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One of the first skills your toddler masters is feeding herself. Though she can't control much in her life right now, she can definitely control what she puts in her mouth.
So it's no surprise when she's very opinionated about what she will – and won't – eat. She may eat only one or two preferred foods for weeks, then suddenly change her mind and want something completely different. Don't worry – this is typical toddler behavior.
What you can do
Your child needs some encouragement and structure from you when it comes to mealtimes (such as regular meals and healthy choices), but not much more. William Sears, noted pediatrician and author of 23 books on childcare, says whether and how much your child eats should ultimately be up to her. "Your child may eat well one day and eat practically nothing the next," says Dr. Sears, who co-authored The Family Nutrition Book with his wife, Martha.
Rather than get hung up on the fact that your child has refused everything you put in front of her today, consider what she's eaten over the course of one week. Parents are often surprised to find that their child's food intake balances out. Something must be fueling all that energy!
Rest assured: As long as your child is growing and gaining weight accordingly, you can be confident that your toddler is getting enough to eat. If you're concerned, ask your child's doctor to go over your child's growth chart. You may be relieved to find out you don’t have anything to worry about!
Here are a few tips to help get through those bumpy patches:
- Offer a variety of healthy food choices and let your toddler feed herself. This way she gets to exercise a little independence.
- Don't threaten her or bargain with her. "One more bite and you get a cookie," or, "No story time if you don't eat your peas," makes mealtime into a power struggle. If you want to raise a healthy eater, keep mealtimes positive, and don't use sweets as a reward.
- Have meals as a family whenever possible. When your toddler sees you or her siblings eating healthy food, she's more likely to want to follow along.
- Don't take something off the menu if she doesn't like it. Kids are slow to accept new tastes and textures, so if she spits out green beans the first time, try making them again the following week. She may surprise you and decide they're her new favorite food. (Though you may have to offer a new food many times before she's willing to make it a regular part of her diet.)
- Don't forget to consider how much she drinks in the food equation, too. Drinking too much milk or juice can dampen an appetite, so you may want to serve milk between meals and limit juice to no more than 1/2 cup a day. Don't offer juice to infants younger than 1. Milk and 100 percent juice can supply vital nutrients (though too much juice means too much sugar, and fruit juice lacks the fiber and some nutrients found in fruit).
- And don't let her fill up on sweets and junk food – her growing body needs the nutrients supplied by a healthy diet, not empty calories.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that a daily multivitamin isn't usually necessary if your toddler eats a variety of food. But if she doesn't eat much meat or fish, iron-fortified cereal, or iron-rich dark green vegetables, she may need an iron supplement. The best way to know whether your child needs a daily multivitamin – and what kind to give her – is to check with her doctor.
And whether or not your doctor recommends a multivitamin, your child will still need some extra vitamin D. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which build bones. Sunscreen prevents sunlight from synthesizing vitamin D, and it's difficult to get this essential nutrient from milk alone, so doctors recommend giving children 400 international units (IUs) of vitamin D daily.
Most multivitamins contain vitamin D. If your doctor recommends a multivitamin, your child will usually not need an extra vitamin D supplement.