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Enjoy Eating:

Helping Your Child To Enjoy Eating

Around the beginning of your child's second year, eating may become a problem between you and your child. Changes in eating patterns begin to occur when a child is around 14 months old and may continue through the first three years of life.

Though normal, these changes can make life difficult and frustrating for awhile. As parents, we often think eating well is the same as developing well and we become worried that our children aren't getting enough of the "right" food.

Around this age, your child's growth spurt usually slows down, and he often needs to eat less. Also, it's typical for children of this age to begin to have very strong ideas about what they like to eat and just how they like to eat it.

It's important to realize that a toddler needs to begin to make decisions for himself, and there just aren't many ways she can control what happens to her. Eating or not eating is one choice she can make. Instead of fighting your child, we suggest joining her. We think that parents should let a child this age decide when to eat and how much to eat. Your child should also get the food into her mouth, by herself.

Children of this age want to be in control. Now we're not talking about letting your child go wild. You must have the choice of what kinds of food you will allow your child to eat. But give him the choice of when and how much he eats and let him choose not to eat something that you allow. For example, if you put out cheese and he doesn't like it, that's OK. He doesn't have to eat it.

Our eating routine is fairly simple. You choose whatever food you feel okay about. Finger-type foods are good- cheeses, banana bits, or cereal pieces. Put several different kinds of foods on a small tray, place it on a low table, and let your child know that this is his special place--that he can help himself to whatever he feels like eating. You should make sure that the table has enough food on it. And try not to comment on his eating, or not eating. Leave the tray there all day. Remember that you are choosing the food -- it's food that you feel comfortable with. If the food needs to be refrigerated, you'll have to watch it. You might need to switch those foods every so often, and put some back in the refrigerator.

At regular mealtimes you can have him sit at his place and offer him a regular meal. If he doesn't want to eat, don't make a big thing of it. And don't force him to sit there during mealtime just because it is scheduled time for you. He can leave the table, and if you want to, you can give him some toys to play with. Don't worry that he will get used to eating whenever he wants to and that he'll never develop the idea of eating with the family. Once he feels that you are letting him decide about his own food, and the tension eases, he will choose to be with you again. Basically, children like to please their parents and want to do what their parents are doing.
You'll know if he is getting enough to eat by keeping a record of what he eats. You can count how many carrot sticks you put on the tray, for example, and see how many are gone by the end of the day. Sometimes, parents think their child isn't eating anything, but when they start counting and recording what is eaten, they realize that things are going quite well.

The goal here is to take off the pressure that can build between you and your child. These suggestions will help you create a situation where your child gets good nutrition, while he also begins to feel good about taking responsibility for himself. You have control over what is on the tray. Your toddler decides what and when to eat, and how much. You would be amazed at how little children of this age can eat and still be well nourished. Toddlers really only need 1 pint of milk, two ounces of protein that contains iron, like eggs or meat, and one ounce of orange juice or fruit each day. You may also check to see if your pediatrician wants your child to have vitamins.
In a well-known study, it was discovered that babies who were allowed to choose for themselves from a range of nutritious foods, instinctively choose well-balanced diets--perhaps not at each meal, but over a period of time. Our eating routine allows a child to rely on instinct--what his body needs and how hungry he is. You as a parent give up some control, while your child begins to experience some freedom of choice. In this way, struggles become fewer.

Often the way you as a parent think about your own weight affects the way you feel about your child's eating habits. For example, parents who used to have weight problems may try to prevent this happening in their children by controlling food very strictly. Many times parents have special problems with overeating because they have struggled with their own weight and don't want their children to have the same problem. Almost any issue can start a struggle going between a parent and a child who's two and a half and starting to be independent. And usually its over what worries the parent the most--in some cases, overeating, that can become the area of struggle.

It's also difficult when a toddler wants to feed himself and the mess that happens as a result, especially when you want your house to be reasonably neat and clean. It may help if you stop to think that learning to feed yourself is a big achievement. So even though it's messy, it's important for your child to try to feed himself. Rest assured that the messiness only lasts for a few months.

During this phase, you need to develop the patience to let your child try out his new skill. For awhile, it will mean more cleaning up. But, like walking, he can't go from being fed by someone else to being perfectly neat while feeding himself. We're not suggesting he be allowed to eat any place in the house. You can limit eating to the kitchen and the dining room table, or wherever it's comfortable for you.

Try not to go to restaurants that aren't set up for young children. And try to avoid dressing your child in fancy clothes for mealtime. Also, safety is very important. Use unbreakable dishes on the table, and be sure to serve small portions. If there's too much, he'll be more tempted to play with it.

A note about sweets. We're not nutritionists so we don't give advice about the nutritional value of food. However, we've observed that holding back on all sweets tends to create a longing for them. Also, sweets seem to have a special attraction for kids. If you forbid sweets, your child is likely to feel very different from other children. She might imagine that she's being punished when she sees other children eating them when she can't.

If there's a medical reason for the child not having sweets, follow your doctor's advice. But if there is no medical problem, we find that allowing some sweets is the best way to avoid making an issue of it. But if parents do not believe in allowing sugar, in the absence of a medical problem, and they ask our opinion, we suggest that they relax this rule and let their children have some sweets.

If you would like guidance on this or any other non-medical child development question, and you live in the Los Angeles area, you can call the Warm Line free of charge at 310-281-9770. A child development specialist will return your call within just a couple of days.

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>> Choosing a Pediatrician
>> Toilet Training
>> The Security Blanket
>> The Hospital Visit
>> Head Banging
>> Enjoy Eating
>> Over Eating
>> Sleeping Well
>> Sleep Disruptions
>> Medical Emergency
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>> Temper Tantrums
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Early Childhood Parenting Center  /  1440 Harvard Street  /  Santa Monica, CA 90404  /  Phone: (310) 281-9770  / Los Angeles Parenting Classes and Groups