Dessert

Bribing a child with dessert will backfire on you. Dessert is best left as a sometimes thing that your child never sees coming (special occasions).

Manners

At 3+, you can introduce the idea of a “polite bite.” Teach your child to take a bite of everything offered. If they really hate it, teach them to spit it quietly out into the napkin they are learning to wear on their lap. Bring in the phrase, “No thank you. I don’t care for that.” Model the same behavior when you are eating together.

Clean up

Get your child involved in cleaning up meals as early as you can. Talk about uneaten food and how it’s wasted. Even with very young children, ask them (in a simple way) what they would change about the meal to make everyone happy. Your child’s answer might surprise you.

Shopping and Gardening

Odds are you have your child with you in the grocery store more often than not. Have them help make decisions about what to buy. Talk about why you say no to certain foods – keep it short and they’ll remember. Start a small garden – a container on the patio or a small plot. Let your child get good and muddy and help you plant herbs, vegetables, melons, whatever you like. Have them be an active participant in checking and caring for the garden. Kids are far more likely to at least try things they’ve had a hand in growing.

Fine Tune

Take some time to learn about yourself. What sets you off? Some people have a hard time with wasted food. Others find the defiance offensive. Figure out what your triggers are and develop some coping strategies BEFORE they become an issue. Take the steps you must to avoid making yourself anxious before a meal.

Monitor Your Own Habits

If you regularly say things like “I can’t eat that” or “I can’t believe I just at that, know that your child is hearing you whether he lets you know or not. Don’t label any food good or bad. If there are things you know you can’t eat, make yourself say “No thanks, I don’t care for that.” Model what you want your child to do.

Work With the Numbers

During your child’s years at home you are going to meet a lot of kids and a lot of parents. Serious food allergies aside, your attitude toward food you serve your child’s friends and the food your child gets when visiting friends can become an issue. Odds are your child will be served something you would never buy or serve – just let it go. If, as the kids get older, it becomes an issue, try to make your home the play place of choice.

Remember – most adults do not scream or cry when they learn that Brussel sprouts are being served for dinner. Most adults probably did carry on a bit when they were 2-4. It’s a learning process. You’ll get the hang of it and your child will too. Really.

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