Feeding small children can be frustrating.  They seem to be constantly hungry, except not for the dinner you just spent 45 minutes preparing.  One day they love meat but the next they won’t touch it. And let’s not even talk about vegetables!

Parents spend the first year of a child’s life very aware of their nutrient intake and growth.   It’s no wonder that when our children become more picky eaters starting in toddlerhood we worry. Peaceful mealtimes give way to bribes, threats, and a steady diet of mac’n’cheese.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are five guidelines for feeding young kids without losing your mind.

**These guidelines apply to typical, healthy children.  Some children may have a medical, oral-motor, or developmental issue that requires more specific therapy.

  1. The Division of Responsibility: Parents Provide, Children Decide

Parents are responsible for what, when and where to eat.  That means you choose the foods your family eats, you decide where your family eats (preferably at the table), and you set a regular meal and snacking schedule.

Children are ALWAYS responsible for how much and whether to eat.  Children are intuitive eaters and will eat the amount of food that is right for them.  

  1. Keep your emotions in check

Providing a peaceful mealtime is more important than micromanaging your child’s diet. During peaceful mealtimes you’ll model proper eating behaviors and ultimately your children will follow suit.  Use these six magic words if your child says they don’t want to eat something: “You don’t have to eat it”. No begging, bribing, or bargaining. Respect your child’s ability to know their body.

  1. The science of young children’s nutritional needs

From toddlerhood on children grow at a slower, steadier pace until they hit puberty.  A drop in appetite, especially for toddlers and preschoolers, is normal development and called “catch down growth.”  Healthy children will not starve as long as food is available to them.

  1. Offer, offer, offer. Variety, variety, variety

The research is very clear.  It may take 20 or more exposures before a child will try a new food.  Keep offering a variety of foods, serving the types of foods that your family likes to eat.  Eventually they’ll eat like you do, as long as you haven’t made mealtimes a huge battle.

  1. Structure your day for success

Keeping a schedule of snack and meal times can be very helpful to establishing good eating habits.  Kids and adults should come to each meal hungry. Between set meal and snack times, only allow your children to have water.  Liquid calories are an easy way to ruin dinner (and teeth!).

At each meal always have some food you know your child likes.  Eat at the table and eat together as a family as much as possible.  When planning meals and snacks, make sure to provide nutrient dense foods.  Well balanced meals and snacks will keep them fuller longer. Also consider offering “forbidden” foods occasionally, not as a bribe but just as a part of the meal.  Children who have healthy exposure to unhealthy foods treat them more appropriately as teens and adults.

For more information, I recommend the website https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/ or the book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School by Maryann Jacobsen and Jill Castle.

Emily Anderson, RN

Chaffee County Public Health