Toddlerhood is an exciting time of growth and development. During this time (age 1 to 3 years), a child begins to mature in motor skills and tries to become more independent. Many of the things a toddler learns at this time stay with him his whole life. For this reason, it is important for him to develop good, life-long eating habits.
Although a toddler usually gains about 4-6 lbs. per year, this is a slower growth rate than the rapid gain that happens during the first year of life (12 or more lbs. in one year.) This means your child’s appetite will probably be decreased compared to what it was during the first year. He may not eat as much as you expect him to eat, and he may refuse foods that he was eating previously. This can be troubling to parents, especially since, as a child grows, vitamin and mineral needs gradually increase. For this reason, recommendations of amounts and types of food to eat have been made by nutrition experts, and following these suggestions can help to set our minds at ease.
Another challenging toddler eating habit is their insistence on self-feeding, even though it is difficult for them. They may not be able to handle eating utensils well, but it is important that they be allowed to feed themselves. They are striving for independence, and this is an important time for exploring new tastes, textures, shapes and colors of foods. As toddlers handle their food, albeit somewhat messily, they are processing a lot of information and, hopefully, are learning to like a variety of nutritious foods. Of course, this will only happen if they are being given a variety of nutritious foods to enjoy and experiment with.
This brings us to a discussion of the feeding/teaching responsibilities of a parent. A parent is responsible for what a child is offered to eat and when and where it is given. The child is responsible for how much he or she eats. So a parent should provide nutritious foods at regularly scheduled times in a pleasant, distraction-free environment. A child should be allowed to handle, touch and even play with his or her food– within reason– and then only eat what he or she wants. This may be difficult to accept at times, but it is important to avoid control issues when possible. This does not mean you should abdicate your responsibility and only give a child what he or she wants to eat. You should offer a variety of nutrient-rich foods, and take comfort in the fact that, although some foods will be offered ten times or more before they are actually eaten; they eventually will be accepted by your child.
So what foods should be offered? Toddlers should be offered a variety of interesting shapes, textures and colors of food. When possible, serve them what the rest of the family is eating. (For a specific, individualized meal plan for your child, check out the website, www.mypyramid.gov.) When trying new foods, give your child a mixture of familiar, well-liked foods with new foods. If a he or she refuses the new food, try again in a few days or weeks. Try to avoid hard-to-chew foods or other foods that may cause choking. Some risky foods are grapes, hot dogs, link sausages, popcorn, peanut butter, hard candy, gumdrops, corn, nuts, and raw apples or vegetables. Sometimes these foods can be modified to lower the choking risk. For example, hot dog slices can be quartered and vegetables can be cooked and mashed.
Portion size is important. Provide small portions of food and let your child ask for seconds. A quick rule of thumb for portions sizes is about 1 Tablespoon of food for every year of age. Of course, don’t be too rigid with this; let your child eat as much as is necessary for him or her to be satisfied.
Some foods and beverages should be limited. Juices, fruit drinks and sweetened beverages should be restricted. They can decrease a child’s appetite and keep him or her from eating more vitamin and mineral-rich foods. Sweet, sticky foods, such as candies and gels, which stay in the mouth for longer time periods can cause tooth decay. Low-nutrient foods such as cookies, candy and carbonated drinks can be given in small amounts occasionally, but they should never be given in place of a meal or take the place of nutritious foods.
These are just a few suggestions for helping your child to develop good eating habits. Toddlerhood can be challenging and sometimes frustrating for parents and toddlers, but it can also be very enjoyable. It really is fun to watch your child discover new foods and abilities, so try to sit back and enjoy the new experiences that both you and your child are having. After all, meeting the challenges of parenthood and overcoming them can be very satisfying.