It's the number one question I get from parents (and co-workers): "How do I get my kid to eat…?" Children are notoriously picky eaters, often after being voracious eaters when they were younger. There are a few key physical reasons for this and some great ideas for solutions.
Once children reach the age of two, they've grown to about half of their adult height. (Remember when they were born and were so small you could hold them in your hands?) Soon afterward, their growth slows, and they grow very steadily until puberty when they shoot up to their adult height. So somewhere around age two, kids often have a significant reduction in their appetites: They aren't growing so fast, so they don't need to eat as much. Pair this with the fact that they are just figuring out that they're an independent person. They remind you of this when they say "No!" to everything: "the Terrible Twos."
So they aren't growing as fast, and they start to get picky. What can you do?
The first thing to do is to remind yourself that they are really good at knowing how much to eat.
Think about it: no one ever told a breastfeeding baby that they have to "Sit at this breast until it's all gone." We let babies eat as much or as little as they want, and they grow the way nature intends.
The same is true of toddlers and preschoolers.
Let kids know that they're in charge of how much and what they eat, from what you offer.
Children may eat a lot at one meal and almost nothing at the next, or may skip several meals. Some kids eat only a tiny amount at every meal. Studies show that it can take from 12 to 20 times seeing a food before a child tries it.
So you, as the adult, know the kinds of foods you want your family to eat: foods from your culture, nutritious foods, or maybe a specific type of food, such as vegetarian, or halal.
You do the choosing, and let them pick from what's offered. Set the rules for the table. Maybe you like the family to eat together, or in a special place, or using chopsticks.
Parents get to make the rules, but kids know how much food fits in their bellies. Let them choose how much, or even whether to eat. Remember that children will test the rules, so be ready. Once they learn that you really mean it, they'll learn to enjoy their meals, and know that you'll trust them to eat the right amount for themselves.
Gerry Kasten, is a public health dietitian at the Vancouver Coastal Health Squamish Community Health Centre.