“He never eats.” “All she eats is white food.” “He sure won’t eat that.” “I don’t see how she survives because she doesn’t eat enough.” Do these statements sound familiar? If so, then you know what it is like to feed toddlers.
The toddler years are very unpredictable when it comes to a child’s eating habits. Sometimes toddlers eat voraciously and sometimes they do not seem to eat much at all. Sometimes they like a particular type of food and sometimes they do not.
During the toddler years, many families and caregivers get concerned that the toddler is not getting adequate nutrition when in fact nearly all toddlers will consume what they need as long as they are offered appropriate foods. Families and caregivers are responsible for teaching children healthy eating habits. Their eating habits will be affected by their developing skills and abilities. Having a good understanding of this developmental period can help provide appropriate feeding experiences.
Even though U.S. health professionals are concerned with early childhood obesity, it is important for families and caregivers to remember that a toddler’s fat intake should not be restricted before the age of two. Once a child turns a year old (not before), they may switch from formula to whole milk. Toddlers should be given whole milk and not low fat or percent milk.
Toddlers need the calories from the whole milk and other fats they intake, in order to have the energy they need for their fast rate of development. After age two, it is appropriate for children to begin to eat fewer high-fat foods so that by the time they are five years old, only 300 calories per day are coming from fat.
The introduction of solid foods will begin during infancy (no earlier than 10-12 months), but will continue throughout the toddler years. Soft table foods such as mashed potatoes and cooked green beans can be introduced. As toddlers begin to use fine motor skills, they will begin to feed themselves finger foods. Even though it may look chaotic and messy, children should be encouraged to feed themselves.
It may take time for a child to develop a taste for a new food. As toddlers are cautious of new foods, many attempts–perhaps as many as 15-20–may be necessary before a child may even decide to try it or decide if they like it. Continue to offer small servings of the food over a period of time. It also helps to remember that a child should be offered and encouraged to eat or try new things, but food should never be forced!
Food should not be used as a reward or punishment. This can negatively affect a child’s view of certain foods and lead to poor eating behaviors. Early experiences with mealtimes will follow a child throughout life; therefore, make mealtimes as pleasant and less stressful as possible.
Although it may be tempting to give toddlers certain foods that are fun to eat and staples in the diets of older children, make sure the foods are appropriate for the age group you are serving.
Here is a list of foods that should not be given to toddlers (or even children up to four years old), because they are choking hazards:
- Hot dogs
- Whole grapes
- Raw carrots
- Hard candy
- Large chunks of meat or other food
- Marshmallows (even miniature)
- Spoonfuls of peanut butter
- Ice cubes
- Nuts, peanuts, or seeds
Caregivers may be apprehensive about the challenges of feeding children but there are helpful hints to make mealtimes with toddlers less stressful. Provide a calm and relaxing atmosphere. Eating with the children can model good eating practices. Mealtime can be a valuable learning experience. When you sit and eat with children, pleasant conversations can take place. Discussions about the colors, textures, and tastes of the food also can encourage language and cognitive development.
It may help if caregivers relax and let the toddlers feed themselves using child-sized utensils. Eating with toddlers can become very messy, but all messes can be cleaned up. If toddlers are using smaller sized utensils and are given small servings of food, the mess they make can be reduced.
Be encouraging and supportive during this learning process. Be aware of your verbal and non verbal cues and reactions. For example, do not frown or sigh loudly when a child makes a mess. Toddlers are learning and need encouragement. Help children learn skills, including how to help clean up a mess!
Since toddlers are becoming more independent, they should also be allowed (as much as possible) to serve themselves. If children are allowed to make their own choices, chances are they will eat more than if they have no choice in the matter. Likewise, toddlers can start to make the choice to stop eating when full.
Encourage children to take small servings and allow second helpings if the child is still hungry. Teach children to recognize body cues such as hunger and fullness. Forcing children to “clean their plate” may encourage overeating.
Families and caregivers have a major responsibility to make sure toddlers are healthy and safe. By understanding proper nutrition practices and the abilities of toddlers, adults are able to establish healthy eating habits for life.