Establishing dietary rules for toddlers

Instilling healthy eating habits in toddlers without turning the dinner table into a battlefield can be difficult, but it’s something that nearly every parent strives for. It’s definitely possible to improve your chances, but there’s no shame in having a little bit of trouble helping Baby settle into regular healthy eating habits during the toddler years. Toddler eating patterns can be strange and unpredictable, and sometimes there isn’t anything you can do about it right away. There are some foundations you can set, though, that can help you and Baby work towards becoming a family of food-explorers.

Keep your expectations low 

This isn’t because Baby isn’t capable of blowing any expectation out of the water if he wants to. It’s just because toddlers’ appetites are naturally unpredictable things, and are often smaller than their parents are expecting. After an entire year of growing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with, your little one’s growth rate is slowing down a little, and he may be experiencing a drop in appetite along with it. In general, a toddler’s portion size probably shouldn’t be bigger than 1/4 the size of an adult portion size. If Baby wants more, that’s great, but starting off with a bigger portion size than he can handle can be intimidating.

Understanding, but not too understanding

It’s no fun to be the parent whose child wants the same thing for dinner six nights a week, but wanting the same food over and over again isn’t always picky eating – sometimes it’s a sign of wanting something familiar for comfort. This doesn’t mean Baby should necessarily get what he wants every time, especially if what he wants is chicken fingers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it can help to have another idea about why Baby may be acting the way he is.

Baby is also just like anyone else – he has food likes and dislikes, and even when he seems to be going through a picky phase, he isn’t doing it to be difficult. If you can manage to serve one thing that you know Baby likes to eat at each meal, he may be willing to try some of the other things at the table, and even if he doesn’t, there’s something there for him to eat.

Stick to the plan 

One of the most important parts of mealtime for Baby at this age is establishing a pattern of eating with the rest of the family, so if you’re cooking for the whole family, it’s a good idea to get  Baby involved. However, you probably don’t want to get into the habit of taking dinner orders from Baby, so it can save a lot of effort later if you make it clear to him early on that he is expected to eat the same dinner as everyone else, and that you won’t be making him anything special.

Some families like to use the “one bite” rule, where children need to try to taste one bite of each type of food on their plates before they’re done, while others feel like this strategy can lead to power struggles, more than healthy eating.

Help Baby get involved

Baby is less likely to reject foods he helped make, whether that means helping to water vegetables in the garden, well-supervised ‘help’ with stirring while you’re cooking, or even just helping you pick out the perfect red bell peppers at the grocery store. Getting Baby involved in helping to prepare meals at an early age can also help cement the idea that mealtime is a family activity that needs to be shared and worked towards together.

Stay steady

Having a predictable eating schedule means that it’s more likely that Baby will be hungry when dinnertime comes around. Making sure Baby sits down and stays still during meals instead of running around is just a safety issue, and scheduling snacks the same way you schedule meals, instead of letting Baby graze all day, can help you keep track of the balance of Baby’s diet.

This means not taking away food as a punishment, and not offering special treats as rewards or bribes. These types of punishments may seem to make sense, but they can start to alter the way Baby thinks about food, and adding associations can get in the way of listening to his body and building healthy eating patterns.

The bottom line

Baby may be a little bit of an unpredictable eater for a few months or even years, and he may be more interested in what’s on your plate than what’s on his own. That doesn’t mean, however, that the good work you’re doing in offering him a variety of healthy, interesting foods isn’t going to pay off! If you have any concerns about Baby’s eating patterns, don’t hesitate to check in with his pediatrician or other healthcare provider.


Sources
  • “Serving Sizes for Toddlers.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, March 7 2016. Web.
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