The food jag survival kit

How to handle a one-food-or-nothing child -- and yourself

For a laid-back mom like me, it was no big deal when my three-year-old suddenly demanded oats soaked in apple juice for dinner. Weird choice. But why not? Unfortunately that was the only thing David would eat — every night for a month. You can imagine how excited I was when he finally agreed to try a peanut butter sandwich instead. But my joy was short-lived. All that sandwich accomplished was to jump-start David’s next food jag.

Did I worry? You better believe it. Because David was shorter than his friends, I was frightened his eating habits were affecting his long-term growth. I also found it hard to deal with the unsolicited comments like: “I’m so glad Erin isn’t picky like David. She just adores calamari and Caesar salad.” Hearing about a three-year-old with a gourmet palate might be funny under different circumstances. But if David continued to eat this way, would he be invited to birthday parties, or even over to a friend’s house for lunch?

I wish I’d known then what I know now — because according to Robert Issenman, president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, food jags are quite common in the under-five set. A food jag is an eating pattern in young children, and most little ones will gravitate toward a certain food at some point during childhood. Although a food jag can last anywhere from a few days to several years, Issenman assures us that healthy children will eat and drink what their bodies require. “They’re remarkably resilient and can get by for a long time on a very narrow range of food choices.”
So what is it about a peanut butter sandwich that makes it so appealing? Actually, it’s not the food we should be focusing on, but the reason for the fixation. Issenman notes that food jags usually occur when children are experimenting with autonomy, around age two or three. “They can’t control most of the things going on in their lives, but they can control what goes into their mouths, and when it comes out.” Naturally, this wilfulness catches us by surprise. We underestimate how well developed their personalities can be — especially when they come in such small packages.

While toddlers may be prepared to sacrifice variety for control, their short attention spans mean they’re unlikely to focus on one food for long. By age seven or eight, they will probably have moved past their food jags because, in Issenman’s words, “the influence of peers tends to normalize behaviour.”

Issenman, a paediatrician for nearly 30 years, remembers the most extreme example of a food jag in his Hamilton, Ont., practice. The patient — a 12-year-old boy who had survived on Heinz mixed dinners and strained plums since preschool — weighed more than 160 pounds. After a four-day hospital stay, the boy’s habits normalized, much to the relief of his mom and dad.

Whatever the food obsession, how we respond makes all the difference. First, understand that it’s a preference, not a behavioural problem. “You might not be able to control what your child likes,” says Issenman, “but you can certainly control your reaction.” Never punish your child by removing her preference; build on it instead. Adding banana slices to that peanut butter sandwich might just do the trick. And, tempting as it is, forgo using a rewards system — it just invites a power struggle of demands and negotiations.

Keeping things in perspective will help too, says Chaya Kulkarni, child development expert and vice-president of Toronto’s Invest in Kids. “Food preferences are normal for children, just like they are for us. There’s an element of food that gives us comfort, and we naturally gravitate toward our favourites whatever our age.”

Kulkarni stresses the need to be empathetic and understand the context. Is there a new baby in the house? Has your toddler recently been moved to a different daycare? Does he associate certain foods with being sick? Take a closer look at how your child eats. When he’s eating slowly, avoid becoming impatient. If he prefers small portions, don’t overwhelm him with large ones.
Above all, don’t lose your cool. And remember: Positive reinforcement in all areas of your child’s life, not just diet, is the way to go.

• Be creative. Ask yourself: Is there another way I can do this? Try adding fresh fruit to a milkshake or cottage cheese to plain pasta. And experiment: If your five-year-old hates cooked carrots, he may like them raw.

• Mix it up. Serve the food your little one is hooked on along with others — different colours and textures will appeal to her curiosity. Add one new food at a time, and be patient. You might have to reintroduce something new several times before she’s willing to take a bite.

• Don’t swamp her. If your child is drinking too much milk or juice, she won’t be that hungry. When you restrict “convenient calories,” she’ll have a better appetite and be more interested in trying different foods. Issenman advises keeping a toddler to 12 to 20 ounces (375 to 625 millilitres) of milk and 6 ounces (175 millilitres) of juice a day, but let her drink water when she wants to.

• Be good yourself. Eat sensibly and he’ll follow your lead. For example, make a habit of serving fruit before cake. This helps your little one understand that eating in a healthy way and enjoying treats are all just part of the mix.

• Keep things fun. Don’t just park a plate in front of your child. Sharing a meal offers you the perfect opportunity to socialize. Even if you’ve already had your lunch, sit down and talk to him while he’s eating.

• Let them help. What I found helped most with my son David was asking him to help me make dinner. Not only did he enjoy preparing his own food, he was also keen to sample the results.

Fortunately, David’s food jags gradually tapered off and he began eating a more balanced diet. I wish I could say I stopped worrying, but I didn’t. David’s height concerned me until he was well into high school.

As it turned out, I could have taken a rain check on all that maternal anguish and guilt. Now 22, David is a six-footer who loves Thai, Mexican and Japanese food. And his fetish for peanut butter sandwiches? Well, some things just never change.

When to get help

Food jags occasionally need a paediatrician’s attention. Here are some warning signs that your child’s love for a certain food might be getting out of hand:

• a sustained weight loss that could be a sign of something more serious
• the preferred foods are all one texture, like strained fruit and juice
• when a food jag is just one part of an overall pattern of obssesive behaviour; for example, if a child repeatedly focuses on a certain kind of play, and won’t actively engage with other children

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