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Why Won't My Toddler Eat?

Joshua is a fussy eater
Joshua is a fussy eater
Howard Dickins

All of a sudden, your child who used to be a great eater suddenly changes his pattern. Foods that he used to like are no longer eaten. His diet becomes very limited and you begin to have problems finding anything that he wants to eat. Now you begin to worry and wonder if he is getting enough good nutrition. Will he lose weight? Mealtimes become a source of stress and argument. What's a parent to do?

First, don't worry. This is typically normal for a child turning two according to Annabel Karmel, author of First Meals. She states that "refusing food is one of the first ways young children can flex their muscle and assert their drive for independence." Mealtimes can become one of the biggest sources of stress as children learn that they can manipulate you at the table. Parents will jump through hoops trying to get their child to eat, using bribery, cooking anything tempting that they can think of, and even using threats to accomplish the goal of getting some food into their child.

Next, stay calm. Remember that over the course of a few days, it is likely that your child is getting enough good nutrition and eating a somewhat balanced amount of food. Don't use food as a punishment or a reward, habits that can rear their heads again later in life and possibly cause real nutrition problems. Meals should not be bargaining chips to get your child to do what she is told and she will quickly learn that she will win simply by closing her mouth and turning her head away from your attempts.

Don't be concerned if your child seems fixed on only certain foods such as peanut butter sandwiches. Use the healthiest bread such as whole wheat, try different toppings such as banana slices or raisins, and give her a glass of milk or orange juice to go along with it. It's surprising how much nutritional value is now in that sandwich. Keep offering alternate choices but don't despair if they are refused. Eventually she will begin to become bored with her limited choices and will begin to accept the new foods.

Once you have offered a specific food a number of times and your child continues to reject it, it is most likely that he really doesn't like it. Please remember that you also don't like certain foods and do your best to respect your child's choices. You will be able to tell if your child is just being stubborn or really does not like a certain food. And if it is something that really should be in his diet, there are ways to disguise it, such as grinding up vegetables in spaghetti sauce. You might find that your child rejects meat and if this is the case, it is not essential that he eat meat as long as the nutrition he would get from it is replaced by other foods such as milk and dairy products, beans, or soy based products. And again, you can disguise the meat by grinding it up because it may be the texture rather than the taste that he doesn't like.

By allowing your child some independence in the process, such as choosing her vegetable out of a few choices, you allow her to have some control and autonomy in a small way. Perhaps she can help with some of the food preparation or shopping. Keep portions small and give seconds if requested.

Keep mealtimes pleasant and sociable. Set the example. Eat at the table, have a routine, allow your child to help set the table, or perhaps carry unbreakables to the dishwasher. Avoid distractions like the television and don't have meals so late that your child is tired and cranky.

Avoid giving multiple snacks throughout the day and definitely no soda or candy. Keep a log of just what he is eating so as to reassure yourself that there is some nutritional balance. Remember that your child is still very young and may like to play with the food a bit, which should be allowed within reason. Give small servings, perhaps in his special dish and cup, and keep it unbreakable in case it hits the floor.

For more reading about child development, check out your local library or travel to Millville to Bogart's Books. And, remember that parent's are their child's first teacher so you set the tone and example for mealtimes.