Hungry all the Time? Eats like a bird? These phrases are uttered quite frequently by parents when describing their children's appetites. Like adults, children's appetites vary from day to day, or even from meal to meal. Let's start from the beginning… In the first year of life, an infant does the most significant amount of growing that they will do in their whole life. Most (but not all) infants triple their birth weight by their first birthday. Between 1 and 5 years of age many children normally only gain 4-5 pounds per year. Children in this age range can normally go 3-4 months without gaining any weight and then have a growth spurt. Due to the decreased growth, they have decreased caloric needs and what looks like a poorer appetite. What your children are doing is actually good… they are listening to their bodies and eating when they are hungry. How much your child eats is determined by the appetite center in the brain and healthy children usually eat as much as they need for growth and energy. There are many factors that influence the appetite but the most important job for you, as their parents, are to keep meal and snack times relaxed as possible so that your children can listen to their internal cues of hunger and fullness. This is how your children can learn to eat in a very healthy and normal way, which is a great habit for lifelong health. Your job also includes deciding what foods to offer (try to have at least one preferred food at meals) and planning regular times to eat. Most children do best when they eat every 2-3 hours (3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day). Your child is responsible for deciding how much to eat and if they will eat at all! Have them be involved in meal preparation and menu planning which helps to encourage tasting.
Avoid talking about your child's "small appetite" or limited food selection in from of him. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy for many children. The more that they hear that they "don't eat" or are "picky' the more that they become these things. You can help your children work through these issues by realizing that it is a phase, and will change. When you are prepared for what might happen and stay relaxed about it, these phases may be prevented or worked though rather quickly. (If mealtimes are extremely unpleasant, your child is having chewing/swallowing difficulties or eats less than 5 foods speak to your child's pediatrician.)
Tips to help your child be successful:
-Never feed your child once he is able to feed himself (forced feeding).
-Serve small portions… children are overwhelmed when served portions that they could not possible consume.
-Offer at least 1 preferred food in addition to new/challenge foods at meals to increase possibility of acceptance.
-Offer many eating opportunities (but not TOO many). Children have small tummies and do best with a structured meal "schedule". Offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily. This gives them plenty of opportunity to receive the nutrition that their body needs to grow and develop (and have fun!).
*Important points to remember: your children are watching you. Be a good role model by eating healthfully and mindfully (listening to your body, eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full) and by being physically active. Try not to talk about dieting and body image (unless it is positive) in front of your young children… it starts to affect them at a very young age. Involve them in food shopping and cooking. Teach them that eating healthy is not only good for them but fun too!