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Ask Dr. Meg: My Baby Eats at Daycare But Not at Home

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Dr. Meg Meeker

I received an email from an anxious mother about her eighteen-month-old who eats at daycare but not at home. What to do?, she wondered. Her son ate whatever the daycare provider put in front of him, but when she gave him dinner with the family at night, he wouldn’t eat. Ouch.

We mothers hold deep feelings about our kids’ eating. If they eat well, we feel like successful mothers. If they don’t, deep down we feel like we are failing. After all, our instincts tell us, If we can’t make sure that our kids have their nutritional needs met, what can we do? Food is very emotional stuff for us mothers. Think of breast milk. It is, after all, “liquid gold,” we are taught, and if we can’t breast feed well (or heaven forbid, we don’t like it), then we are—well—bad moms.

The truth is, food is emotional for us, but it isn’t for our kids. To a typical eighteen-month-old, putting food in his mouth is just another thing to do during the day. It goes in because someone says it has to, but he’s got better things to do. Sure, he may like the taste of fudge popsicles and chow them down, but for he most part, food just doesn’t interest him.

I tell mothers of toddlers from about twelve months to thirty months, that if their child eats one good meal a day, they are ahead of the game. Most toddlers just don’t care about eating. That’s why it’s very important to make sure that the one good meal that goes in is well balanced.

It appears that this mother’s son likes eating at noon rather than at dinner time. It’s not that the daycare makes better food, that he likes the daycare workers more, or even that he doesn’t want to eat for Mom at home. He is simply ready (and hungriest) while he is at daycare.

For others of you with toddlers who eat in peculiar (but normal) ways, here are a few tips to help you keep your wits about you:

1. Offer food three times a day but don’t expect it to be eaten at all three times.

2. Don’t worry about too much variety.

Kids need fruits, veggies, meats, dairy, and carbs, and you need to make sure that they get one of each per day. But, the meats (proteins), veggies, etc., can be the same ones day after day. If a child only likes broccoli and no other greens, give him broccoli seven days a week. Don’t worry; he’ll eventually eat others in a few years.

3. Never fight over food.

Food wars never lead anywhere good, so don’t have them. If you offer a plate of food and he doesn’t eat, wait until the next meal and offer another plate. He won’t starve.

4. Don’t offer compensation foods.

Often parents give kids their favorite foods after an untouched meal so that the child will “have something.” You don’t need to do this.

I had a friend throw popcorn on the floor for her toddler after she refused to eat her meals because Mom was so worried that she would starve. You don’t need to throw your toddler’s favorite foods anywhere.

5. Remember that toddlers often eat their best meals early in the day so make those meals good.

If you child only eats breakfast, then make sure he gets meats or eggs, veggies and fruits at that meal. Just because it’s 8 am doesn’t mean he only eats cereal—especially if that’s the only meal he’ll eat.

6. Don’t worry about your toddler “trying” new foods.

The toddler years aren’t for expanding your child’s food repertoire. You’ve got enough to deal with and broadening his food horizons comes later.

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