Fifteen-month-old Ella eats only foods from the grain group — pasta, crackers, bread and rice. Eighteen-month-old Diego will sit in his high chair and eat for about 10 minutes, and then squirms and cries to get down. Two-year-old Joey refuses anything with a chewy texture and prefers soft food.
It’s a bit of a mystery why some kids eat just about anything and others are very selective in their eating. Eating behaviors can be affected by developmental stages, a need for attention and control, or taste and smell sensitivities.
Having a basic understanding of nutritional needs is especially important for parents of young children. Because of our society’s eating habits, children are at higher risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Even though childhood obesity rates have leveled off a bit, we still can do a better job teaching kids eating habits that will promote good health during their lifetimes.
Let’s start with toddlers
Most toddlers go through what their parents would probably describe as a “picky-eating” stage. There are a few things going on developmentally and physically with toddlers that influence their eating. First of all, the average baby will triple his or her birth weight in the first year. So a 7-pound baby might be 21 pounds at one year of age. What if that baby continued to triple his or her weight every year until age 5? That’s a 1,700-pound kindergartener! Obviously, we can’t continue the tremendous growth rate seen in the first year of life, so relax when your toddler starts to eat less.
Toddlers have tremendous curiosity and a strong drive to learn about the world. If your child is also very active, you may see behavior like Deigo’s. He eats just long enough to get rid of the hunger pangs, and then he wants “down” so he can continue exploring. A child like this may need several snacks during the day to keep him going. Don’t confuse snacks with treats. Snacks are mini meals and should contain healthy foods from at least two food groups.
Toddlers typically are getting big teeth like eye teeth and molars. Have you ever had a tooth ache? Then you can sympathize with them. Sometimes the pain and discomfort of teething will affect eating as with Joey, who doesn’t want to chew anything hard right now.
Food jags are common in toddlers. Ella is eating mainly grains this week. Next week she might switch to fruits. Try not to make a big issue about what kids eat. When they overhear you complaining to grandma on the phone that, ”She’s such a picky eater, she only eats macaroni and crackers,” concrete-thinking toddlers may feel they have to live up to this, or they may figure out that they can get attention and control through their eating behaviors.
Rethink serving sizes for your toddler. Toddler servings are about ¼ that of an adult. Think 1 to 2 tablespoons per year of age. So a 2 year old may eat an ounce of meat, ¼ cup pasta or other grain, ½ cup of milk and ¼ cup of fruit and vegetable at a meal. Some children will eat more, and that’s OK. Sometimes toddlers eat one large meal during the day, and then eat small amounts the rest of the day.
Toddlers are developing independence and like to make choices. You might try putting foods in a small muffin tin or other compartment dish to allow toddlers to make choices. Provide some finger foods along with foods that require using a spoon or fork. Be patient as your toddler learns to use utensils. Provide a special drawer, shelf or container in the refrigerator and in the cupboard with healthy snacks for your toddler to choose from.
- Sit with your child during meals and turn off the TV and other devices.
- Gradually introduce your toddler to family mealtime with the whole family at the table together, but don’t expect him or her to stay the entire time.
- Make mealtime a pleasant time, with happy faces and interesting conversation.
- Minimize the amount of juice your child drinks. Teach children to drink water between meals if they are thirsty. Too much juice and milk between meals can ruin your child’s appetite.
- Avoid talking about whether or not food “tastes good.” Instead, talk about color (carrots are orange), temperature (our pasta is warm), texture (these crackers are crunchy), etc.
- Avoid using food as a reward or a punishment. We eat to nourish our bodies. When parents give too much attention to or make too much fuss about how much or what their child eats, the child may be more likely to use eating to get attention or to gain control.
- Get rid of the “clean your plate” rule. We want children to listen to their bodies and stop eating when they are full. This is called self-regulation. Eating when you are no longer hungry leads to overeating. No one wants to waste food, so start with a few tablespoons.
- Keep introducing a variety of new foods. If your toddler rejects a new food, don’t assume he or she doesn’t like it. Sometimes it takes as many as 10 exposures before a toddler will try it.
- Avoid the trap of trying to please your child with sugary treats and drinks. Treats are OK once in a while, but your job is to provide a variety of healthy food.
Choking is called the “silent killer.” A child who is choking may not make any noise. Always supervise when your child is eating. Any food can cause choking, but avoid foods with a high-choking potential: large marshmallows, popcorn, peanuts, hard candy, and stringy foods like melted cheese. Cut grapes in half, cut hot dogs into small bites rather than coin shaped pieces, and cut raw fruit or vegetables into small pieces.
Remember, your pediatrician or health care provider will be your best source of information on your child’s growth and development. Contact them if you have questions.
For more information on this topic, visit AveraChildrens.org.
View our Feeding Guide for Young Children with great information on food groups, serving sizes, and mealtime tips.