Healthy Eating Habits for Children

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The Picky Eater

Since a toddler doesn't grow as rapidly as an infant, it's normal for your 2- or 3-year-old's appetite to diminish, and not unusual for her to become "picky" about food. Instead of forcing the issue, suggest nutritionally comparable choices when the food you've presented doesn't appeal. (Offer yogurt instead of milk, or carrots instead of squash.) Most importantly, don't worry if your child misses a meal. If you don't make an issue out of it, she'll be hungry for the next one. Also, keep this in mind: Studies show that when a toddler is offered a wide variety of foods and is left to work it out for herself, she will make nutritious choices. Young children tend to balance their nutrition over time, so instead of fussing because your child didn't eat her chicken last night, consider what she ate during the whole week, and you'll find she's probably doing fairly well.


Taking control of your child's eating only turns you into the "food police," and him into a "food criminal" who will begin to use food in unhealthy ways. Giving your child control over what he eats helps him feel more independent. To help your little one feel more autonomous, offer finger foods (such as Cheerios, grapes cut in half, string beans, pieces of pear or apple, or slices of cheese). "I want to do it" is the battle cry of the toddler, but it can be frustrating when his manual dexterity is not up to the challenge of a knife or fork. Balancing foods that require silverware with finger foods encourages motor skills and a sense of accomplishment.

Meals and their Meanings

By the time your child is 3 years old, she is able to link special events with special foods and the people who make them (Mom's chocolate fudge cake on birthdays, Grandma's cornbread stuffing on Thanksgiving). Food begins to take on emotional meanings. Be aware of these meanings because they can derail the healthy eating habits you want your child to have. For example, be wary of using food as a reward ("If you clean up your toys, you can have an ice pop.") or as a punishment ("No cleanup, no ice pop."). Using food this way can teach your youngster to rely on eating to feel good about herself, instead of gaining self-esteem from her accomplishments.

Beware if eating is a form of distraction in your family ("Please don't fuss while I'm driving. Here, eat a cracker."). This can produce the mindless eating that adults indulge in when they're bored or restless. Do you offer food as a form of comfort? ("Have some cookies to take your mind off that scraped knee.") This can establish a life-long habit of using food as a consolation. Of course, we all use food in these ways sometimes, but it's important not to set up patterns that can put your child's health at risk later in life.

Finally, don't forget that kids do what we do, not what we say. They identify with our eating patterns, so make sure you aren't always at the refrigerator, or always dieting and anxious about your weight.

As your child grows, enjoy mealtimes together, but don't make eating the only focus of family life. Take a walk or a bike ride instead of going for pizza, take a swim or play checkers instead of making fudge. Doing this teaches your child to eat to live -- not live to eat!

Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World (Plume, 1994), and The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager (Plume, 1998). She is married and the mother of two children.


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