Your preschooler is growing. And she has lots of energy, but quite frankly you don't understand how. She rarely eats and when she does it's much of the same -- two chicken nuggets, a few pieces of macaroni or a half a peanut butter sandwich. Try offering her something else and she refuses. If you insist that she sit at the table and finish her meal, she can sit for hours, pushing her food from one side of the plate to another.
For the parents of picky eaters, meal times can be some of the most frustrating parts of the day. And there is good reason to be concerned. Food behavior patterns that begin in childhoood last a lifetime. But before you panic confirm with your child's pediatrican -- is she underweight? Are there underlying health issues you need to address? The answer is likely no. It's normal for kids between the ages of 2 and 4 to go through a picky-eating-stage for a number of reasons.
- For a preschooler, especially one on the younger side, it's all about the familiar. They want what they know and a new food is something they don't know and don't want to try. If it looks and smells funny, it probably tastes funny too. And besides, your preschooler is likely thinking, why do I have to try this new thing when I like my string beans just fine?
- She might not be hungry. It's hard to believe, especially when she's consumed so little, but some kids just don't need to eat a lot. When your child is a baby, she's growing at an amazing rate, but once a kid hits 2 or 3, they slow down and their appetite reflects that. Plus, she's got a small belly and it doesn't take that much to fill it. That's why it's so important that the foods you choose will nourish her body. Think about it this way. Your child's stomach is about the size of her fist -- not so big is it?
- As your child grows and matures, she starts to realize that she has an opinion and she can voice it. Refusing to eat or only eating certain foods is a way of exerting her newfound power. This is common and often reaches into other areas of development like temper tantrums and going to sleep at night.
So what's a frazzled parent to do? First off, relax. This, like all the other rites of preschoolerhood will pass. But in the meantime, there are some steps you can take to make the most of what your child does eat.
Serve the right foods, cooked the right way. Stock your fridge and pantry with lots of nutrition-packed goodness like fruits, vegetables, granola bars, whole grains. Foods that taste good and are visually appealing are not hard to come by. When you prepare meals, make sure you are cooking as healthily as possible -- steam, bake, broil and grill when you can, try to avoid frying.
Take it one step at a time. Young preschoolers tend to be myopic in their food choices. They find one they like and that's the favorite for a while. That's OK as long as it's a healthy choice. Be sure to be constantly offering new foods, but don't give up if it's rejected. Keep at it. Studies have shown that a new food needs to be offered up to ten times before a child will try it.
Give in to her grazing. Little ones are always on the go. There's lots to see and do and honestly, who has time to eat when those cool blocks are sitting over there just waiting to be stacked? Instead of forcing your child to sit down and eat, take advantage of her on-the-go lifestyle. Offer small portions of healthy snacks like apple wedges, banana wheels, pieces of avocado, small slices of hard-boiled eggs, and put them on a table at her level. As she wanders the house, it's likely she'll stop and snack once in a while. (Be sure to check the food after about an hour, especially if you put perishables out.)
Make it fun. Make dips, toppings and spreads a regular part of her mealtime routine. Teach her how to spread peanut butter or cream cheese onto rice cakes or celery. She'll feel independent and will likely eat her creation. Serve everything with small cups of ranch dressing or yogurt.
Start off small. If you place heaping portions on your child's dinner plate, she's likely to become overwhelmed. Instead, start her off with small amounts, only giving her more if she asks. To encourage her to keep nibbling, give her a challenge. Say, "How many bites do you think you can eat? One more, two more?" This puts the ball back in her court in terms of what she wants to eat, but you are able to closely monitor what exactly she's taking in.
Make calories count. You are going for quality, not quantity here. Popular foods with the young set that are nutrient-dense include avocados, whole-grain pasta, broccoli, peanut butter, brown rice, cheese, chicken, turkey, eggs and yogurt.
Most of all, remember that this is just a phase. As your child grows and expands her horizons, so will her food choices.
For more great ideas, check out the best ways to deal with picky eaters.