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Your Child Today: 2 to 3 years

Winning the Food Fight: What to do about a reluctant eater

"He's so feeble and frail looking. You can't be feeding him enough!" It seemed to be my mother-in-law's most frequent comment whenever she saw my 2-year-old.

Feeble and frail? Hardly. The wiry kid could wear me out any day. But he did seem to eat almost nothing. If your toddler is skinny, eats very little and, even then, reluctantly, an assessment is in order.

First, rule out possible medical causes. Dr. Ed Read, a family practitioner, suggests consulting your physician when appetite loss is accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea, fever, a change in skin color or weight loss. A simple blood or urine test will indicate common culprits such as anemia or a bladder infection. Also, regular wellness checks will enable your doctor to keep track of your toddler's growth rate.

The next step is to consider the view from the high chair. In a word?boring. For an active toddler, slowing down to eat is pretty low on the list of fun things to do. So try these solutions.

Try to tantalize. Cut up finger foods and place them in a cupcake pan. Include each food group: vegetable, fruit, meat, dairy, breads and cereals.

Let your child help himself during the morning and early afternoon. Don't refill a tin until he has sampled a bite of everything. Food becomes more desirable when a reluctant eater controls when and how much he eats.

Some nutritionists believe grazing?eating several small meals a day?is more effective in maintaining energy than three meals a day. However, other experts recommend introducing your toddler to structured meal times. If you remove the food tray about two hours before dinner, your child is more likely to be hungry at the table.

Avoid power struggles. Don't insist he clean his plate, says Cathy Bowman, a registered dietician. You'll only set the stage for a power struggle while causing confusion about how he responds to his natural appetite. At this point, enjoying family time around the table is more important than winning the food fight.

Keep portions small. Children typically need less food than parents think, says Bowman. So start with small portions. For instance, a meat serving the size of a child's palm is adequate.

Limit juice. The high calorie content of juice dulls a child's appetite, so limit intake to about four ounces a day. A recent study in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, concluded that children who drink 12 ounces of fruit juice or more every day are more likely to be short and obese.

Trust his appetite. When a child's juice intake is under control, his internal monitors are more successful at increasing or reducing his food intake, research indicates. Considering one day's food intake?a few Cheerios and a piece of squished banana?it may not seem so. But over the course of a few days he'll adjust the amount he eats to match his body's needs.

?Faith Tibbetts McDonald
Educator, writer and mother

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