One of the things that seems to worry parents a lot is the amount of food their child eats, or rather doesn’t eat.  Especially when we’re talking about toddlers.

There are some very good reasons why your child might not eat as much as you think.  The most common reason is that your child actually needs less fuel than you think.  (If you look at the USDA recommendations for food consumption, you can see that small kids really do not need to eat that much at all.) In other cases, our kids aren’t hungry because they have had too many snacks.  But one reason that parents frequently overlook is that their children are simply resisting the pressure parents put on them to eat.

“Just two more bites.”  Sound familiar?  If your child is locked into a control struggle with you, counting her bites is probably counterproductive.  In fact, there is good research which shows that children who are pressured to eat end up eating less than they would if they weren’t being pressured.

Ironically, if you want your child to eat more, the solution is to give him permission to eat less.  And by less, I mean nothing at all.  Once the pressure is off, most children begin to eat.

Of course, you can’t do this without setting up some guidelines.  So here they are:

  • If your child doesn’t want to eat the meal or snack, then end that eating opportunity.  It’s over.  And there won’t be any more food until the next planned meal or snack. (If the idea of this freaks you out because you’re worried your child will be hungry then you need to make sure that there is another meal or snack opportunity coming soon, even if it’s a glass of milk before bedtime. Make sure that the food at this meal or snack is nutritious and boring because you don’t want to create an incentive for your child not to eat the original meal.  That means no favorites in the backup such as cereal, chocolate milk, granola bars, etc.  Also if you plan to use this backup, don’t tell your child in advance!)
  • You need to remind your child that not eating usually results in hunger but that people do survive hunger until the next meal or snack.  Some parents go to great lengths to prevent their children from experiencing hunger and that’s a shame because learning about hunger is a valuable lesson.
  • You must insist that your child behave, even if she doesn’t want to eat.  That means no tantrums because you’ve prepared the “wrong” food.   And if there is a tantrum, you really can’t give in because what does that teach your child?  That tantrums work.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, prepare your child a separate meal, more to his liking, if he refuses what you first offer.  You can, however, give your child some input into what is being prepared if that works in your home.

The key is to set up a series of interactions that work.  You decide the basic structure of the type of foods that are offered and your child decides whether or not to eat. The truth is, you can’t really influence how much your child eats anyway.  The nutritional boon you get from those “2 more bites” isn’t worth the cost: a backfire of less consumption overall, and a struggle over food.

Give it a shot.  Tell your child it’s ok not to eat and watch how much gets gobbled up.  Maybe not the first time, but after a few times of changing the dynamic, I’m sure you’ll see results.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.