How to avoid making meals a power struggle (ages 2 to 4)

How to avoid making meals a power struggle (ages 2 to 4)

How can I avoid arguing with my child over food at every meal?

For many families, sitting down together for a meal often means fighting over food – what's on the menu, who's eating (or not eating) what and how much. But who wants that night after night?

To avoid squabbles at supper, try not to talk about food at the table and simply serve the meal without comment. Make meals a stress-free time when you talk together about pleasant things.

Of course, if your child is a picky eater, holding your tongue can require a lot of restraint. But your child will benefit in the long run if you don't harp on his eating habits throughout the meal.

Nutritionists say it's your job to decide what, when, and where to eat, and it's your child's job to figure out the rest. Provide your child with reasonable, healthy food choices, but don’t force him to eat. As difficult as it may be, it’s important to give your child some control – and you may be surprised to learn how good children can be at self-regulation when it comes to food.

"It's your child's decision whether or not to eat, what to eat from what is being offered, and how much of it," says Nancy Hudson, a registered dietitian at the University of California at Davis.

What if my child refuses to eat what I serve?

Your mom may have rewarded you with a bowl of ice cream for cleaning your plate, but that just demonstrated that veggies were the punishment and dessert was the reward.

Instead, try this approach: Serve at least one food you know your kid likes, don't discuss eating habits, and clear the table when the meal is over – even if your child doesn't eat all his food. It’s okay if he’s still hungry after dinner.

Don’t become a short-order cook, preparing special meals just to appease your child. And don't give snacks close to mealtime – your child is more likely to eat if he’s hungry.

If your child turns up his nose at a new food, don't be afraid to serve it again. Try cooking it a different way or serving it raw. Kids often need to be exposed to a new food several times before they learn to like it. Give it time and don't force it.

If he wants dessert, give it to him without much fanfare, but consider serving fruit instead of a sugary treat. Treating dessert as a reward for finishing his vegetables risks teaching him that vegetables aren’t enjoyable. Offering more nutritious desserts along with occasional treats like ice cream encourages healthy habits.

It’s also important to be a good role model. If your child sees you enjoying your meals, he’s more likely to enjoy his as well.

How can I tell if my child is eating well enough?

Remember that your child is the one in control of what he puts into his body. Deciding for your child when he's hungry or when he's had enough to eat ultimately does him a disservice: "He won't learn to recognize when he's hungry and when he's done, and you're setting him up for eating problems later, such as obesity, overeating, or controlling food," says Hudson.

"Children are amazingly good at self-regulation. They may eat almost nothing one day, and then the next day they eat a ton of food," Hudson says.

If you watch what your child eats over the course of a week or a month, you'll see that he does a pretty good job of getting what he needs from different food groups (as long as you offer a variety). So, pull up a chair, relax, and try to enjoy your meal. If you do, your child will, too.

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