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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 cause alarm in many parents include fear of new foods and refusal to eat what is served.

Alternative Names

Refusal to eat; Fear of new foods

Function

At times children's eating habits are a way for them to feel independent. This marks normal development in children.

Recommendations

If the preferred food is nutritious and easy to prepare, continue to offer it along with a variety of other foods at each meal. Your child will usually start eating other foods before long. Many times, serving the meal before your child becomes ravenously hungry will help avoid the situation.

Once a child is focused on one particular food, it's almost impossible to get the little one to accept an alternative food. If your child goes without eating much at one meal, don't worry. Your child will make up for it at another meal or snack. Simply provide nutritious foods at meals and snack times.

Some general recommendations:

  1. Set an example by eating a variety of healthy foods.
  2. Prepare meals with different colors and textures that are pleasing to the eye.
  3. Start introducing new tastes, especially green vegetables, beginning at 6 months, in the form of baby food.
  4. Never coerce a child to eat. Mealtime should not be a time of fighting. Children will eat when hungry.
  5. Avoid high-sugar snacks in between meals to allow children to become sufficiently hungry.

FEAR OF NEW FOODS

Fear of new foods is common in children, and new foods should not be forced on a child. Many exposures are needed before a child will be brave enough to taste a new food. 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, if your child is defiant, you may just start an unnecessary war. Children mimic adult behavior, and 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, and just because Sally didn't like carrots the first time she tried them doesn't mean she will not like them later on. 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 power tool for many children. Imagine the chaos when a family is sitting at the table and suddenly young Michael decides he wants something other than what is offered. Mother races to prepare the dish only to have it turned down and something else requested.

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 "like a bird" 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 essential. 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.

As a parent, your role in your child's eating should be fairly simple. Provide a variety of foods at set meal and snack times and allow your child to choose foods based on expressed likes, dislikes, and caloric needs. Forcing, coercing, or rewarding your child with food does not usually make your child eat better, and can cause behavioral problems related to food later on. These problems often linger into adulthood.

Allowing your child to be in control of food intake may seem hard at first, especially if you grew up with rules and rewards. However, it will help promote healthy eating habits for a lifetime.

See also:

References

Heird WC. The feeding of infants and children. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 42.

Kimmel SR, Ratliff-Schaub K. Growth and development. In: Rakel RE, ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 31.

Updated: 9/21/2011

David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc; Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine


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