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Top 10 Feeding Challenges -- and How to Solve Them

picky eater

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You knew parenting wouldn't be a piece of cake. But what are you supposed to do with a child who won't eat anything but? The good news: "Meal" and "ordeal" only sound alike; they needn't be synonymous.

We invited nutrition experts to tackle some common feeding challenges that you, our readers, voiced in answer to the question: What's your biggest feeding challenge? Here are practical solutions -- along with some food for thought.

My 19-month-old son used to love healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whatever meat I made for supper. Now, he only wants to eat starchy foods -- macaroni and cheese, potatoes, and toast. I tell myself he'll outgrow this, but I'm worried.

It's not the end of the world if your toddler swears off certain food groups for a while. "He will outgrow this," says Jatinder Bhatia, MD, a pediatrician and nutritionist at the Medical College of Georgia. In the meantime, try these options:

  • Give him the foods he likes for meals.
  • Take advantage of snack time to diversify his diet with fruit, veggies, yogurt, and if allergies are not a problem, peanut butter.
  • Make a ho-hum cup of yogurt more attractive by adding sprinkles, or stir chocolate syrup or Ovaltine into his cup of milk.
  • You can also try to expand his starch-heavy menu with more nutritious alternatives. For instance, serve sweet potatoes instead of garden-variety Idahos.

My 7-month-old daughter eats cereal and veggies three times a day, but she's not interested in her bottle and drinks just 15 ounces of formula daily.

You should address this issue with your pediatrician to make sure your daughter is growing steadily. But even if she is, she is not getting enough calories from her formula.

"Babies get energy from solids, but until they're a year old, they need formula or breast milk to satisfy all their nutrient requirements," explains Dr. Bhatia. He suggests trying to boost her formula consumption by introducing sippy cups; the novelty may increase her interest in drinking.

While babies typically rely on formula or breast milk for the first year, you can experiment with semisolid milk products, including yogurt and even an occasional ice cream. (Though the proteins in cow's milk can be difficult to digest, a small serving of yogurt is unlikely to cause anemia or excess weight, which can become problems when babies drink a lot of cow's milk.)

Finally, try to determine why her appetite for formula is limited. She may be hungrier for formula if, at mealtime, you give her a bottle first, and then try offering solid food afterward.

My 1-year-old likes baby food. But when she is presented with solids such as pasta or cut-up fruit, she chews them up and spits them out. It seems as if none of it gets into her stomach. Should I be worried?

Chewing-and-spewing is not an unusual habit. But it is frustrating -- not to mention messy. Why does your baby do it? She may be adjusting to the unfamiliar cuisine; research shows that it can take 10 to 15 introductions to a new food before a baby will eat it. Or this may be her way of showing her autonomy.

Still rejecting a new food after 15 tries? She simply may not like what you're feeding her. "If your baby is doing it every time, he's telling you, 'I don't like it. Give me something else,'" says Dr. Bhatia.

Continue to offer a variety of nutritious foods, and capitalize on what your baby likes. In other words, if she prefers foods with a softer consistency, let her have that bowl of oatmeal with a banana. But keep serving up more solid fare, and give your baby a chance to adapt.

My three children have very distinct food preferences and aversions. My 6-year-old loves a variety of foods, including vegetables and salads. His 4-year-old sister likes chicken and milk, but doesn't have any use for most other sources of protein. My 2-year-old's preferences are constantly changing. Getting something on the table that everyone will eat is a real challenge.

The last thing any busy mom wants -- or needs -- is to feel like a short-order cook in her own kitchen. If you plan ahead, you may be able to come up with a meal that covers everyone's preferences.

For instance, all three kids in this particular family would be satisfied with a dinner of grilled chicken or chicken teriyaki with sides of broccoli and rice. (Okay, the toddler may not be interested, but you can't plan around his fickle palate.)

But, says Joy Bauer, New York City nutritionist and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Total Nutrition (Alpha Books, 2002), if you can't make everyone happy with a single meal, there's nothing wrong with offering alternatives, as long as they don't require a lot of effort in the kitchen. If your child doesn't like the family meal, she can choose a hassle-free alternative like soup, cereal, yogurt, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

My 3-1/2-year-old will not touch any meat products except chicken and hot dogs. My doctor's not concerned but it drives me crazy. I've even tried to sneak meat into her meals, like putting a little hamburger in spaghetti sauce, but she's never fooled.

Toddlers can be very picky about a lot of different things -- not just food. "Food becomes a battleground because parents often have preconceived ideas about what kinds of foods toddlers should be eating," explains Stephen Daniels, MD, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on nutrition.

Take a step back; as long as your child is continuing to grow and develop normally, she's fine. In fact, she's getting protein from chicken and hot dogs, though you might want to go easy on the hot dogs or offer substitutes that are lower in fat and nitrates, such as turkey dogs or soy dogs.

If you're worried, you can try to boost the amount of protein in her diet with peanut butter and different types of beans. But whatever you do, don't make a fuss or your child will dig in her heels. And while it's perfectly fine to try stealth-feeding tactics like putting hamburger in spaghetti sauce, that approach can backfire. You could end up with egg on your face -- and spaghetti sauce on the wall.

