Combating Mealtime Misery


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When Elana Poplaw asks her son, Miles, 4, what he wants for supper, he typically cites the same three basic food groups: chocolate, lollipops and ice cream. "He never actually sits down at the table; I have to hold food and walk around with him," says Poplaw. "Sometimes, we have to sit outside and talk to him about cars while feeding him. I don't understand how he's able to run around all day after only eating part of one pancake."

Karen Bowman's daughter, Kaylee, 6, developed strange eating habits just before she turned 3. "For months, all she ate was Subway turkey, ham and bacon wraps, while sitting on the living room floor," says Bowman. "Then, she'd only eat yogurt tubes; after that, it was microwaveable macaroni and cheese."

Most parents are utterly mystified when their once-ravenous children suddenly stop eating much of anything at all. Fearing their kids surely will starve, they resort to pleading and bribing their pint-size picky eaters to clean their plates.

But chances are, your tight-lipped tot is simply going through a normal developmental phase, says pediatrician Dr. Denis Leduc. A baby's weight usually triples during the first year of life. Then, as growth rate tapers off, "most children show a definite decrease in their enthusiasm to eat; their whole attitude toward mealtime changes," he says. "It's no longer you, shoving food down this little mouth. Mealtime becomes participatory when children are between 3 and 5, so ideally, the family should eat together, so kids see role models around them being excited about food."

Couple a slower growth rate with the tremendous surge of independence your little one now gleefully exhibits, and mealtime soon becomes a battleground she knows she can win, says Andrea Howick, co-creator of the "Yummy in My Tummy" series of DVDs and books. "Eating is one area where preschoolers can determine the outcome, and when your child won't eat, it can be very disconcerting," she says, adding her son, Matt, 5, became a finicky eater at age 3. "I've learned that nobody wins if mealtimes are stressful. I make a few meals a week I know he'll eat without a struggle."

Forcing your child to eat usually backfires, warns Leduc. "Healthy children will eat what they need to eat, often in very small amounts. As long as the child is following his or her established growth curve, and the physical exam and development are normal, that's the most reassuring thing."

While producing "Yummy in My Tummy," Howick says she learned something important. "You have to look at what your child eats over a whole week; back on Tuesday, he had a full dinner. You have to remember that to stay sane."

Most fussy eaters eventually grow out of it, assures Leduc. In the meantime, keep portions small, mealtimes short and tempers curbed. "It's important to eliminate all distractions at mealtime, and make it a real focal point for family time," he advises.

Dishing Up Happy Meals

Dos:

• Encourage your child to help choose and prepare parts of the meal.
• Serve small portions, about the size of your child's fist.
• Offer a variety of fresh, colorful food.
• Keep mealtimes short and sweet, about 15-20 minutes.
• Stay relaxes, so your child associates mealtime with enjoying your company, not with disappointing you.

Don'ts:

• Offer snacks, juice or milk one hour before meals.
• Eat in front of the television.
• Get angry if your child refuses to taste something; try again at another time.
• Make your child bite off more than he or she can chew; respecting your child's hunger cues may help stave off obesity later in life.

Montreal-based writer Wendy Helfenbaum's 6-year-old son rarely sits at the table for more than four minutes, except if Kraft Dinner's on the menu. Visit her at www.taketwoproductions.ca.

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