You start to notice your toddler or preschool child is avoiding meals. They've become picky and fussy about eating. They complain about food portions touching each other. They tell you they are no longer eating green or brown foods. They give excuses like being full or eating later.
Picky/Fussy eating is typical in toddlers and preschool-age children. Usually resolves itself by age 5.
Healthy snacks are a good backup for when kids display poor appetite at mealtime.
Talk to the child's pediatrician before starting vitamins and minerals. Supplements are not usually FDA regulated.
Share concerns about eating habits with the child's pediatrician or healthcare provider. The sooner, the better for a greater chance of recovery.
Yet, they never seem to refuse ice cream; they eat everything on the plate at a birthday party. It's typical for children's appetite to be inconsistent at this age, and usually, it resolves itself by age 5.
It is not unusual for toddlers and preschool-age children to display varying eating habits. They may not like trying new foods (neophobia) or only like eating one type of food, like pizza (food jags). The temporary phase may resolve as the child outgrows this short-lived period. In the meantime, how to increase their appetite?
Pointers on how to encourage eating
Two words: Break. Fast. Hence the word breakfast. Eating breakfast every day is important not just for adults but also for children. Breakfast is the first meal of the day for a child, and not only does it break the fast, but it might also trigger an increase in appetite. It's an excellent jump-start to their day.
Serve the right portion. A good gauge is one tablespoon of each food for the child's age. If they are 2, serve two tablespoons of each side dish. They get the opportunity to ask for more, and they're not turned off by seeing big portions on their plate.
Offer a "safe" food
Serve at least one, if not two, side dishes you know they will eat. The toddler or preschooler gets served something they like. Plus, they are less likely to leave the table on an empty stomach.
Keep meals at the same time, the same place. Let it be about coming together at the table to catch up and enjoy good food and great company.
A snack can be offered between meals but not too close to the next meal to avoid ruining their appetite.
Water 30 minutes before a meal
Water is essential in children and helps activate digestive juices and enzymes that increase appetite and aid digestion. It also helps promote the absorption of nutrients. Plus, it supports good hydration, another essential aspect of good health in children.
Be patient, be calm
Manage your expectations. Don't expect a 2 year old to be neat about eating or remember all the table manners they've learned. Keep it easy and stress-free.
Children pick up on their parent's mood. Keep mealtime light and relaxed. Avoid talking negatively or discouraging at the table. The more relaxed you are, the more comfortable the child is.
Healthy snacks between meals
Healthy snacks are an excellent tie-over until the next meal, or they can make up for the poor appetite displayed at mealtime. Offering a snack is okay if the next meal is a few hours away, but if it is within the next hour, hold off. The child might come to the table more hungry and more likely to eat.
Cut fruit and veggies bite size and keep them easy to grab, store, and pack. Yummy favorites are:
- Sliced apple wedges.
- Veggie sticks, like carrots.
- Celery with peanut butter.
- Low-fat string cheese.
- Strawberry halves.
- Whole grain crackers with peanut butter.
Keep healthy store-bought nibbles and treats like mini crackers, Jell-o, or squeeze yogurt in the pantry. They're handy for on-the-go kids and parents since they are single-packaged in small portions.
Get creative at mealtime
Creative measures help draw away from the tension and stress mealtime may cause a child who does not want to eat. An excellent visual example is the 1983 film, A Christmas Story. In the scene, "How do piggies eat?" Mom is playful and encouraging, and it works. It got messy, but the kid ate. Simpler, less messy measures to try:
- Design funny faces with the food on the child's plate.
- Introduce new foods mixed with sides they already like.
- Have a parent taste new food first, let the child see that mom/dad likes it, then offer it to them.
- Include a plate and cup set of their favorite cartoon or hero character at the table.
- Acknowledge your child for their positive eating habits.
- Make it a fun, relaxing, and enjoyable time to help ease the child's feelings toward eating.
Most children don't need vitamins if they eat a well-balanced diet, get plenty of exercise and sleep, and don't have dietary restrictions. However, picky eaters or children with allergies that limit what they can eat may lack essential nutrients in their daily nourishment. Taking vitamins and minerals may balance nutritional deficiencies.
Parents should consult the child's doctor before starting them on a vitamin or mineral. Supplements are not usually regulated and may do more harm than good; too much of a dose can harm the body.
If your child's doctor recommends a multivitamin, pick one for your child's age group that does not exceed the daily recommended value.
Eating disorder concerns
Eating disorders are irregular and disruptive eating habits, like anorexia and bulimia. Another eating disorder that usually starts at a younger age in children is Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
ARFID is an eating diagnosis of exceedingly picky eaters with very little interest in eating. They restrict intake to those foods they like, which may affect growth and nutrition. Smells, taste, texture, and even food color will prevent them from eating. Kids may be underweight or overweight because they only eat junk food. ARFID is more common in boys than girls and may start earlier than other eating disorders.
Parents should discuss their cause for concern regarding their child's eating habits with a pediatrician or healthcare provider. The doctor will collect medical history, eating and physical activity habits, and emotional health details relating to your child. The care team may include the child's doctor, dietitian, and a therapist specializing in eating disorders. The sooner treatment is started, the better chance for recovery.
As your child grows, they may start to push away their food and display gestures and symptoms of a picky and fussy eater. They may eat only one food or refuse the plate if the food portions touch each other. Typically, these are temporary behaviors they outgrow by age 5. For the time being, parents can make mealtime time something to look forward to in the day with a fun food presentation, relaxed mood, and favorite healthy food options. However, parents should talk to the child's pediatrician regarding concerns or worries about poor appetite or unusual eating habits. Early intervention may help prevent a possible eating disorder.