Serve toddlers good food, but don’t fret if they eat little
BY JENNIFER MOTL
If you fear your toddler is starving, you’re not alone. But forcing food can backfire in a big way. So today, I’ll share secrets for getting your child to eat enough without a food fight.
My great-grandma used to say she lived on “love and wind pudding,” which is a cute way of saying she didn’t eat much. Some days, that seems to describe my 1-year-old son’s habits, too. At a recent meal, he refused everything except five bunny-shaped crackers and possibly some whole milk (I’m unsure if he actually swallowed any milk before dousing himself with it.)
His dad and I reacted like most parents—we laughed at his antics but also worried about whether we are nourishing our little munchkin enough.
TODDLERS’ NEEDS VARY
A toddler can burn a range of 1,000 to a whopping 1,650 calories a day, according to the Dietary Reference Intakes published by the Institute of Medicine. Your child’s needs depend on age, height, weight, growth spurts and physical activity that day.
To make things even more complicated, children’s appetites vary wildly. For example, the morning after my son’s itsy–bitsy cracker dinner, he gobbled up half a minced pear, a couple of tablespoons of omelet with broccoli and Cheddar, a half cup Cheerios swirled into a tablespoon of almond butter, and several ounces of whole milk.
Because of these appetite swings, experts recommend not freaking out about a tiny meal or even a couple days of modest eating. Stay calm—your child will make up for small meals later in the week.
WHAT PARENTS PROVIDE
Parents’ responsibility is to offer balanced meals. Toddlers have small stomachs and need to have three meals and one or two snacks daily, at regularly scheduled times.
With this kind of schedule, if your child eats poorly, you can relax, knowing she’ll have another chance to eat in a couple hours. Also, kids who can trust they’ll be fed regularly are less likely to overeat or become overweight.
But while it’s your responsible to offer healthful foods, it’s your child’s responsibility to choose which of those foods to eat and how much, if any.
Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and therapist, has long been the guru of this “division of responsibility” in eating, an approach now embraced by mainstream dietitians and physicians. Parents are in charge of what and when to eat. Kids are in charge of how much to eat.
Basically, Satter says we should avoid praising, cajoling or otherwise commenting on how much our kids eat. Encouraging kids to eat when they’re not hungry can set them up for overeating later in life. For some kids, it has the opposite effect—even if they are hungry, they refuse to eat, just to get attention.
Also, it’s important not to be a short-order cook. This means if your toddler refuses to eat chicken, do not jump in and make macaroni and cheese. Your child will not starve from skipping a meal.
Try to provide three or four different foods to choose from at each meal. It’s your child’s right to refuse food. She will have another opportunity to eat in a few hours.
Knowing how much to serve a toddler can be tricky. The general rule is about to of an adult serving of each food, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
You can also try serving a tablespoon of a food from each food group for each year of your child’s age. For example, a 2-year-old might eat two tablespoons each of fruit, veggies, meat, grains, plus two teaspoons or so of fat or oil.
Because appetites vary, don’t limit portion sizes of healthy foods or even fats—let your child have as much as he wants. And infants and toddlers need about 50 percent of their calories from fat, so don’t serve fat-free foods unless your doctor recommends it. I often season veggies with butter or olive oil. Toddlers need fat for brain development and generally don’t have cholesterol problems. You can switch to lower-fat foods after age 2.
Do limit desserts, sweet drinks and junk food. When you have dessert, offer a single portion and no more. Also, there is no reason to offer junk foods and sodas to toddlers.
And most experts recommend limiting juice to no more than 6 ounces per day. It’s better to offer fruit instead of juice—it has more fiber and is more filling. Water and whole milk make wonderful beverages.
Kids often don’t have all their teeth until they’re 2 years old. Even then, many don’t learn to chew thoroughly until they’re about 4.
So cook foods until tender, and chop foods into tiny pieces. And since it takes time for toddlers to learn to use silverware, consider serving foods close to room temperature. This makes it easier for kids to pick up food without freezing or burning their fingers.
Do serve food on smaller plates and dishes. And offer child-size silverware, too, as it’s much easier for kids to use.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In the end, it’s not calories that matter—it’s whether your child is growing consistently.
Make sure you’re visiting the pediatrician’s office regularly. The pediatrician or nurse will check your child’s height and weight and graph it on a growth chart.
Some kids are high on the growth curve and some kids trend along the lower curves, but as long as your child is growing and developing consistently, that’s the ultimate measure of whether your child is eating enough.
If your toddler is truly underweight, your doctor may refer you to a registered dietitian for an individualized plan.
My son is built like a string bean. When he was a baby, I worried constantly that it was my fault—that I wasn’t making enough breast milk and that I was starving him.
But now that he’s eating table food, and I’m careful to offer lots of calories, protein and fats, he’s still skinny, althoughand otherwise healthy. It’s probably genetic, as he comes from a long line of string beans on both sides of the family.
Bottom line: As parents, we can (and should) provide good foods, but we cannot control our children’s growth. Try to relax and enjoy your child.
ON THE WEB
Here are some sites where you can learn more about feeding toddlers:
- A local pediatrician’s take on feeding toddlers: doctoryum.com/2012/04/tips-for-feeding-toddlers
- Federal guidelines: choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers.html
- American Academy of Pediatrics: healthychildren.org
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: eatright.org/kids
- Growth charts: cdc.gov/growthcharts
- Avoiding power struggles: ellynsatter.com
BE A ROLE MODEL
Toddlers are notoriously messy eaters. While you can’t expect perfect manners, you can set some basic rules. For example, serve food only at the table Do not let your child run amok with a sippy cup and bag of crackers.
To maximize good nutrition, minimize distractions during meals. Turn off the TV and keep the dining area relatively quiet. Sit at the table and eat healthy foods with your child. He or she is more likely to enjoy broccoli if he sees you do, too.
Jennifer Motl welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.