Four-year-old Megan won’t eat any green food, calling it “yucky.” Six-year-old Cole refuses to drink his milk and gags if his parents try to make him. Eight-year-old Ella refuses to eat at mealtime, so her parents give her a peanut butter sandwich every night. Nine-year-old Shawn has trouble sitting at the table and is constantly bouncing, standing up and wiggling.
It’s a bit of a mystery why some kids eat just about anything and others are very selective in their eating. Eating behaviors can be affected by developmental stages, a need for attention and control, or taste and smell sensitivities.
Having a basic understanding of nutritional needs is especially important for parents of young children. Because of our society’s eating habits, children are at a higher risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Even though childhood obesity rates have leveled off a bit, we still can do a better job teaching kids eating habits that will promote good health during their lifetimes.
By age 4 or 5, eating habits are established and some kids have learned that they can get attention or feel power by refusing to eat. The less attention these behaviors get, the better. So when Megan starts her “yucky” talk, simply smile and change the subject, but keep putting a small amount of green food on her plate. Talk with other family members about the green food in a pleasant way — where it came from, its texture, etc.
Ella’s parents may have to rethink mealtime to expand her eating. To avoid her demands for peanut butter at every meal, give her small portions of the food being served in addition to one fourth of a peanut butter sandwich. If she’s still hungry, simply say, “This is what we are having for dinner tonight.”
Some children, like Shawn, may have a very active temperament, which can make it hard to sit still. Consider a swivel chair that lets Shawn move. Or, simply tolerate his movement.
Kids like Cole, who have tried a food a number of times and still refuse it, may simply not like it. We all have foods we don’t like (mine is Brussels sprouts). Sometimes refusing to eat a certain food could indicate a food intolerance. I used to make my daughter drink her milk until she told me that after she has milk her stomach hurts. I realized that there are a number of people in my family with lactose sensitivity and that might be the problem.
Make mealtime pleasant. Sit down as a family as often as you can. Avoid arguing and criticizing at mealtime. Instead, try for smiling faces and interesting conversation. My family always shared our “highlight of the day.” You can make “conversation cards” with interesting questions that each person answers. Invest in a set of “trivia” cards with interesting facts. Turn off all screens during mealtime.
- Teach kids the main food groups: protein, grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy. Identify the food groups on the plate each night and what they do for our bodies.
- Avoid talking about whether or not food “tastes good.” Instead, talk about color (green cucumbers), temperature (cool olives), texture (crunchy crackers), etc.
- Avoid using food as a reward or a punishment. We eat to nourish our bodies. When parents give too much attention to or make too much fuss about how much or what their child eats, the child may use eating to get attention or gain control.
- Avoid praising children for the amount they eat. “Good boy! You ate five pancakes!” Comments like that can reward overeating.
- Get rid of the “clean your plate” rule. We want children to listen to their bodies and stop eating when they are full. This is called self-regulation. Eating when you are no longer hungry leads to overeating. No one wants to waste food, so start with small servings of a few tablespoons.
- Visit the grocery store or farmers’ market with your children. Let them pick out a new vegetable, fruit or other healthy food to try. Look up recipes for using the food and prepare it together.
- When you prepare a new food or use a new recipe, give the kids “comment” cards to rate the food. Kids love to give their opinions!
- Forcing kids to eat usually doesn’t turn out well. You can ask everyone to take a “thank you bite” to thank the farmer for growing the food, the grocery store for selling the food, and the cook for cooking the food. This can be as little as one pea or one tiny bite of meat. Try not to make a big deal out of this. When you say things like, “It’s good, isn’t it?” or “You liked it, didn’t you?” kids will feel trapped and embarrassed. This leads to refusing food just to be right.
- Older children can occasionally prepare all or part of the meal as long as they can do it safely.
- Plan meals together as a family so children get input into what will be served.
- Monitor snacking. Kids who snack all day or drink too much juice and milk between meals won’t be hungry for mealtime. Teach kids to drink water between meals. You can add some crushed berries to the water for flavor. Remember that snacks and treats are different. Treats are OK once in a while. Snacks should be mini meals containing at least two food groups.
- Remember, your pediatrician or health care provider will be your best source of information on your child’s growth and development. Contact them if you have questions.
For more information on this topic, visit AveraChildrens.org.
View our Feeding Guide for Young Children with great information on food groups, serving sizes and mealtime tips.