Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mercy for Mealtime: Feeding Young Children and Picky Eaters

Mealtime with kids can be a lot of fun. They say funny things. They make you laugh. They ask a whole bunch of questions, almost always while you're right in the middle of chewing your food or in mid-sentence talking with your husband.   They share their thoughts, and it's fun to hear their personalities develop.

Mealtime with kids can also be incredibly tough. There's the spilling, the throwing, the constant up and down on our parts as mom (more milk, more ketchup, more paper towels to wipe up the spilled milk...). Then there's the picky eating--"I don't want a turkey sandwich. I want PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY!"
Do you give in to these whims? Absolutely not.

"But if I don't give him peanut butter and jelly, he'll go hungry." That's right. But here's the key--he'll eat again in a few hours. If he chooses not to eat the snack you make, you'll make him dinner in a few more hours. Chances are, by then, he'll be so hungry he won't care anymore that he doesn't really like tuna casserole; it will be his tummy's new best friend (although if your child has been on a picky streak and hasn't eaten much in a day, I would recommend making something that you know he likes for dinner).

Once, when I went through a nutrition class through our university's cooperative extension service, I learned some tips for feeding young children that helped me immensely. I hope they help you too.

Divisions of Parent-Child Responsibilities When it Comes to Eating:

Parent's responsibilities:
  • Respect the child's ability to know when he is hungry and full.
  • Make sure to serve small, child-sized portions
  • Prepare and serve healthy meals and snacks
  • Set regular meal and snack times
As the parent, you decide:
  • What food will be given (making sure it is nutritious)
  • When it will be given (making sure it is provided every few hours)
  • Mealtime rules and where food will be given
The child decides:
  • What, out of what is given, he or she will eat
  • How much, out of what is given, he or she will eat  
End of struggle. For good. This really works. I've been following Ellen Satter's wisdom for feeding young children for the past several years. It's common-sense, it eliminates almost every food battle, and my boys are learning to be pretty good eaters (that's a boy thing, I know). :) In the event one of them is picky at mealtime and doesn't eat too much, I don't stress about it too much. Maybe the picky jag will even last a day or two, but eventually, he will get really hungry, he will eat, and it will end.

The other key to success with this program is to make sure there is at least one food at every meal your child will eat (as in, he likes). Often times, this can be bread. Bread three times a day for several days is not very balanced, I know. But again, eventually, he will get sick of eating only bread and will decide to venture into uncharted territory and try other foods. And it will be without a control struggle. That works for me.

I'll be posting more tips for feeding young children in the next few days. You can even call it a series if you want to. :)


  1. ya, if they dont eat they will eventually! If my kids dont eat, then no dessert, and wait till the next meal! If that's the case, I offer a healthy snack in between, but no junk food until they eat! I dont want all sugar in my little guys, but I want them to enjoy a treat when they deserve it! When they dont eat something, sometimes I wrap it up, and ask if they want to eat it later, and a lot of times they do, and will! But one rule, they are not allowed to leave the table while we are eating. I want my family together, no one is allowed to leave until we are all done :0) When it comes to throwing, that's funny because Jake is TERRIBLE at throwing food. After breakfast, he was on the floor cleaning up all the food that he threw! He's slowly throwing less and less when he sees that he gets to clean up his mess! ha!

  2. Every night when I put my 3 year old to bed he tells me how hungry he is. I really think it is just a stall tactic for him. He certainly eats enough at dinner and his snack that I don't know how he could be hungry. But still there is part of me that feels bad telling him he cannot eat anymore and to have a drink of water if he is "so hungry". I explain to him to eat more during the day so he won't be hungry at bed time, but it is the same situation every night. Ahhh, the joys of motherhood!

  3. For me setting regular meal and snack times really helps. My kids were just grazing all day it seemed. Now we have set times for meals and snacks. If they don't like what I'm serving then they don't eat till the next scheduled time.

  4. The tip of always having something at the meal that the child enjoys is invaluable. That is the only way I survive experimenting with new foods. Froggy rarely eats a new food stuff the first time it is served so I need to serve it lots of time before she will eat it.

    Our guarenteed food is rice and keem rather than bread.

  5. I totally agree and have found some of these already work great for my son. He is 13 months and ate anything until a couple of months ago, but we decided early on that if he was hungry, he would eat! And he does, even the same meal he refused earlier when he just wanted to be picky.
    Thanks for sharing!

  6. thank you, this was timely. :)

    Been trying to figure out how to continue to encourage my son to eat what he is offered.

  7. I can tell you that this won't make much difference with a severely autistic child with intense sensory issues that lead to a strong resistance to most foods. Our son had an oral-motor workout at the beginning of every school day with specialists, part of which included attempts to expose him to new tastes. They could usually (but not always) get him to look and smell the new food, and very occasionally he'd taste it. When he did, he usually wouldn't do more than that. I can't think of a single food after two years of this that he added to his very small repertoire of foods he'll actually eat.

    It's almost certain of most meals we serve that he won't eat it, and usually most of the alternatives that he might eat aren't going to get into him if we just give him one alternative option. Which things he'll eat will depend on a lot of factors, including mood, what else he's eaten that day, what kinds of sensory input he's gotten and how recently, and all sorts of other things that are virtually unquantifiable. If we don't want him raiding the kitchen and getting unhealthy things, we usually have to take him through several choices before he'll settle on something he'll eat. Often he'll just go for one of his standards, but it's not uncommon that he'll push away seven or eight things offered to him even though he's obviously hungry and wants something. The trick is figuring out when it's just behavior (e.g. when he wants candy and is being stubborn) or when he's got a sensory need that isn't being met and wants that particular sensation for medically-caused reasons (e.g. he wants something long and stringy like plain pasta or Ramen noodles, something fine and soft like white rice, or something smooth and sweet that can sit in his mouth like jello or yogurt).

    That's not to say that this won't work with most kids, but I do think it can't be taken absolutely.