Combating the Finicky Eating Habits of Preschoolers

Surviving your preschooler's lack of appetite - one bite at a time

Combating the Finicky Eating Habits of PreschoolersElana’s* son Miles, 4, tends to eat what little he does on the move. “He never actually sits down at the table; I have to hold food and walk around with him,” explains the Montreal mom. “Sometimes, we have to sit outside and talk to him about cars while feeding him. I don’t understand how he’s able to run around all day after only eating part of one pancake.”

Most parents are utterly mystified when their once-ravenous children suddenly stop eating much of anything at all. Fearing their kids will surely starve, they resort to pleading, bribing and serving up odd mealtime menu items in order to get their pint-sized picky eaters to clean their plates. Karen Bowman, a mom of two from Vancouver, says her daughter Kylee, 6, developed strange eating habits just before she turned three, eating almost nothing for months but turkey wraps while sitting on their living room floor. “Then, she’d only eat yogurt tubes; after that, it was microwaveable macaroni and cheese.” Now it seems son Connor, 2, is following in his sister’s footsteps when it comes to what he will and won’t eat, says Bowman.

please eat something

So what’s with the food strike? Chances are, your tight-lipped tot is simply going through a normal developmental phase, says Montreal-based Dr. Denis Leduc, a past president of the Canadian Paediatric Society. A baby’s body weight usually triples during the first year of life. Then, as growth rate tapers off, “most children show a definite decrease in their enthusiasm to eat; their whole attitude towards mealtime changes,” explains Dr. Leduc. “It’s no longer you shoving food into this little mouth. Mealtime becomes participatory when children are between three and five, so ideally, the family should eat together so kids see role models around them being excited about food.”

Couple a slower growth rate with the tremendous surge of independence that your little one now gleefully exhibits, and mealtime soon becomes a sometimes daily battle your child knows she can win, notes Andrea Howick, co-creator of the Yummy in My Tummy series of DVDs and books (Liandrea Productions). “Eating is one area where preschoolers can determine the outcome, and when your child won’t eat it can be very disconcerting,” notes Howick, a Montreal mother whose son, Matt, 5, became a finicky eater at age three. “I’ve learned that nobody wins if mealtimes are stressful. I make a few meals a week that I know he’ll eat without a struggle.”

food for thought

Despite your best intentions, forcing your child to eat usually backfires, warns Dr. Leduc. “Healthy children will eat what they need to eat, often in very small amounts. As long as the child is following his established growth curve, and the physical exam and development are normal, that’s the most reassuring thing.”

While producing Yummy in My Tummy with Toronto mom Lianne Castelino, Howick discovered that “you have to look at what your child eats over a whole week; back on Tuesday, he had a full dinner. You have to remember that to stay sane.”

And most fussy eaters eventually grow out of this stage, assures Dr. Leduc. In the meantime, keep portions small, mealtimes short and tempers curbed. “It’s important to eliminate all distractions at mealtime, and make it a real focal point for family time,” he advises.

Montreal-based writer Wendy Helfenbaum’s three-year-old son rarely sits at the table for more than four minutes, except when Kraft Dinner’s on the menu.

happy meals

Ways to make food more fun


  • Encourage your child to help choose and prepare parts of the meal.
  • Give small portions, about the size of your child’s fist.
  • Offer a wide variety of fresh, colourful fare.
  • Keep mealtimes short and sweet, about 15″“20 minutes.
  • Have a proper booster seat on hand so he can sit at the right height at the table.


  • Don’t offer snacks, juice or milk for one hour before meals.
  • Don’t eat in front of the TV.
  • Don’t get frustrated if your child refuses to taste something; try again another time.
  • Don’t make her bite off more than she can chew. Respect your child’s hunger cues.

* Last name has been withheld upon request.

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