Young children are typically limited in the variety of foods they eat. Part of the reason is they often don’t want to be bothered by the rituals of mealtime. They are like “economy cars” filling up on regular, not premium, fuels. They like things simple. They want to fuel up and get going.
Breakfast is often the best meal for toddlers and preschoolers for several reasons:
• After fasting for 10-12 hours overnight, young kids should be hungry and ready to eat.
• There is usually a lot of activity in the kitchen in the morning, enough to provide a toddler and preschooler enough entertainment and distraction to keep them in their seats.
• Breakfast foods are generally familiar, sweet, and easy to eat with minimal mess. Cereals, breads, pancakes, waffles, French toast (all hopefully whole wheat or multigrain), eggs, fruits, and yogurt – most kids really like this stuff!
Lunch is also a pretty easy meal. Sandwiches are easy and quick to prepare, and easy for kids to feed themselves with little mess: peanut butter and jelly (OK, jelly can be messy!), cream cheese and jelly (yum!), grilled cheese, pieces of cooked vegetables or chunks of fresh fruit (remember, half of every meal should be a fruit and/or a vegetable according to ChooseMyPlate.gov).
Healthy snacks during the day are also pretty well accepted by young children, again because they tend to be simple, tasty, and no mess to eat.
Dinner presents the most challenges:
• Most toddlers and preschools have been eating and drinking throughout the day. By dinnertime, they may not be hungry or patient enough to sit at the dinner table.
• Parents, please remember that your kids are most definitely NOT interested in whether or not you had a good day at work and certainly don’t want to sit at the dinner table hearing about it!
• The foods we prepare for the dinner meal are often much more challenging for kids in terms of smell, texture, and taste. Dinners are usually more complex in preparation and flavor than other meals, and complexity may make it harder for young kids who haven’t mastered the fork and spoon to feed themselves.
• It bears repeating: they may not be that hungry.
Contrast the feelings adults have for the dinner meal:
• We are usually hungry!
• We like the social importance and comfort of eating together. This is our time to catch up on the day with our loved ones: we ARE interested in how the day went!
• Many of us enjoy (love?) the actual work of preparing the dinner meal (the more complex the better!), almost as much as eating it.
• It bears repeating: we are hungry!
No doubt then that dinner is the meal where there is the most conflict between parents and their children. Dinner also comes at the time of day when everyone is tired!
You have probably heard yourself say: “How can you not be hungry!” or “please just sit still at the table for five minutes!” or “your mother worked very hard to put this delicious food on the table” or “other children in this world aren’t so lucky!”
Our parents said the same things to us!
Many parents tell us at check-up visits that their child is very picky and not a good eater. But most children follow the daily eating pattern described above and eat better than parents recognize. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have in the office with parents, along with a growth chart that offers visual confirmation.
Remember: keep it simple and “whole” (not processed).