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Not a week goes by that I don’t get a question from a worried parent about a toddler who has stopped eating. What can I do, they all ask. How can I get my child to eat?

The answer is nothing. Just RELAX!

Parents never win if they start food fights with their kids or try to force them to eat. The most important advice I can give you is to AVOID A POWER STRUGGLE OVER FOOD. One pediatrician I know says he only sees feeding problems in families where the parents are overly concerned about food. In families where parents are relaxed about food and take a casual approach, food problems are mild and transient.

I don’t mean you should totally abdicate your role. As a parent you are the one who provides your child with proper nutrition. But you should understand that there is no way a parent can make a child eat what that child does not want to eat. All your coaxing and nagging and fretting will not change this fact.

Actually, the more you focus on food the more likely your child is to stonewall and refuse to eat. Even pre-verbal children soon sense that what goes in their mouth is a very important issue at their house. Further they realize that refusal of food gets results. Mother pays exquisite attention to you and what remains on your highchair tray. Look how worried she is!

OK, you decide to relax and wait it out. While you are waiting, I have some specific suggestions that may help:

o Remember that every baby SLOWS DOWN IN EATING at about one year of age. The child now grows at a slower pace and does not require the amounts of food that were necessary to fuel the earlier growth.

o Also remember that a year-old child has a MIND OF ITS OWN and now knows that some foods taste better than others. What’s more by now children have learned some skills. They can shake their head or clench their teeth when some of the yucky stuff gets near the mouth. These new motor skills mean that the kid is–or soon will be–able to self-feed, as well as able to get up and walk away from the food.

o CUT DOWN THE AMOUNT OF MILK. A common reason babies don’t eat solids is that they are getting more food than they need the easy way, from the bottle. No toddler needs more than 24 ounces of milk a day and you can even cut down to 16 ounces. The idea behind this seemingly draconian measure is to make the child hungry enough to willingly try solid foods and, hopefully, find some that taste good.

o Feed your child TINY PORTIONS. To a small person a spoonful of mashed potatoes can look like a mountain. Better the child ask for more than be overwhelmed.

o Be aware of how little food a young child needs. A TABLESPOON PER YEAR OF AGE (i.e. two tablespoons for a two-year-old) of starches, fruits and vegetables is an adequate serving size. As for meat or chicken, a serving is the size of the CHILD’S PALM.

o Feed FINGER FOODS. Although many babies at a year of age are still willing to be spoon-fed, quite a few are much too independent to tolerate this. Lots of things can be served as finger foods. For example you can spread mashed or pureed vegetable (or fruit) on thin bread with crusts removed. This somewhat unorthodox sandwich provides both the starch and vegetable.

o Offer NEW FOODS but make a promise to yourself that you will not get upset if your child refuses to try them. Parents are often concerned about protein intake (although 16 ounces of milk provides adequate protein) so try putting scrambled eggs, chopped hard-cooked eggs, large curd cottage cheese, small cubes of cheddar cheese, or tiny meat balls on the child’s tray.

o Pay attention to your child’s HUNGER PATTERNS. Most children–even the most finicky eaters–have a hungry period. Notice when your kid does the most eating. Be sneaky. Don’t offer a bottle then. Instead work with your child’s natural body rhythms and offer solids at that time.

o Repeat this mantra to yourself: nature does not permit self-starvation by toddlers.