What to do when your picky eater goes on a food jag

Does it feel like your toddler will only eat a select list of foods? It's called a food jag and here's what you can do to help.

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Stoned Wheat Thins. Tuna. Orange juice. For several months, that was just about all four-year-old Chris was willing to eat.

Once in a while, his mother, Lisa Tanner,* managed to coax him into eating a piece of fruit or a vegetable, but most of the time, he refused everything that wasn’t part of his preferred diet.

It’s called a “food jag” when a child decides to limit her diet to a couple of favourite foods. Registered dietitian Theodosia Phillips of Saskatoon says a couple of factors make food jags common among preschoolers.

1) A reluctance to try new foods: In some kids this can lead to a reliance on just a few familiar and comforting items.

2) Dramatically slower growth in children over two (compared with infants): This allows them to limit their intake.

Phillips’ basic advice for worried parents of food-jagging kids is, “Don’t panic. It’s very rare that a child would go on a food jag that would cause any health problems.”

In fact, says Phillips, children are often eating more than you realize. “For example, if a preschooler ate one piece of French toast made with one egg, he’d already have eaten half of his daily requirement for protein and one-third of his grain requirement.”

Most food jags end on their own after a few weeks, but Phillips says you can help things along with these steps:

Don’t be a short-order cook. “Kids need to learn to eat the foods the rest of the family is eating,” Phillips says. She recommends continuing to offer a variety of foods, and not just the child’s favourites, without pressuring her to eat. If she eats nothing at all during that meal, don’t fret. “Occasional skipped meals are not a concern if your child is growing well,” she adds.

Involve your child in food choices and prep. Ask him to pick a vegetable or two at the grocery store and help with the preparation — even if it’s just washing some fruits and veggies in the sink. Give him cookie cutters to cut sandwiches in different shapes, or ask if he’d like his carrots cut in circles, ovals or sticks.

Don’t fill her up with drinks. “Sometimes parents try to remedy a food jag by offering the child a lot of milk or juice because they then feel reassured that at least the child is getting something,” Phillips says. “But excess fluids can actually make food jags worse because the child’s tummy is too full to feel hungry.” Juice should be kept to no more than half a cup per day, and milk to no more than two cups per day.

Add new foods to old favourites. Does your child want a peanut butter sandwich every single day? Try adding banana or apple slices, raisins or grated carrot to the sandwich, or serve it with sliced cucumbers and cut-up grapes on the plate. Maybe your child likes only chicken nuggets dipped in barbecue sauce. Add some other dippers for her to try — pieces of whole-grain toast and cooked cauliflower florets, for example. Start with a small amount of the new food and work your way up, suggests Phillips.

Lisa Tanner was concerned enough about her son Chris’s very narrow food choices that she took him to the family doctor for a complete checkup. She was surprised and relieved to find he was perfectly healthy and even had higher iron levels than his brother (who ate practically everything he was offered).

“I stopped worrying so much,” says Tanner, “and sure enough, not long after that, he started eating more foods and the food jag was over.”

* Names changed by request.

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