When I meet with parents for the first time, I ask them what are their main concerns about their child’s eating. One of the most common concerns is that their child will only eat a few types of food. Sometimes all they want is milk and some soft foods such as mashed potato, yoghurt, and pureed fruit. There’s almost no variety.
I’m sure you’ve met kids like this before. What’s to be done?
This is how I go about assessing a child like this. Firstly, I thoroughly review the child’s growth and health records. If their growth is within the normal range and the child is otherwise healthy, I emphasise to the parents that healthy children will eat as much as they need (in calories or kilojoules) over the day. However even if the child is eating enough, they may not be meeting their nutritional requirements for a whole range of vitamins and minerals if their main food is milk.
In addition, eating only soft foods means that the child isn’t chewing very much. This may affect the development of speech as well as facial musculature and dental health.
When young children refuse to eat a meal or two, parents may offer milk so that ‘at least they have had something to eat.’ After all, for a toddler, it is much easier to drink your food from a bottle than to sit in a high chair and feed yourself. The child quickly learns that if he refuses the food, he will get a bottle of milk.
If you want to expand the diet of your child, this will have to change!
The first step is to stop giving the toddler milk from a bottle. This may sound like a hard thing to do when your young child is likely to have a tantrum if you don’t give them the bottle of milk. However, if there is no other choice, your toddler will learn very quickly that if she doesn’t eat she will be hungry. Start offering structured meals and planned snacks in a high chair, leaving 2-3 hours between each meal. At each meal, offer 2 or 3 foods including one food that you know the child will eat, such as crackers or mashed potato, dry cereal or bread so that if they are hungry there is at least one food they will eat. If your child eats nothing, take them out of the high chair without trying to persuade them to eat or giving milk. Wait a couple of hours, and then offer another meal.
This approach relies on the fact that children will eat when they get hungry – and that ultimately, it is the parent who decides what is on the menu at each meal. The child will learn pretty quickly that they’d better eat something from what is on offer or they will be hungry. Children who have been ‘milkaholics’ will not start eating a wide variety of foods right away. However, they will learn that they won’t get milk as an alternative to other foods when they refuse to eat them. Over time they will learn to like new foods if meals are offered at regular times throughout the day.