Picky Kids: Tips from a Fellow Mom

As I picked up my toddler from day care this evening, the day care provider was concerned that he hadn't eaten his lunch today. She let me know that he really didn't like ravioli and that I should not send it again.

While I appreciate and understand her concern, I can't help but wonder if this is just one more episode of my toddler exerting his independence or if he is really on a hunger strike. After all, he had eaten the exact same lunch the week before.

Children, especially at certain ages, will develop food jags in which their food preferences become unpredictable and sometimes difficult to manage. They frequently refuse the food that is offered, eating only what and when they want. As parents, should you be concerned about erratic eating behaviors and what sometimes appears to be inadequate intake in young children? Not necessarily.

Some children develop feeding disorders that manifest themselves in a variety of ways, such as chewing and swallowing problems or refusal behaviors (persistent head-turning, spitting, intentional gagging or vomiting). When children demonstrate these types of behaviors consistently and are unable to gain or maintain weight despite being offered their regular diet, the problem is more serious and needs to be explored.

Feeding disorders can occur for different reasons. The child could be experiencing pain when he eats or may have a developmental disorder that may be affecting his diet. In other cases, the problem may be psychological. Whatever the reason, if you suspect your child may have a feeding disorder, you should seek help from experts, starting with your child's pediatrician.

If you think that your child's food aversions, feeding battles, and tantrums are just part of normal development, you may just need to wait it out. Children will go through phases of eating only one food or not wanting the fruits and vegetables they loved as infants. Here are some tips for making mealtimes more manageable for all of you:

  • Give your child what he or she is asking for. It is OK to continue to offer healthier selections, but don't force your child to take them. I find that if I offer something my son wants alongside the healthier selection, he may well end up eating both.

  • Make mealtimes interesting. Add sprinkles to yogurt or use cookie cutters to make a sandwich more exciting.

  • Encourage your children to participate in meal preparation. If they have a vested interest in the meal, they may be more likely to eat it.

  • Use snacks to offer items that your child may not accept at mealtimes. In our house, cheese is offered as a healthy snack and is well accepted.

After two years of not having a clue about what my son wants to eat and what he is trying to say, I am relieved these days when he actually asks for yogurt or crackers -- and, of course, I cater to his requests.