During preschool and kindergarten, children are broadening their experiences and learning rapidly. They become fiercely independent, wanting to serve themselves one day and steadfastly refusing to eat the next. Appetite fluctuations and strange food combinations, though unnerving, are common. After toddlerhood and before first grade, children are in the thinning out period - growing in height with a very slow growth in weight. They often eat very small amounts of food, especially when judged against adult portions. You are convinced that your child is starving. This starving child, however, is the picture of health, with boundless energy.
Young children are very reliable judges of how much they need to eat. Left to their own devices, without urging or coaxing, they will eat to appetite - eating when hungry and stopping when full. That's a habit many adults wish they had. Well-meaning parents often sabotage this natural appetite control by offering too much food and insisting on clean plates or worst yet, happy plates. This tells a child, loud and clear, that an unhappy plate (a full plate) is bad.
To a child between the ages of 4 and 6, he and his actions are one and the same. A bad act equals a bad child. Realistically, eating a certain food in a certain way has little to do with being good or bad. Parents often automatically classify food as good-for-you or bad-for-you. As adults this classification makes us feel virtuous or guilty for what we've eaten. A young child's reasoning capacity is not yet that sophisticated. Bad is bad, good is good - life is pretty black and white at this stage. If you eat a bad food you are bad. Eat a good food and you are good. Try not to classify foods.
How do you get your child to eat what's good for her? It is a simple question that doesn't have a simple answer. Here a few eating tips worth trying.
- Don't use food as a pacifier, reward or punishment. These gimmicks give food an emotional value that far outweighs their nutrition value.
- Don't worry about how little your child eats. A child will never starve himself. He'll eat when he is truly hungry, even if he skips a meal or two here and there. Keep in mind that the average child increases his weight 300% in the first year of life but only 12% a year between 3 and 5. This slower growth requires far less food. If your doctor reports that your child's growth is normal, he is eating enough.
- Set a good example. A young child is a reflection of his parents. If you eat erratically and make poor food choices how can you expect your child to do otherwise? Research has shown that vegetables kids like and dislike is directly related to what Dad eats. Dad the kids are watching you.
- Limit the amount of less desirable foods. Kids will happily eat cakes, cookies, candy and soda if they are allowed. Stock your house with fruit juice, fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, popcorn and healthier snacks.
- Don't be afraid to set limits. If your child is clamoring for a food that is not the best choice, say NO. Counter the propaganda your child sees and hears with facts. Say things like: In this house we eat a cookie after dinner not before; In this house we drink milk or water with our lunch not soda. But remember, you have to follow through with actions. Be sure it is do as I do, not do as I say.
Study after study has shown that food patterns and food attitudes established during the preschool years will affect your child's food choices and nutrition throughout life. Good habits formed at this stage will lay the foundation for good health in years to come.
Bottom line: When it comes to food a parent is responsible for choosing the foods your child should eat. Your child is responsible for what and how much he'll eat. It may take as many as 10 to 12 repeated exposures to a new food before a child will try it. Be patient your time and investment in good eating will pay off.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with sales of more than 8.5 million books.
The Diabetes Counter, 5th Ed., 2014
The Fat and Cholesterol Counter, 2014
The Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2013
The Calorie Counter, 6th Ed., 2013
The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012
The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011
The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
Your Complete Food Counter App: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/your-complete-food-counter/id444558777?mt=8
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to: www.TheNutritionExperts.com.
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