Before my daughter could talk, we taught her some basic baby sign language. Well, truthfully, we only taught her "all done." When she was done with her food, she would hold both hands up and twist them at the wrists, doing a sort of double-wave.
At first, it was great. We could finally understand when she was done with her food. It took a lot of the guesswork out—is she done yet? is she still hungry? But it wasn't long before she was seemingly saying "all done" just about before she started.
A new problem was created. Now we were concerned about her eating enough. It felt mean to force feed her, but we wanted her to eat enough. What do you do if your preschooler isn't eating enough?
1. Talk with your preschooler's doctor
I can only write in generalities here. The reality, however, is that every child is different. If you're concerned about your preschooler's eating habits, talk to his or her doctor.
Individualized advice is always more helpful than generic advice. That individual advice should trump any general advice you receive—including the advice I'm about to give in this post.
2. Let the growth percentile guide you
While it's easy to become far too obsessed with growth charts, they can provide some basic help.
The goal is not to track along at 50%. Some kids will always be smaller and some kids will always be on the higher end of the growth chart. If you are 5' 2" and your husband is 5' 8" your daughter will probably be small. That's genetics. And it's okay.
There are other reasons for a dip in growth weight. As your child gets more active, he or she will start to burn more calories. Your preschooler may also slow their growth weight because of body type.
As a general rule, "under-nourishment shows up first in a slowing of weight gain. Tapering off in height reflects a more severe, prolonged nutritional deficiency....While growth charts are not infallible as indicators of optimal growth, they provide clues as to whether or not your child is getting proper nutrition and getting enough to eat."1
3. Experiment with meal times or portions
If after talking with your doctor and examining your preschooler's growth track you need to get your child to eat more, experiment with more frequent meal times. Instead of three larger meals, try six smaller meals.
The conventional wisdom of "spoiling" one's appetite isn't always right. It may be that your child does better snacking throughout the day with only one or two larger meals.
Preschoolers can often be finicky about their food intake. Piling food onto a plate may seem like a good idea, but it can be discouraging or frustrating for some kids. Parents will often unwittingly give preschoolers adult portions (some 4x more than they need).
Instead, start with smaller portions (a tablespoon is a good starting point) and then provide small second helpings for foods your child genuinely likes. Note that with new foods, you may need to offer a food 10–15 times before your child will want more.
If you are concerned about developing a picky eater, this is a great approach. You can both teach the importance of eating a variety of foods without making mealtime constantly dissolve into tears and battles of the will.
4. Be more concerned about balance than amount
The Food Pyramid that you probably grew up on has been replaced. Did you know that? In 2011, MyPlate debuted and officially replaced the 1960s pyramid.
While parents are often concerned about the amount of food a child is eating, doctors are often more concerned with the quality of food a child is eating.
You can see that a full half of your child's plate should contain fruits and veggies. Grains and protein take the other half with a small side of dairy.
Be more concerned about balance than amount of food.
5. Involve your preschooler in the food process
Like any adult, children feel more connected to experiences when they invest in the experience personally. Take your child with you to the grocery store or have him or her help make one meal a week.
For a more involved process, have your child help you plant and take care of a garden. Sometimes just allowing your child to participate in the process of bringing food to the table will help him or her develop an appreciation for the food you set before him or her.