Helping toddlers develop healthy food-regulation habits

Eating habits established early have an impact on the way people continue to eat all the way through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. At the same time, there are certain stages of pickiness, or unwillingness to eat vegetables, in early childhood, that are fairly normal and expected. On top of that, during the toddler years, children tend to have much smaller appetites than they might have earlier their development. This is because, in the years between toddlers’ first and third birthdays, children’s growth naturally slows down a lot, and they may need a lot less food to fuel that growth than before.

Eating trouble

Toddlers around this age often enter into a stage of development where they’re reluctant to try new foods. This doesn’t mean they’ll be unadventurous in their eating forever, and it also doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to cater to your tot’s very specific meal plan all the time, or limit the eating adventures your family can take, just because Baby’s palate is a little limited.

Most problems parents run into when trying to feed their stubborn tots through the toddler years are the kind that will pass fairly quickly on their own. In the meantime, continuing to offer healthy, varied foods, and letting them choose to eat them or not, is generally the best way to keep their diet on-track. If a feeding problem persists, or you start to be concerned that your toddler isn’t getting the nutrients they need to thrive, don’t hesitate to check in with their healthcare provider about whether there’s a problem, and what the solution might be.

Division of responsibilities

Babies naturally eat when they’re hungry, and stop eating when they’re full. As they grow, it’s their parents’ responsibility to encourage them to hold onto that sense of their own bodies. Studies have found that parents intervening in how much their children eat, either by encouraging them to clear their plates by the end of mealtime, or by limiting or restricting certain foods, don’t do anything to help children maintain a healthy weight or develop healthy eating patterns.

What the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends instead is to think of feeding as a division of responsibilities. It’s the job of parents and caregivers to buy and prepare a variety of healthy, nourishing, foods. It’s the job of toddlers and children to decide for themselves (just like adults decide for themselves) how much of that food they’re going to eat.

Thinking about feeding this way can be unsettling for parents at first, but even if toddlers don’t seem to be choosing to eat very balanced amounts and types of food at first, parents generally start to notice their diets balancing out over the course of several days. Toddlers may not get all their food groups in at once, but if Monday is a protein day, Tuesday is the day when your little one discovers their new favorite fruit, on Wednesday, they mostly just nibbles on wheat toast, but Thursday, they go to town on the sugar snap peas in a friend’s garden, it may not seem like they are getting a very balanced diet in the moment on any of those days, but in the end, they are getting the nutrients they need.

Differing philosophies: To graze or not to graze

There are two different schools of thought around snacking, both in young children and in adults. The first, more traditional philosophy says that too much snacking, or “grazing” by nibbling on a little of one kind of food, and then a little of another later, will spoil a child’s (or adult’s) appetite for mealtime, and will get in the way of children recognizing their own hunger cues, since they’ll never have the chance to really get very hungry or very full. This school of thought says that a couple of regularly scheduled snacktimes spaced evenly around regularly scheduled meals is the best way to get a toddler’s eating patterns on-track.

The other school of thought says that grazing is good for young children’s quick metabolisms, and small appetites, and that having many small snacktimes is great for teaching young children about eating in moderation, instead of waiting until they’re very hungry and then eating maybe more than they’re hungry for over big plates full of food at mealtime. The truth is that either method can be healthy if it’s offering healthy food, and if you’re modeling healthy habits, and encouraging your toddler to listen to their body’s hunger cues.

Grazing works well for some families, and less well for others. Toddlers around this age tend to have fairly small appetites, and not to eat very much, so parents who find themselves fretting over whether or not their toddlers will manage to clear their plate might benefit from more of a low-stress, grazing model, so that if their toddlers don’t eat much at certain meals, they’ll at least know another snacktime is coming soon. On the other hand, toddlers who do better with stricter schedules may have an easier time eating on more regular schedules centered around specific mealtimes, and a few specific snacktimes.

  • Maureen M. Black, Kristen M. Hurley. “Helping Children Develop Healthy Eating Habits.” Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. CEECD, SKC-ECD. September 2013. Retrieved July 20 2017.
  • Rebecca Parlakian, Claire Lerner. “Promoting Healthy Eating Habits Right From The Start.” naeyc. National Association for the Education of Young Children, May 2007. Retrieved July 20 2017.
  • Jessica Mills. My Mother Wears Combat Boots: A Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us. AK Press. Oakland, CA. Print.
  • Wendy  Sue Swanson. “No More ‘Clean Plate Club.’” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved July 20 2017. 
  • “Teaching Toddlers Good Food Habits.” UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. University of California San Francisco. Retrieved July 20 2017. 

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