My two year old won’t eat! Here are some tips to help you through this very common development phase.
Firstly all children develop at different rates. As a rough guide, a child between the ages of 1-4 years old needs about 1200 kcal per day. However this will increase during a growth spurt and decline in slower periods of development. Just because your neighbour’s child of the same age can polish off a man size spaghetti bolognaise, your child may not need that many calories right now.
Other reasons for your child not eating include two physiological development stages that occur around the age of two, these have been termed ‘neophobic responses’ and ‘disgust and contamination’. Neophobic responses are when a child rejects food that they have not eaten before, or a food they have previously eaten but is presented in a different way. This response tends to peak around 18 months, but can develop slightly later. For some the response can be mild while other children may eat only a limited range of foods. Neophobic responses are thought to develop as a survival instinct; as your toddler becomes more mobile and independent they become aware that they may eat something poisonous. A tip for getting through this phase is for you to eat with your child so that they can see you eating the offending food. Continue to offer the foods in small quantities but do not force your child to eat them.
Once you are through this stage, next comes ‘disgust and contamination’. The most common age for this to develop is three years old but it can start earlier. Disgust and contamination is when your child relates a certain food to something they do not like, for example they may think spaghetti looks like worms. They may just refuse to eat it or see it as contaminating any other food it is touching and not be able to eat that either.
These are natural development phases but affect children to varying degrees. In most cases food rejection stops as quickly as it starts. It is important to remember that you are not alone, many parents are experiencing the exact same thing.
Try not to get anxious or fuss when your child is not eating as much as you would like them to or what you want them to. Tension can make a child lose their appetite. Also children will respond to attention, a child may not eat as an attention seeking mechanism. Instead praise your child for what they have eaten. Generally children like to please, if they see you are pleased with their action of eating they are likely to eat more.
Children are easily daunted, do not serve them a large plate of food. Cook enough to fill them on an eating day but only put a small amount on their plate at a time. If they finish what you have given them then give them some more. If the extra is not required then freeze it for another day.
Aim to give your child lots of little portions of different things. This will make the meal interesting. Even if they only have a mouthful of each they are likely to be taking in a wider range of nutrients than if you are feeding them larger portions of fewer items.
Think about presentation. Do you enjoy a meal more if it is presented attractively? Ok to you it may be the presentation at that Michelin starred restaurant, to your child it may be as simple as their favourite TV character on their plate or fork. Consider serving them fruit for dessert in a plastic cocktail glass or packing their tea into a party box. Aim to make meals fun and enjoyable.
If you have a freezer at home, then batch cook. You will merrily reap the rewards of having meals prepared in the freezer. If you have spent a stressful half hour preparing a meal for your child while hopping on one leg and singing ‘the wheels on the bus’ to entertain them at the same time just to find they take one look and refuse it, taking it away without trying to force them to eat will be very difficult. This is much easier to do if you have just defrosted and reheated the meal. Also and very importantly pre-planned meals tend to be much more nutritious than if you are having your own live version of Ready Steady Cook every mealtime.
Children have small stomachs but high vitamin and mineral needs. Aim to make meals as nutritious as possible. Vegetables are one of the hardest things to get children to eat. Still serve vegetables on their plate so that they learn what a well balanced meal looks like but also secretly hide vegetables in the bits they are most likely to eat. Easy vegetables to hide are finely grated carrots and in dark dishes such as bolognaise, frozen chopped spinach is highly unlikely to be detected.
Snacks play an important part in a child’s calorie intake for the day. Consider the nutritional value of the snacks provided. Fruit, be it fresh, dried or juiced is packed with vitamins and minerals. Dried apricots are a particularly good choice, not only do most children enjoy them but they are a good source of vitamin A and iron which are the most common nutrients for children to be deficient in.
Your child will eat when they need to. Have nutritious food available for when that happens. Try and relax and remember this is a natural development phase.
Helen Money, written for NCT Oxford magazine