Family Anyone who takes care of toddlers will tell you that mealtime can be quite a challenge. Read on for tips in maintaining peace at mealtime, as well as some reassurance that your child won't voluntarily waste away to nothing!

Make Dinner, Not War

"If you clean your plate, you can watch TV."

"No dessert until you eat your vegetables."

"You'll just sit here all night until you finish that broccoli, (or spinach, or liver)."

Sound familiar?

No doubt you heard threats like this as a child. But food should be used as nourishment, not punishment. And mealtime should be a time for peaceful conversation, not an ongoing battle about food. Along with a variety of healthful foods, a pleasant atmosphere at mealtime contributes both to good nutrition and to healthful eating habits.

What's a Parent to Do?

First, recognize that all children exhibit what adults consider to be peculiar eating behaviors. Don't take it personally. Childhood food binges, self-induced food strikes, and offensive table manners are all part of normal development in very young children. Children use the table and the refrigerator as a stage for flaunting their independence. Sometimes food isn't the issue at all, it’s who is boss. You are the boss, but don’t lose power by getting into battles you can’t win. Food battles, for example.

Second, realize that most of the frustrating food behaviors noted in toddlers stem from the deceleration in their growth rate. After a very rapid growth spurt in the first year and a half of life, growth tapers off and appetites decrease. Don't expect a 3-year-old to eat as voraciously as an infant or to eat adult-sized portions. If your child is growing normally and you are providing a variety of healthful foods, let her appetite govern her intake. Remember too that kids’ appetites vary unpredictably. A finicky appetite this week may become a giant one next week.

You may be concerned that your child is always snacking, but never seems to finish a meal. Children have small stomachs and short attention spans. Providing three meals a day has no real nutritional benefit—it's simply a social custom. Try offering your child six small meals a day (grazing) instead. You'll be surprised at how well he eats! He'll be less overwhelmed by the more manageable portions, and can then run back to whatever he was doing before.

Food Jags, Short-Order Cook Syndrome, and Other Common Behaviors

Many children will exhibit unusual eating patterns and behaviors at some time in toddlerhood. For example:

Food Jags

Your child eats only two or three foods, meal after meal. For some unknown reason, the food of choice is usually something healthful—milk, yogurt, raisins, or eggs. Just allow her to eat out her "jag," but continue to offer other foods at each meal as well. After a few days, or maybe even a few weeks, she'll likely try some of the other foods you've made available. Continue to offer the "jag" food for as long as she wants it, though.

Short-Order Cook Syndrome

Your child blatantly refuses to eat what is served. This is most often a play for attention. What's more comforting than an adult who jumps up throughout the meal to prepare something he might like better? Your best solution? Sit down and relax. Have already prepared foods he likes (bread, rolls, vegetable sticks, or fruit) available at all times. Be supportive, but set some limits. Don't jump through hoops to cook something else that he might like. If he doesn't eat this time, he'll eat next time. He won't starve.

Whining and Complaining

"I hate chicken!" whines your child, hurling it to the floor. This is inappropriate behavior and requires some attention on your part. You can start by suggesting that your child eat the other foods on the table. The potatoes perhaps, or maybe the green beans. If he cannot behave properly and/or chooses not to eat, then he should leave the table. Don't give him food to go or allow him to return for dessert. He'll just have to wait until the next planned snack time (which is probably only an hour or so away). If you consistently enforce this strategy, he'll eventually learn what's expected of him.

White Food Diet

Your child's diet consists solely of bread, potatoes, pasta, and milk. So what? If she’s growing normally you have more to gain from living with this diet for a while than from fighting it. That covers most of the major food groups of the food pyramid. Aside from being a bit bland on the palate, there's nothing inherently wrong with this combination. Avoid pressuring her to eat other foods. Calling attention to finicky eating habits only reinforces them. Continue to offer a variety of foods, especially those that are bright-colored. Most children are eventually lured in by the hues of cherry tomatoes, watermelon, or carrot sticks. Eating quirks in young children rarely last for long, and a doctor-recommended vitamin supplement can put your nutrition worries to rest.

Fear of New Foods

Your child adamantly refuses to try anything that he hasn't eaten before. This is really pretty normal. It may take many exposures to a new food before a child is ready to taste it, and many more before he actually likes it. Don't force the issue. Just offer the food again some other time. Think about it. How many times did you refuse a particular food before you finally tried it (and liked it!)

Which brings us to a good point. Think of your child as having the same needs and desires as your own. Do you enjoy eating when you don't feel well? Neither does he. Are you put off by portions that are overwhelming in size? So is she. Do you crave comfort foods for days on end? Well, so do they. Respect those wishes and you'll have much of the frustration under control.

How Do I Know They're Eating Enough?

Growth is a good guide here. If your child is consistently at or above the 50th percentile, growing steadily along at an appropriate height and weight, they're doing just fine. Use the MyPyramid for Kids guide as a rough measure of how well your kids are eating. Remember that these are just guidelines—there is no need to panic if all groups aren't consumed every day. If your child dislikes vegetables, try fruit instead. If she won't drink milk, maybe she'll eat cottage cheese. And if he won't or can't eat meat, there's nothing wrong with peanut butter or tuna fish.

Do as I Do, Not Just as I Say

It's important to remember that children are the best judges of how much they should eat. Parents are the best judges of what they should eat. Adults are not responsible for how much a child eats, or even if he eats. They are, however, responsible for providing the basics of good nutrition. Here are seven steps to help children eat better and prevent arguments over food.

  1. Prepare children for meals. A 5-minute warning before mealtime lets them calm down, wash their hands, and get ready to eat.
  2. Buy only the foods you want your child to eat.
  3. Don't worry if your child skips a meal.
  4. Let children make their own food choices from the good choices you provide.
  5. Serve regular meals and snacks.
  6. Make mealtime pleasant.
  7. Teach good manners at the table.

Happy encounters with food at any age help set the stage for sensible eating habits in the future. Handling food and eating situations calmly and positively encourages healthful food choices and fosters a warm, trusting home environment.