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A 3-year-old junk food junkie
Q: My 3 ½-year-old son is a bright, active, healthy little boy, but he refuses to eat any foods other than the few he likes. His diet consists primarily of French fries, tater tots, chocolate pudding, and sometimes a few other equally non-healthy items.

We've tried everything short of starving him into submission, although he has opted to go to bed without dinner rather than eat items he doesn't want to eat. We've tried to force him to eat, only to have him retch or drag his tongue on the carpet to get rid of the taste of the offending item. We've tried offering incentives, forcing and not forcing him to sit at the table, etc. He eats plenty of what he likes, so appetite isn't the problem. We do give him vitamins to make up for the nutrition he's not getting through meals.

Our son is highly allergic to some foods, and generally allergic to many— we're not sure if that might have something to do with it. He’s the first and only child (#2 is on the way). We have a pretty hectic lifestyle out of necessity, but usually sit down to eat dinner together. If dinner is going to be late, we don’t make our son wait, but feed him when he’s hungry.

Although we feel he'll outgrow this problem in time, we are obviously still worried. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Annemarie Inwood
A: Annemarie, you’re not the only ones—most parents of 3-year-olds are concerned that their children are picky eaters. When your son asks for the same foods every day, he’s asking for a sense of predictability, control and comfort. It’s the same for his other routines, such as his bedtime ritual, where he might ask for the same story over and over again, every night.

While it’s likely that this is a developmental phase he’ll outgrow, he might also be a child who is temperamentally or physiologically sensitive to different foods. Remember what your goals are—to develop a nurturing relationship with him, to provide him good nutrition, and to lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

So how can you encourage him to eat a wider variety of nutritious foods? First of all, try to create a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere around eating. It’s great to eat dinner together every night as a family because he’ll learn from you and your spouse to enjoy mealtime and different foods. Encourage him to eat other foods, but don’t force him. Nutrition experts say parents should offer their children a sufficient quantity and variety of nutritious food, and let the children decide whether and how much to eat. Have one of his favourite foods (the healthier ones) available for him to eat—so he has the comfort he needs and doesn’t go hungry—but keep trying to offer him other healthy foods. Try offering different grains such as whole wheat bread, cereal, rice, and pasta; fruits and vegetables such as apples, grapes, cherries, strawberries, bananas, melon, carrots, broccoli flowers, green beans, peas, cucumber, and avocado; and some protein and dairy such as chicken, meat, garbanzo beans, cheese, and yogurt.

Most young children will eat some fruits and vegetables if you make them appealing to them. Some tips are to serve vegetables raw because young children enjoy eating crunchy food; cut fruits and vegetables into wedges, strips, or cubes; and offer a dip of ranch dressing or fruit yogurt because children love finger foods and dip. If your son helps prepare the food (like cutting the fruit and vegetables with a plastic knife, and laying them on a platter), he’s more likely to eat the fruits of his labor. Also, if your son attends child care or preschool, he’s more likely to eat well there because the hunger from active play and the peer pressure to sit down together and eat can be very positive.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician