Developing toddlers healthy eating habits
So by 12 months you’ve introduced a variety of foods and largely ruled out any food intolerance (though please continue to watch for any intolerance if a new food is introduced). These posts will help you with food introduction, here and here.
At this point, toddlers should be starting to eat more or less the same meals as you are, either roughly pureed if this is still their preferred texture or cut into little pieces. There is no need to make special meals for them, in fact, this is developmentally detrimental! Research confirms what I know to be true – children who eat the same meals as their parents have healthier diets. Read more on this here.
Your toddler will by now understand the meaning of food and all that’s involved in the process of eating. It is also the time when they will challenge you and their eating habits will become a bit erratic.
I have treated thousands of children in over 18 years of clinical practice, and it is almost always during these early years that poor eating habits and food fussiness develop. Prevention is always much easier than cure, so over the next few posts, I will discuss some basic guidelines for forming healthy eating habits in toddlers and some hurdles to avoid (yes they will have you jumping them at some point).
But first – the type of tantrum to be proud of…
It’s my husbands birthday so we go to a very quiet French Restaurant in the country for lunch (we didn’t expect it to be so quiet)! Yikes I thought, as we sat at our table. My daughter was 2 years old at the time and fairly well behaved at the table and even at that stage, just loved food and trying new things. My husband ordered snails and natural oysters as an entrée (gross to me), and shared them with miss 2. What we didn’t plan for was that they were finished all too quickly and not understanding that that was just the first course, miss 2 started wailing ‘I want more snails and oysters!’ Thankfully, the other patrons appreciated her palate and found the outburst quite entertaining!
Kids aren’t ‘just fussy’.
They develop food fussiness and it is something you have complete control over. I’m not saying they won’t have likes and dislikes – that’s normal. But many children dislike many more foods than they like (or will only eat processed foods like pasta and bread) and this is an issue. My mother-in-law had 7 kids in 8 years and my husband came 10 years later. There was no food fussiness in that family though one child was a very small eater (and still is – just the way he is).
Food habits, like any habit, are formed, not inherent. I generally frustrate the hell out of mums of fussy kids when I say this. But I know raising my own two whole food loving kids, as well as helping many families ‘turn around’ their kids fussy eating habits, that this is absolutely true (unless there is a medical reason underlying).
Meal time routine
It is very easy to slip into the habit, especially busy mums with other kids, to supply toddlers with a constant stream of snacks. I know the food might keep them busy for a while but it seriously sabotages long-term healthy eating habits. If you give your bub food all day long, you can’t expect them to sit still or enjoy a meal come meal times. For more on kids and snacking, see this post here.
I hope you’ve developed a bit of structure around meal times by this stage…this is really important. Their food routine needs to include sitting at the family dinner table (or bench). I know this is sometimes difficult for a wiggly toddler and this is all the more reason to make sure they are very hungry come meal time. But this is one rule that later down the track will make your life so much easier; a bit of short term pain for long term gain.
Ask any mum of older kids (that aren’t strapped in) how stressful it is to have kids up and down from the table like yo-yo’s. It is distracting and takes the pleasure from enjoying meals in public or on holidays. I’ve heard it all – from kids only eating if sitting ‘in the kitchen sink’ to them ‘being force fed a mouthful of dinner during each add break in return for letting them watch their favourite TV show.’ Which brings me to one of the most important yet so simple tip…
Family meals matter
Sharing a meal with your toddler is just so important and this is why you need to work towards them eating the same meal as you. I can’t emphasise strongly enough how important this is for both nutritional and social development. I have gone into great detail about this in many of the posts on my website starting with “Family meals matter” (in ways you may never have considered).
If you prefer to eat with your husband or partner later in the evening, then, at least, dish yourself a small portion of dinner and sit with your toddler. Then also make an effort at weekends to eat a few of your meals (breakfast, lunch or dinner) together as a family.
Lead by example
Eat what you want them to eat. Children follow your example, not your advice. If you don’t want them to eat processed foods, then just don’t buy them. In the case of processed foods, what they don’t know won’t hurt them and what they do know will.
Once they have a taste for sweet processed foods, it’s hard to go back. My first born was given lollipops and chocolate bunnies at Easter often, but because she didn’t know what was inside, she just thought they were pretty little things to be carried around. Of course that all changed once she peeled back that wrapper!
Part two will be along soon. How are your toddlers food habits developing?