Modified from: NEW
BEGINNINGS, Vol. 15 No. 5, September-October
1998, pp. 147-48.
Athens GA USA
When our babies are nourished exclusively at
the breast, we know that they are being fed
the most nutritious food in the world. We are
intellectually secure in this fact and know
intuitively in our hearts that human milk is
best. Then along comes the adventure of starting
solids. Suddenly baby is grabbing everything
he can and eagerly exploring its taste, texture,
and smell. Toddler hood follows and with it
comes episodes of picky eating. Preschoolers
test the patience of parents at mealtime during
these early childhood years.
Traditionally, family mealtime is a time when
the family comes together to reconnect after
a busy day and to enjoy one another's company.
However, sometimes, the peaceful evening meal
turns into a battleground of wills where children
complain about what was served, ask for a specially
prepared meal, or flatly refuse to eat. Mealtime
can deteriorate into a food fight between parent
Contrary to what many parents may think, toddlers
and young children do not engage in food fights
simply for the thrill and challenge of upsetting
Mom or Dad. Parents often unwittingly set the
stage for a food fight by expecting children
(toddlers especially) to have the same eating
patterns and habits as adults. So how can parents
prevent falling into the power struggle known
as a "food fight"? When your baby
starts solid foods, avoid commercially prepared
baby foods and feed your baby from your own
plate. This will allow him to develop a taste
for your cooking. Your baby has enjoyed the
variety of flavors he has been exposed to through
your milk and he will continue to favor those
tastes he has come to know.
Feeding baby from the family's mealtime menus
will also encourage the habit of eating the
food served and will avoid setting up expectations
that children get separate meals prepared just
for them. Sometime between baby's second and
third birthdays, many parents slip into thinking
that it must be time for baby to eat three meals
a day like an adult. This belief is at the heart
of many food fights. It is important to keep
in mind that toddlers do not eat like adults.
They have different fueling needs that mimic
the cue feeding of infancy. As they make the
transition from "feeding on demand"
to more structured mealtimes, toddlers need
lots of guidance and patience. It is unrealistic
to think that a toddler will eat breakfast,
lunch, and dinner without any snacks between
Many parents encourage midmorning and early
afternoon snacks, but discourage late afternoon
snacks for fear of ruining the child's appetite
for dinner. This can be extremely frustrating
for a toddler who has learned to listen to his
hunger cues. As a breastfed infant, he ate when
his body told him he was hungry. He nursed until
his body told him he was full. He was never
expected to wait until an arbitrary hour of
the day to eat and he never over-ate. As an
older toddler, he may be told to wait for dinner
when his body is telling him that it is time
to eat. At other times, he may be expected to
eat when his body is telling him he is not hungry.
Here are some tips that will help you avoid
sending your child mixed mealtime messages:
Keep toddler portions toddler-sized. When a
toddler cleans his plate, it can be an opportunity
for praise. If he is still hungry, he can have
Look at the day's activity level and snacking
pattern. If it's been a lazy, rainy day that
was spent nibbling and reading, the child will
be less ravenous than at the end of a day when
he's played outside, barely stopping for a drink
Notice your own appetite: are you famished by
dinnertime? Do not assume your children are
hungry at the same times you are or that they
are as hungry as you are.
Serve only fruit or vegetable snacks after 4
PM. This will take the edge off children's immediate
hunger without satisfying their appetite for
very long. They will be hungry again by the
time supper is served, and if they have already
eaten vegetables, they are halfway through dinner.
Keep the child's overall eating pattern in mind.
Often toddlers will gravitate to one food for
several days and will exclude other food choices.
Usually this only lasts for a few days before
they move on to other foods. Drawing attention
to this eating pattern may make it last longer.
Avoid using food as a reward for tasks unrelated
to food, e.g., offering a special ice-cream
treat in return for picking up toys.
Offering dessert after the evening meal regardless
of whether children have cleaned their plates
will remove the association between treats and
special occasions. Yummy desserts will lose
the "forbidden" status. Remember that
children tend to crave what they cannot have.
Rule of Seven: It will take approximately seven
exposures to a new food or recipe before a child
will accept it. Children will often reject the
new and different in deference for the familiar
Establish rules of the table (for example, "Try
at least one bite of everything."; "If
you cannot compliment the cook, don't say anything
at all!") and teach or expect age-appropriate
Establish a ritual such as giving thanks for
the meal, lighting a candle, or holding hands
and telling each other how much you love each
other. This will give children a signal that
it's time to settle down and enjoy this time
One sure way of engaging your child's cooperation
during meals is to involve him in the preparation
of food. Give children age-appropriate tasks
and never leave the kitchen when children are
handling knives or working at a hot stove. Toddlers
and preschoolers are great at preparing salad
greens and helping you measure, stir, and pour.
Preschoolers especially like counting out forks
and napkins. School-aged children can help with
most cooking tasks when properly supervised.
Cooking teaches math skills (learning the standards
of dry and liquid measurement, for instance)
and the importance of following directions.
Teaching children to cook gives them life long
Vegetable gardening is another activity that
helps children feel more involved in their food
choices. Children who tend the family garden
will enjoy eating what they have helped grow.
What fun for a child to nurture a small plant,
watch as the fruit grows to maturity, then pick
it at the peak of flavor and enjoy it with his
family. The child enjoys such a sense of accomplishment!
What should you do if all the tricks fail and
you and your child are engaging in a food fight
despite your best efforts? Have a parental summit
meeting and map out a strategy to defuse the
situation. (It is very important for both parents
to be working from the same game plan!) These
tips may be helpful for developing a strategy:
Stay calm and avoid losing your temper with
your children. Remember that power struggles
will be avoided if you, the parent, refuse to
engage in them.
If your child refuses to eat at mealtime, do
not insist that he must.
Children will eat when they are hungry, especially
if they see that they cannot draw you into a
power struggle over food. Offer a banana or
an apple before bedtime if you are worried about
your child going all night without food (especially
children who no longer nurse at night).
Avoid yelling, bargaining, or bribing to get
your child to eat. This will surely result in
a food fight!
Look at what you are eating and drinking. Children
will inevitably desire whatever it
is that you are eating whether it is a diet
soda and a cupcake or a glass of fruit juice.
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