I’m often asked for tips on how to get children to eat. In theory, parents are supposed to put a variety of healthy foods in front of their child and the child is supposed to eat enough to meet his or her needs. However, the truth is that all parents (myself included), worry that their children are not consuming enough vegetables, fruit, milk or even food in general. This can result in a tendency to shove food in front of our children, convinced that they need the nutrition. Here are four questions to help parents get to the heart of the problem:
How much do you think your child should be eating? On average, toddlers need about a quarter of an adult serving. With this in mind, is your child really not eating enough? Or are they just not polishing off their plate the way an adult or older child might? To gauge whether your child is eating enough, keep tabs on their growth. A well-rounded growth curve will provide you with the evidence you need for peace of mind. If your child’s weight is not keeping pace, speak to your pediatrician.
Is your child snacking or drinking more than they should? It’s easy to forget how much we give our children to nibble on throughout the day. Sometimes a child can snack their way through the equivalent of a full meal (or two) in quantity, if not in quality. If you try instituting a "no snack policy" within an hour of mealtimes, you might see an improvement in eating habits. Drinks are also common culprits – milk, and especially juice and soda pop, can fill little tummies rapidly. Prolonged use of bottles and sippy cups make it much easier for kids to drink too much; as the child gets older, their use should be limited to prevent continuous sipping.
What are your own serving sizes? "Portion distortion" is a key phrase. In recent years, portion sizes have grown tremendously. To help bring your child’s servings under control, a portion size of anything should be one tablespoon per year of age. So if your child is two, it works out to two tablespoons of whatever is on offer. Take vegetables as an example: The recommended 2-3 servings of vegetables a day for a 2-year-old could be covered by two medium broccoli florets and a few peas at lunch, plus one skinny stalk of asparagus and a sprinkle of peas at dinner.
How strong is your resolve? Children are smart – they’ll hold out for something better if they think they can get it. Parents who are concerned that their child is not eating enough at mealtimes often settle for something over nothing. They fall into the trap of offering alternate foods, whether they be after-meal treats or simply providing an alternative every time the child balks at certain foods. Try to stick to a "what you see is what you get" approach and you’ll see a big reduction in your child’s unreasonable mealtime demands. Don’t be afraid to call your child’s bluff. If he or she wants to skip a meal in protest, it’s okay. Just be sure to keep the meal handy and warm in case they change their mind – and plan something different for the next meal.
Got a question? Singaporean Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.