Healthy Eating and Active Play: Mealtime Challenges

You finally got dinner on the table and you’re looking forward to a pleasant meal with your family.

Then, your 3-year-old makes a face and refuses to eat what you served. She will only eat macaroni and cheese and maybe if you’re lucky, five other food items. Meanwhile, your 18-month-old begins throwing more food on the floor than in his mouth.

Sound familiar? What is a parent to do?

Just remember, these are phases children go through and they are part of normal developmental stages.

Let’s start with your picky 3-year-old only wanting to eat macaroni and cheese. She may be going through what we call a food jag. The good news is this is a normal developmental stage for children. Many times children’s  eating habits are a way for them to feel independent.

Here are some strategies:

  • Avoid focusing on the behavior, which may cause the behavior to continue. If they feel like they are getting a lot of attention with the food jag, they may keep on it just for the extra attention.
  • If the desired food is nutritious and easy to prepare, you may want to consider offering it along with a variety of other foods at each meal.
  • Allow the child to participate in preparing the foods.
  • Allow the child to choose from two equally nutritious and healthy foods. This will give them some control over their choices. Be patient. It may take time.

messy eatingAggressive behavior includes actions such as throwing, fighting and yelling. It may reflect the desire for attention, over-stimulation, hunger or frustration.

These suggestions may help:

  • Be sure that meals and snacks are served at regular times. Children who are overly hungry or who have just eaten may have a hard time focusing at the meal.
  • Have transition activities before meals such as reading a story or quiet play time to help children make the switch from active play to sitting and eating.
  • Take note of the mealtime environment. Are there ways to make it calmer and less distracting? Are all forms of media turned off?

Just remember, these are phases children go through and they are part of normal developmental stages.

If your child does not eat very much at a meal, don’t worry, he or she will make up for it at the next meal or snack. Try not to force them to eat. For example avoid saying phrases like “You have to take two more bites before you leave the table.” Instead try “is your stomach telling you that you’re full” or “has your tummy had enough?”

Visit for more tips on helping kids eat well, be active and be healthy.

NAP SACC-Healthy Eating and Active Play

-Cheri Blucher, RD – NAP SACC Nutritionist and WIC Nutrition Education Coordinator

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