Parents of toddlers worry about their child and fear for their health when they suddenly stop eating after one year of age. There is nothing magical about the first birthday, and some child continue to eat as though they are starving for months before reaching a point where appetite tapers off. In most toddlers, the amount of growing done over the years diminishes and so does their appetite. But a diminished appetite is far from the terror some parents face when their child goes on a food strike.
When a child eats only a handful of food every day, or what seems like a handful, she is very likely doing what is normal for toddlers. Infants double triple their size in the first year, but toddlers grow only a few inches and pounds each year following. This means they need far less food each day.
To deal with the diminished appetite, parents should provide only healthy foods and plenty of snacks throughout the day. Give plenty of options at each meal and make portion sizes very small. This way the child can ask for more rather than be intimidated by a very full plate. Don’t count servings and nutrients until the end of the week to keep from panicking on the day your child eats only milk, oranges and toast. The following day likely makes up for any deficiencies.
In a food strike, your child simply refuses to eat one or many meals or food items. Food strikes have more to do with will than hunger. Toddlers are very fast to learn that food is a source of anxiety for parents. The placating, threatening and praising that goes on at the dinner table is the perfect tool for manipulation. And some toddlers are terrific at manipulation.
A typical food strike occurs when a child doesn’t get the ice cream and chips he requests for dinner, so he refuses to eat anything else. He might refuse only at one meal, or he might continue to refuse just to agitate you. Food strikes are a means of stating an option and being resistant, which toddlers are great at. But while a food strike might be worrisome to parents, it should be dealt with in a calm and practiced manner.
Handling a Food Strike
A food strike is much like a temper tantrum. If your child refuses to eat because she wants something you’ve declared off limits, giving in just to be sure she’s fed something is counterproductive. By giving her chips, you’ve sent a clear message that A) you don’t mean it when you say no, and B) food strikes work like a charm. You can expect more trouble in the future.
When you take a position on an item you must stand by that decision. Together with your partner be sure you both have an idea of how to handle a child who’s not eating. Some parents prefer to let the child go to bed hungry, while others might let the child sit through dinner without eating, but offer a healthy snack of fruit and milk before bed to give them another chance to get nutrition and a good night’s sleep. Try to decide on the party line before the first food strike occurs to avoid additional drama at the dinner table.
When your child refuses to eat her dinner for any reason, encourage her to try a few bites or ask her to eat a fixed number. Sometimes making dinner into a game of some kind, such as counting the number of beans or singing a song might help overcome resistance, but avoid letting the strike become a battle of wills. Unless your child has a medical condition, skipping a meal won’t do anything except make her hungry. She won’t starve to death in twenty-four hours.
Let her pout through dinner, so long as you know you’ve provided her with foods she like to eat. If you’ve given her a plate of foods she doesn’t like, you might offer one other alternative such as noodles or whole wheat toast with peanut butter to be sure she isn’t striking because Chinese food is too intense for her taste buds. But if she won’t eat anything, don’t continue offering and don’t bribe her with dessert or another treat.
Speaking of dessert, a child who doesn’t eat dinner shouldn’t eat dessert. This can be a fine line to walk as you don’t want to make dessert a bribe or reward. Keep it simple – if your child suddenly wants dessert. Offer her a casual chance to eat her dinner and have dessert or tell her you’ll put a dessert aside for her to eat tomorrow when she’s hungry for lunch or dinner again. If possible, keep the dessert under wraps until after her bedtime to avoid unnecessary drama or connotations.
When she does eat lunch the following day, you can pull out the dessert as promised and let her enjoy it. Often this sort of food strike lasts only one meal as the child is rather hungry after not eating. Again, it is up to the parents if another snack or chance to eat is provided an hour or so after the original meal.
Far more irritating for many parents are the long-term strikes child have against certain foods. Your child might eat a varied diet one week, but the next eat only bread, pasta and watermelon. This drives parents insane as they worry about the nutrition their child is getting and whether or not to force the issue by not preparing those items at ever meal.
Most experts, however, encourage parents to offer a range of food still but include items your child will eat at every meal. She might not be getting a full range of nutrition, but there are many nutrients in most toddler favorites. Look for fortified items and include a multivitamin. By offering a variety of fun items at every meal, she should eventually find new favorites or at least tolerable items and branch out again. Again, avoid engaging your toddler in a battle of wills. You’re the grown-up – you have more creative solutions than she does. Use them.