Q: My daughter is almost 2-years old. If she sees something she wants to eat she'll obsess on it and cry until she gets it. Plus she won't eat the food on her plate. Do we make her eat her food, or go to bed w/out any? Do we discipline her for this? Is she too young to understand?
A: The toddler and preschool years are a very important time in terms of developing healthy eating habits. It’s not a good idea to give in to your daughter’s demands for a particular food whenever she cries for it. As a parent, you know what’s best for her. If she cries and demands a cookie and a soda right before dinner, she’ll fill up on sugar and empty calories, and she’ll be less likely to eat the more nutritious foods that you serve at the evening meal.
It’s not at all necessary, or even advisable, to punish a child for undesirable eating behaviors, because it can lead to problematic eating behaviors and attitudes toward food. It’s also unwise to “force” a child to eat. Your best bet is to create a consistent routine. Start by preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus at least two snacks for your daughter at roughly the same time each day. Put the food on the table or on her high chair, and sit down with her to eat. Even if she says she’s not hungry, ask her to sit down while you and the rest of your family eat your meal. If she hasn’t been joining the family for meals before now, start by asking her to stay seated for three to five minutes, and gradually increase the amount of time she’s required to stay at the table.
Make sure that there’s at least one nutritious food on her plate that you know she likes. That way, you’ll know that she won’t go hungry because she doesn’t like what you’ve served, and you won’t feel obligated to jump up from the table and prepare another food. If she asks for—or demands—something that isn’t on her plate, gently but firmly let her know that it’s not on the menu right now.
If she cries, that’s okay. It’s natural for children to be disappointed when they can’t have what they want. But it’s important for you to refrain from giving in to her demands. After you’ve explained that the food she is requesting is not available at the moment, you can just cheerfully ignore her demands and go about eating your own food. When you’re finished with your meal, you can excuse her from the table without a fuss. If she didn’t eat, she won’t starve. She’ll have another opportunity to satisfy her hunger at snack time.
As long as you remain gentle, firm, and very consistent, your daughter will learn that crying for and demanding a particular food is a total waste of time and effort. When she’s no longer filling up on the food that she demands at erratic times, she’ll be far more likely to eat the wholesome, nutritious food that’s on her plate at regular meals and snacks.
This course of action might be a bit challenging for you on the first day or two. It’s very difficult for mothers to ignore their children’s cries, and most of us want to give our children what they want. But remember, you’re the parent, and you know best what your daughter needs to be healthy and happy. The good news is that children have a wonderful ability to adapt very quickly to changes. If you remain consistent and stick to your plan, she’ll pass right through this stage. It won’t be long till you and your daughter are enjoying pleasant, relaxing meals together.