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Food jags

A food jag is when a child will only eat one food item meal after meal. Some other common childhood eating behaviors that can concern parents include fear of new foods and refusal to eat what is served.

Alternative Names

Refusal to eat; Fear of new foods

Function

Children's eating habits can be a way for them to feel independent. This is part of normal development in children.

Recommendations

As a parent or caregiver, it is your role to provide healthy food and drink choices. You can also help your child develop good eating habits by setting regular meal and snack times and making mealtimes positive.

Children should be allowed to choose foods based on their likes and dislikes and their caloric needs. Forcing your child to eat or rewarding your child with food does not promote better eating habits. In fact these actions can cause long-lasting behavioral problems.

If the type of food your child is requesting is nutritious and easy to prepare, continue to offer it along with a variety of other foods at each meal. In most cases, children will start eating other foods before long. Once a child is focused on a particular food, it can be very hard to substitute an alternative. Don’t worry if your child goes without eating much at one meal. Your child will make up for it at another meal or snack. Simply keep providing nutritious foods at meals and snack times.

Things you can do to help your child try new foods include:

  • Have other family members help set a good example by eating a variety of healthy foods.
  • Prepare meals with different colors and textures that are pleasing to the eye.
  • Start introducing new tastes, especially green vegetables, beginning at 6 months, in the form of baby food.
  • Never try to force a child to eat. Mealtime should not be a time of fighting. Children will eat when hungry.
  • Avoid high-sugar snacks in between meals to allow children to build up an appetite for healthy foods.

FEAR OF NEW FOODS

Fear of new foods is common in children, and new foods should not be forced on a child. A child may need to be offered a new food 8 to 10 times before accepting it. Continuing to offer new foods will help increase the likelihood that your child will eventually taste and maybe even like a new food.

The taste rule -- "You have to at least taste each food on your plate" -- may work on some children. However, this approach may make a child more resistant. Children mimic adult behavior. If another family member will not eat new foods, you cannot expect your child to experiment.

Try not to label your child's eating habits. Food preferences change with time, so a child may grow to like a food previously rejected. It may seem like a waste of food at first, but over the long run, a child who accepts a large variety of food makes meal planning and preparation easier.

REFUSING TO EAT WHAT IS SERVED

Refusing to eat what is served can be a powerful way for children to control the actions of other family members. Some parents go to great lengths to ensure that food intake is adequate. Healthy children will eat enough if offered a variety of nutritious foods. Your child may eat very little at one meal and make up for it at another meal or snack.

SNACKS

Providing scheduled meals and snack times is important for children. Kids need a lot of energy, and snacks are key. However, snacks do not mean treats. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products should be at the top of your snack list. Some snack ideas include fruit popsicles, fruit juice, milk, vegetable sticks, fruit wedges, mixed dry cereal, pretzels, melted cheese on a tortilla, or a small sandwich.

Allowing your child to be in control of food intake may seem hard at first. However, it will help promote healthy eating habits for a lifetime.

References

Stettler N, Bhatia J, Parish A, Stallings V. Feeding healthy infants, children, and adolescents. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 42.

Noel MB, Thompson M, Wadland WC, Holtrop JS. Nutrition and family medicine. In: Rakel RE, ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 37.

Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrition Guidance for Healthy Children Ages 2 to 11 Years. JADA. 2008; 108(6):1038-1047

Birch LL, Marlin DW. I don’t like it; I never tried it: Effects of exposure on two-year-old children’s food preferences. Appetite. 1982;3:353-360

Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman SL, Frazier AL, Rockett HR, Camargo CA Jr, Field AE, Berkey CS, Colditz GA. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Arch Fam Med. 2000;9:235-240.

Satter E. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Madison, WI: Kelsey Press:1999:225

Updated: 8/26/2013

Alison Evert, MS, RD, CDE, Nutritionist, University of Washington Medical Center Diabetes Care Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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