When Elana Poplaw asks her son, Miles, what he wants for supper, he typically cites the same three basic food groups: chocolate, lollipops and ice cream. "He never actually sits down at the table; I have to hold food and walk around with him," explains Poplaw. "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."

Karen Bowman's daughter, Kaylee, developed strange eating habits just before she turned three. "For months, all she ate were Subway turkey, ham and bacon wraps, while sitting on the living room floor," recalls Bowman. "Then, she'd only eat yogurt tubes; after that, it was microwaveable macaroni and cheese."

Most parents are utterly mystified when their once-ravenous children suddenly start eating strangely small amounts. Fearing their kids will surely starve, they resort to pleading, bribing and bullying their pint-sized picky eaters to clean their plates.

But chances are, your tight-lipped tot is simply going through a normal developmental phase, says pediatrician Dr. Denis Leduc. 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 Leduc. "It's no longer you shoving food down this little mouth. Mealtime becomes participatory when children are between 3 and 5, 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 battleground she knows she can win, notes Andrea Howick, co-creator of the "Yummy in My Tummy" series of DVDs and books. "Eating is one area where preschoolers can determine the outcome, and when your child won't eat, it can be very disconcerting," notes Howick, whose son, Matt, 5, became a finicky eater at age 3. "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."

Forcing your child to eat usually backfires, warns Leduc. "Healthy children will eat what they need to eat, often in very small amounts. As long as the child is following their established growth curve, and the physical exam and development are normal, that's the most reassuring thing."

While producing "Yummy in My Tummy," Howick discovered, "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."

Most fussy eaters eventually grow out of it, assures 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," advises Leduc.

Dishing up happy meals

Dos:

  • 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, colorful food.
  • Keep mealtimes short and sweet, about 15-20 minutes.
  • Stay relaxed, so your child associates mealtime with enjoying your company, not with disappointing you.
Don'ts:

  • Don't offer snacks, juice or milk for one hour before meals.
  • Don't eat in front of the TV.
  • Don't get angry if your child refuses to taste something; try again another time.
  • Don't make them bite off more than they can chew; respecting your child's hunger cues may help stave off obesity later in life.

Freelance writer Wendy Helfenbaum's son rarely sits at the table for more than four minutes, except if Kraft Dinner's on the menu. Visit her at taketwoproductions.ca