It's easy for mealtimes to degenerate into food struggles when parents obsess about each pea on their child's plate, so it's not a good policy to spend mealtimes counting them. If you pay too much attention to exactly what children consume, it's easy for food struggles to develop — and they are notoriously difficult to win. Parents can lead toddlers to vegetables, but even if they tried to force them down their throats, they can't keep them in their stomachs. Overall, the biggest impediment to a well-balanced diet is that bane of modern households: snacking.
It's not time for dinner, but your toddler is hungry. Should she have to wait? If the answer is “yes,” you risk sending the message that the clock is more important in determining her need to eat than the signals her tummy is sending. The goal, some nutritionists suggest, should be for toddlers to learn to tune in to their internal hunger cues, not ignore them.
Offer part of the regular meal in advance, like the salad or vegetables, so the child gets a nutritious snack and a head start on dinner. A child may turn up his nose at the chance to start on his soup before the rest of the family. But if he's hungry, he'll eat it. The trouble begins when the cook prepares special between-meal snacks to satisfy kiddie culinary whims.
The predictability of an unvarying menu can help anxious youngsters feel more secure. Refusing to eat anything except a few special dishes can also be a way of establishing personal control. There are two distinctly opposite, but equally valid, ways of approaching this problem.
Lots of books for toddlers deal with the issue of food.
The first way is to eliminate all food struggles by serving what your child wants. If a war for control is driving the resistance, catering to toddler demands eliminates the toddler's need to battle over food. Supplement his diet with vitamin tablets, milk, and fruit juice to maintain nutrition. Continue to make other foods available by placing them on his plate if he'll allow them to be there, or place them on a separate plate nearby. If both of those create upset, simply follow your normal serving procedures for the rest of the family. If your toddler does request something additional, dish out a serving. Studiously avoid questions about whether he likes it and comments about being glad that he's eaten something besides the usual. The goal is to not draw attention to his eating or make an issue of it, thereby preventing a basis for renewed resistance.
The second way is to ignore the child's demands, serve what you will, and wait until hunger motivates her to eat. The refusal to eat a well-balanced meal often stems from snacking. Some toddlers constrict their diets to the point that it seems that if it were up to them, they'd only eat one or two things — such as grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburgers, or a particular type of cereal — three meals a day, everyday. “If I don't fix what she wants, she wouldn't eat anything,” their parents claim.
But how true is that, really? The bottom line is that many youngsters consume far more between meals than during them, so when breakfast, lunch, and dinner arrive, they can afford to be choosy. The surefire way to end eating jags and get the vast majority of toddlers to eat what they're served at meals is to stop fulfilling their desire for off-the-menu items and junk-food snacks.
Test of Wills
Many parents find that eliminating unscheduled snacking is easier said than done, however. Children's refusal to eat dinner means that they will be hungry soon after. If parents hold firm on their nothing-until-the-next-regularly-scheduled-meal-or-snack policy, they soon have a very cranky youngster on their hands. If they hold firm through the crankiness, they have a truly hungry child on their hands, and the “I hungry” wails can be wrenching enough to thaw the firmest parental resolve.
Children will not die of hunger from being put to bed without their dinner. Unless they are suffering from diabetes or another disorder, they won't end up nutritionally deficient, either. So if parents don't back down, the problem will be solved when the child sits down to breakfast with bona fide hunger pangs.
Autistic children often have very persistent food obsessions, but although this is rare, it is possible for any exceptionally strong-willed toddler to dig in his heels and reject food despite intense hunger. More often, it is the parents' fear that the child will die of malnutrition before deigning to eat a well-balanced meal that drives them to allow continuing between-meal snacks.
Passing on the Problems
A 2001 study in
Toddlers, like adults, will eat out of boredom. If the parent responds to requests for a snack by offering several healthy alternatives but the child refuses anything but a cookie, she's probably not hungry. An appealing activity or nap may do a better job of eliminating the crankiness.
Further, toddlers must be simultaneously nurtured (by being fed) and given firm limits (by restraining them in a high chair and keeping them from throwing food). Balancing the two is a heady emotional experience, and research shows that parents who had highly conflicted relationships with their own parents have a harder time filling both roles.
All the emphasis on food can make the toddler years particularly trying for adults with eating disorders. This is a good time to enter counseling, therapy, or join an Eaters Anonymous support group to get some real culinary help.
Some parents are determined never to allow candy to pass their children's lips so they won't develop a taste for sweets. Unfortunately, this strategy can backfire by imbuing creamy, crunchy, gooey, sugary foods with the heady mystique of the forbidden.
Although palates differ, anthropologists believe that the human love of sweets is inborn. Apparently our taste buds were designed to guide primitive humans toward edible, calorie-rich plants (typically sweet) and away from poisonous ones (generally bitter). Unless children are being raised on a desert island, sooner or later they will discover the wonders of cakes, candy bars, cookies, and pies. And if they have a normal set of taste buds, they will probably love them.
If a bank teller or doctor's receptionist offers your toddler a lollipop, jumping in to forbid the gift in the absence of a compelling reason may be exerting the kind of control that causes youngsters to work overtime to satisfy their in-born sweet tooth. (A compelling reason to step in would be if the child has a medical problem, such as diabetes or an allergy.) Certainly it is reasonable to insist toddlers wait to consume their gift until later. In doing so, parents may teach the most important lesson: it's okay to eat sweets at certain times. It's when they're consumed just “whenever” that they become a problem.
At least, that is the generally accepted wisdom from experts in the toddler nutrition field: monitor the consumption of “junk foods” at home and accept that standards will be lower outside of it. However, there may be merit to a stricter approach, given the exceptionally poor diets of most Americans, the rise in obesity and cholesterol in children, and the omnipresence of less-than-optimal food that subjects youngsters to continuing temptation.
Rather than satisfying the normal toddler urge to explore anything and everything with their mouths, some youngsters actually consume materials not meant to be ingested. Pica is a craving for unnatural foods or items such as soil, paint, string, cloth, hair — even feces and animal droppings. It is a desire for items that aren't food at all and have no nutritional value. Pica does not usually signal a deficiency of vitamins and minerals. It is most prevalent among mentally retarded youngsters, but can develop among otherwise normal youngsters, too. It typically occurs in children age eighteen months to two years, and parents must monitor these youngsters carefully to prevent them from satisfying their strange cravings. Pica usually only lasts a few months before disappearing on its own.
Children with rumination disorder vomit their food into their mouths without signs of nausea or retching or stomach upset. They may eject it from their mouths, or proceed to chew it again and swallow it without signs of disgust. It occurs most commonly among children with Sandifer's syndrome, esophageal reflux, and mental retardation, typically beginning between three and twelve months. Consult your pediatrician if your child shows signs of these disorders.