My 3-year-old loves to snack -- during the day, I give her fruit, crackers, peanut butter, and cheese -- but she hates to sit and eat meals. We give her tiny portions, but all she does is play with her food.

Because toddlers have small appetites (and tummies), snacks have an important place in a child's day. "A snack between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and dinner is 100 percent appropriate," says Bauer.

But if your child snacks around the clock, he won't be hungry at mealtime. And while a child who eats a lot of healthy snacks will be just as well off nutritionally as the child who eats well at mealtime, you want to teach your child to develop good eating habits and to appreciate the pleasures of a family meal.

To keep snacks from gobbling up your child's appetite for dinner, pay attention not only to frequency but to serving sizes. Bauer suggests offering four crackers with peanut butter or string cheese and a bunch of grapes or two large handfuls of multigrain Cheerios. "If she claims she's hungry an hour after that snack is over, offer only cut-up vegetables. Then you'll find out who's really hungry -- and who's just eating out of habit," she adds.

As the working mother of a 4-year-old and a 3-year-old, dinner is especially difficult. By the time I get home from work at 6:00, they're starving. If my husband picks them up, they've usually had a snack (not a healthy one, either). By the time dinner is ready, they don't eat much.

Create a list of healthy, easy-to-fix snacks your husband can offer your children. For instance, he can pop sugar snap peas in the microwave or offer baby carrots and cucumbers with a light salad dressing for dipping, suggests Bauer.

Celery sticks won't cut it?

  • Consider an apple slice with some peanut butter, almonds, or one stick of part-skim string cheese.
  • Avoid starchy foods that will fill the kids up without providing much nutrition.
  • And stick with water as opposed to liquid calories like juice.

Another option: Have your husband feed them dinner as soon as they get home. The meal doesn't have to be elaborate, just easy to prepare and nutritious, like healthy chicken or veggie nuggets, or a microwavable burrito. You can still have family mealtime when you come home; while you're eating dinner, your kids can enjoy a dessert of applesauce or strawberries with a dollop of Cool Whip Light.

I have a 21-month-old who will rarely try something new. She eats crackers, chips, and dried fruit. She is still eating baby food out of the jar because she won't try anything else.

While baby food is not bad for your toddler, she will certainly need a lot of it. But simply stocking up on baby food is not the solution.

Try to determine why your baby won't expand her gustatory horizons, advises Dr. Bhatia. Is it a question of taste and texture? Or is it a fear of the unfamiliar? Some children resist new experiences, be it a strange dish or a change in their regular routine. In either case, you need to be patient and persistent. Keep offering a variety of foods. But if the problem persists, you may want to consult a child psychologist with expertise in eating and behavior.

My 5-year-old daughter has the appetite of a hummingbird and a real sweet tooth, despite her bitty size. She'd happily eat doughnuts and candy all day long. Sometimes the only way I can get her to eat anything is the promise of dessert afterward.

Cake and candy shouldn't be a regular part of your child's diet; depending on your child's weight and overall regimen, says Dr. Daniels, once a week or so is plenty.

Using sweets as a reward for finishing a meal is generally a bad idea. "This sets up a situation where some foods -- often less healthy ones -- are placed on a pedestal," explains Dr. Daniels. "And cues other than hunger become more important."

First, you're going to need to change your definition of dessert.

  • Instead of candy or cookies, offer fruit, low-fat pudding, or angel food cake.
  • Snacks can include pretzels, butter-free popcorn, and fruit smoothies, and can be just as satisfying as cookies.
  • Phasing out the treats your child is used to won't be easy, and will require you to be firm and consistent. It will be easier if the unhealthy stuff simply isn't around.

If your child won't eat her meal without the promised dessert, don't make a fuss. Your job is to offer a variety of healthy foods. Hers is to decide how much she's going to eat. Eventually, her hunger -- rather than the promise of dessert -- should motivate her to eat her meals.

I'm the nursing mother of a 4-month-old. My problem is that I don't eat well. I find myself grazing all day -- a handful of cereal here, a few bites of ice cream there. I know I have to stop, but how?

To put the brakes on mindless eating, preplan your meals as much as possible. "If you wait until it's time to eat or you're hungry, you'll just grab whatever is around," observes Bauer. "Put some thought into it. Resolve to have three staple meals -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- and regular snacks, and shop accordingly.

A good guideline: Don't let more than four or five hours go by without a meal or a snack, advises Bauer. And don't forget to drink; nursing moms need plenty of fluids -- at least eight cups a day, much of which should be water.

And preparing your meals doesn't have to be time-consuming. Breakfast can be a bowl of Cheerios with skim milk and a banana. A turkey or ham sandwich on whole-wheat bread with carrots and soy chips will be a satisfying lunch, followed by grilled fish with sweet potatoes and spinach for dinner.

For snacks, stock up on healthy staples such as rice cakes, soy crisps, and fruit. And feel free to indulge in a dish of ice cream after dinner. You're still eating for two!

Lauren Picker, mother of two, is a writer in New York City.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2005.