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Q: Food seems to go flying everywhere when my daughter eats. Is this bad behavior?
A: Your daughter is naturally curious about how food looks, tastes, and feels. She’s making a mess because it’s a hit-or-miss process figuring out how to feed herself, and she’s exploring the sensation of food in her hands and mouth. This is not bad behavior—it’s a step toward greater independence and a welcome sign of curiosity. If too much food is being wasted this way, try giving her a small amount of food to play with while you hold the bowl she’s eating from. At this stage it’s a good idea not to wear your best clothes at mealtime! You could also put a mat down under her chair to make cleaning up easier. With a little bit of practice and lots of encouragement, your daughter will soon master her self-feeding skills and develop her interest in food. Add in plenty of praise for eating nicely and avoid a fuss when food goes flying, and she’ll get the message about what you prefer.
Q: My 18-month-old is too busy to stop and eat, and he seems to be losing weight. Should I worry?
A: Children put on significantly less weight in their second year than they did in the first 12 months of their life. So, while it might look like your son is losing weight, he is actually just growing more slowly than you are used to. Running around and exploring will also burn plenty of calories, so his body shape will be changing, too. Offer him healthy snacks between mealtimes to keep his energy levels up. Avoid sugary or fatty things such as cookies and sweets. Stick to regular mealtimes, but don’t force him to eat. This is a battle you will not win, and could lead to eating problems when he is older. Don’t overwhelm your child with a large meal—this will not make him eat any more. Offer smaller portions of food instead—there is always the option to ask for more if he is still hungry. Your son will eat what he needs, so focus on providing him with regular, healthy options, and his interest in food will develop.
Q: My three-year-old son wants to eat his meals in front of the TV. Should I let him?
A: TV is distracting and likely to draw your son’s attention away from his meal. If he does not eat enough he may be asking you for snacks later to fill in the gaps. Children at this age are also targeted by TV advertising. Colorful packaging, loud music, and cartoon characters may spark his interest in inappropriate foods and undermine your attempts to encourage healthy eating. Sitting in front of the TV instead of around the dinner table means that your child will miss out on the social aspect of mealtimes, too. Eating as a family allows you to share things about your day, helps your child learn more about food, and gives him the opportunity to develop other skills such as table manners.

Children who eat at least one meal a day with their family have also been shown to have better vocabularies. The occasional meal in front of the TV is unlikely to do any harm, but it is best to avoid this becoming a habit.

Q: My daughter will only eat canned spaghetti. Help!
A: Don’t worry—you are not alone. Around 20 percent of children under five are known to be fussy about their food at some time. When your daughter keeps asking for the same food meal after meal, this is usually referred to as being stuck in a “food jag.” When you are working hard to encourage healthy eating, this can be frustrating and worrying.

Try to stay calm, and avoid unhelpful strategies such as threats and bribery, which will only make things worse. If your child seems happy, healthy, and has plenty of energy, she is probably getting all the calories, vitamins, and minerals she needs from her diet. Offer her healthy snacks through the day and keep preparing her favorite foods, but introduce new things alongside them for her to try. Don’t challenge your daughter on her pickiness—focus on the positives and give her plenty of praise when she tries other foods.

Q: My child just picks at her food. How can I make her eat more?
A: All parents worry at some time or other that their child is not eating enough. The truth is that most children will eat what they need, and negotiating this with parents is good for their developing independence. Don’t force your child to eat or make her stay at the table until she has cleared her plate. This can make things worse, and could lead to eating difficulties when she is older. Clear the table after 30 minutes—praise what she has eaten and ignore what she has left. Just make sure your child is not filling up on treats afterward! If she’s still hungry, this suggests that either she does not like what she is being given or how it’s presented. Try including your daughter in the choosing and preparation of her meals. Be careful to limit her choices to two options—both of which you are happy with. Let her help out in the kitchen and make food fun by preparing simple meals together, such as pizzas that she can decorate. Let her see you enjoying the same foods. If you have a garden, you could also try growing a few things together: Children love eating food they’ve grown themselves.
Q: Is it OK to reward my child for eating?
A: You certainly won’t be the first parent to say, “Eat your peas, then you can have some ice cream.” While this might seem like a good way to motivate your child, research shows that statements like this actually result in children eating fewer peas and valuing ice cream more highly in the long term.

Rewards do help, though—as long as you use them in the right way. Rather than offering a tasty treat, research shows that the most effective reward is to give plenty of praise and encouragement when your child is eating healthy foods. This will make her feel good about what she is doing rather than teaching her to eat just so she can have that dessert. Using rewards in this way will help your child develop healthy eating habits that will last her a lifetime.

Q: We rarely eat together as a family. Is this a problem?
A: Modern life is very busy, and it can be hard to get everyone together at the right time to sit down and enjoy a meal. Family mealtimes are an important social event, though, and your child will gain a huge amount from taking part. Conversation around the dinner table promotes speech and language development. Watching how you prepare, serve, and eat your food helps children learn the skills they need to become independent. Eating together also teaches children good table manners and the social skills they will need in school.

Perhaps most importantly, mealtimes are a great opportunity for you to spend quality time with each other as a family. It may not be possible to achieve this every day, but even if you only manage it two or three times a week it will be well worth the effort. Turn off the TV, sit down, share a meal, and enjoy each others’ company.

Q: My child refuses to eat his vegetables. Should I hide them in something else?
A: Young children are much more sensitive to bitter flavors than adults, so it’s important to understand that vegetables particularly can taste very different to them. Hiding disliked vegetables in other foods may be successful in getting your child to eat them and so make you feel less anxious. However, if your child does not know he has eaten carrots, he is very unlikely to ever eat them out of choice. Also, if you tell your child what he has just eaten, he may well feel that you have tricked him and will be less likely to trust you on other issues.

Rather than hiding foods, it’s best to be open and honest with your child about what he is eating. Try changing how you present the vegetables—serve them raw, cut them into interesting shapes and sizes, or serve them with a sauce to take the edge off their flavor until he is used to the taste. Try different types: If he won’t eat spinach, try kale. There are lots of vegetables to choose from, so get your child involved in deciding which he would like to try.

Introducing new food How to break the deadlock

Many parents dread presenting their children with a new meal, knowing they will make a fuss and perhaps refuse to eat anything at all. There is a way through this deadlock, though. Start off by putting a tiny amount of the new food on the side of your child’s favorite meal. If he complains, don’t give in and take it away. It can be hard to see your child upset, but this won’t last long, and it is important that he gets the message about who is in charge at mealtime. When your child is okay with the new food being on his plate, encourage him to play with it, put it to his lips, taste it, and finally, eat it. Your child may need to try new foods at least 10 times before he will accept them—so don’t give up after a couple of attempts. If he really does not like what is being offered, try something else from the same food group that has the equivalent nutritional value; for example, if he refuses to eat yogurt, try offering cheese instead.

Snack happy Filling up on treats

My son was always happy to eat during the day, and I was pleased he enjoyed his food. He had a good breakfast and then wandered around with his bottle of milk snacking on whatever took his fancy through the day. When it came to his evening meal, though, it was a very different story. Getting him to eat anything was such a battle it often ended with either me or him in tears. Eventually I realized that topping up his bottle with milk whenever he wanted and allowing him to snack freely on cookies meant that he was just not feeling hungry at the right time. I decided to give him water sometimes instead of milk and swapped his cookies for fruit slices and vegetable sticks. He protested at first, but he got used to his new diet in a few days, and it seemed to do the trick. Our evening meals are much calmer now, and my son is more than ready for his food.

NOTE

Your child may need to try new foods at least 10 times before he will accept them

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