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Hold the tears, please: how to combat picky eating

Wednesday, August 16, 2017
By Elizabeth Strachan Erickson, MD, for KidsFirst
child eating

“He won’t eat anything!” is a lament I hear almost daily in my clinic. One of our most fundamental responsibilities as parents is to provide nutrition to our children, and it is easy to become discouraged when every offering is met with a shaking head or a firm “no.” Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

Most children are initially very open to trying new foods but start to become “picky” as toddlers. While this can be very frustrating and confusing, it’s helpful to know that this is a nearly universal experience and part of normal growth and development. During the first year, growth is very rapid with children tripling their weight within the year. If we continued to grow at that speed, we would all be giants! Normal growth curves show us that all children have a decrease in the ratio of weight to height during this time, which can make them appear thin. As growth slows naturally, so does appetite. In fact, toddlers need very few calories to support normal growth and their bodies will signal being “hungry” or “full” to achieve an appropriate balance and meet their nutritional needs. Once those needs are met, children will stop eating, even after only a few bites. Additionally, toddlers are variable in their tastes and will like something one day only to throw it on the floor the next. The good news here is that they may switch back to loving something just as quickly.

Most children are initially very open to trying new foods but start to become “picky” as toddlers. While this can be very frustrating and confusing, it’s helpful to know that this is a nearly universal experience and part of normal growth and development. 

While the initial reaction may be to give them anything so that they will eat, this can set you and your child up for unhealthy eating habits. If you offer French fries or ice cream in desperation once healthy foods have been refused, you may unintentionally teach your child to “hold out” for those unhealthy treats that then become substitutes for meals.

So what can you do? The overarching goal is to continue to offer a wide variety of healthy foods to your child. Since it is hard to know what your child will like from one day to another, offering a variety will allow her to be selective while still eating healthy foods. As a parent your job is to decide which foods are offered and your child can choose whether and how much to eat. If your child eats a healthy variety of foods over the course of a week, you’ve succeeded. As always, talk to your pediatrician if you become worried that your child’s eating behaviors are abnormal or if you are concerned about growth and development. 

  1. “Picky” or inconsistent eating patterns are NORMAL in toddlers.
  2. After the first year, growth slows down and appetite decreases.
  3. Offer a range of healthy options and allow your child to decide what they want to eat.
  4. Avoid offering substitutions with unhealthy foods as this may setup a pattern of expecting treats.

 

Elizabeth Strachan Erickson, M.D. is a medical instructor in the Duke Department of Pediatrics in Durham, NC.

 

 


Related Resources

The Picky Eater Project
[from the American Academy of Pediatrics]

Healthychildren.org
[from the American Academy of Pediatrics]

 

“KidsFirst” is a blog, hosted by the Duke Department of Pediatrics, that provides high quality information to families on a wide range of important child health topics.