14 ways to raise a toddler with healthy-eating habits
- Consider how you feed your child
Take a moment to think about feeding occasions with your toddler. Are you following the principles of responsive feeding—creating a warm, positive environment for family meals, respecting your toddler’s decision of whether to eat and how much, and leading by example when it comes to varied and nutritious food choices? If you are, great! However, if you recognize yourself falling into some of the less desirable feeding behaviors listed below, now’s the time to remind yourself of all the benefits of responsive feeding. Remember, it’s not just about what and how much your toddler eats. The way you offer food is essential for his healthy eating habits too.
• “Pushy” feeding
You pressure your toddler to finish all of his food even after he’s indicated he’s full. Perhaps you also expect him to sit at the table for longer than appropriate for his age.
• “Indulgent” feeding
You allow your child to eat any food at any time. You have few, if any, expectations that he will consume a healthy, balanced diet.
• “Overly strict” feeding
You’re overly controlling about what your toddler eats. Perhaps you only give him tiny portions or withhold food, even when he shows you signs he’s still hungry.
What Dr. Fries says: “Responsive feeding is the way to go. As well as reducing the potential for overeating, responding to your toddler’s hunger and fullness cues is linked to a healthier diet and body weight. Responsive feeding means pleasant and engaging mealtimes, without putting too much pressure on your toddler or encouraging him excessively. Parents who follow the principles of responsive feeding also offer their toddler healthy food choices at meals and snack times, set clear guidelines and expectations at mealtimes, and are good role models by practicing and promoting healthy eating at home.”
- Be careful not to pressure
You probably have a clear idea of how much you want your toddler to eat. Perhaps you even push him to finish it all, even when he tells you he’s full. Just because you’re the adult, it doesn’t mean you know best when it comes to your little one’s appetite. Let your toddler decide how much he will eat.
What Dr. Fries says: “Forcing your child to eat more foods than he wants can have a variety of consequences. If your child is full, this can teach him to ignore his fullness cues, potentially leading to overeating in the future. In other cases, it can create a stressful environment, leading to negative associations with the food you want him to eat—potentially making him avoid it in the future. Children may eat more one day than another, and that’s OK; they’ll make up for it at another meal.”
- Offer nutrient-rich foods and drinks
Your toddler’s tummy is small, so it’s important that precious space isn’t taken up by foods that are high in salt and sugar, or with sugar-sweetened beverages. Instead, offer a variety of foods that are rich in nutrients, along with milk (breast milk, whole cow’s milk, or growing-up milk) or water with every meal and snack. Exceptions may be made for special occasions such as birthdays or family celebrations, when sweets and desserts may be offered in toddler-sized portions. Practice responsive feeding by not pressuring him to eat these foods, but also try to be relaxed about him having a taste. Your toddler will soon learn that sweet treats are “special occasion foods” and not part of his everyday diet.
What Dr. Fries says: “Research in older children shows that when parents restrict what their children can eat (such as saying certain foods are never allowed), it makes certain foods more attractive because they are "forbidden", and children may be more likely to overindulge in these foods when given the chance.”
- Check portion sizes
Serve age-appropriate amounts of food. You can always offer him more if he shows signs of still being hungry after finishing his food. Avoid encouraging him to “clean up your plate” and instead respect his hunger and fullness cues.
What Dr. Fries says: “There is evidence that providing large portions of appetizing, energy-dense foods, such as macaroni and cheese, increases the amount a child eats.”
- Encourage gently
When introducing a new food, a few words of encouragement can help convince your toddler to give it a try.
What Dr. Fries says: “In one recent study, very few children were willing to try a new fruit or vegetable without encouragement. Rather than tricks or bribery, with a gentle parental suggestion to “try the peas”, a child will be more likely to taste the food.”
- Be a good role model
As often as possible, sit down as a family to enjoy a meal together. Your toddler learns from what he sees you and other family members are doing, so be a good role model by eating and enjoying healthy food. Let him see you eating a new food with pleasure and chances are he’ll want to give it a taste too.
What Dr. Fries says: “What a parent eats is a powerful predictor of what a child eats. One recent study showed that modeling eating a food was the most successful technique to convince a child to eat something.”
- Banish the bribery
As tempting as it might be, don’t use food as a reward. Offering your toddler ice cream if he eats his vegetables, for instance, could create negative associations and put him off vegetables in the long term.
What Dr. Fries says: “Try to offer all foods equally rather than give him the idea that some foods are less appetizing and others are more appealing.”
- Prevent “picky eating”
Sometimes, you might feel so worried that your toddler is turning into a picky eater, only eating a limited range of foods, that you desperately plead with him to eat. This can make mealtimes stressful for you both and have the opposite effect of what you’re hoping for. If he only likes a few foods, put some of those on his plate alongside new or previously rejected foods. Children may have to taste a new food several times before they learn to like it.
What Dr. Fries says: “Research shows that pressuring toddlers to eat any type of food actually makes them more likely to refuse it. If parents can keep a relaxed attitude towards eating, children may be more likely to taste foods."
- Take time to chew
Offer your toddler food in small, bite-size pieces and make sure he has chewed what’s in his mouth before you offer more. Also, don’t rush your toddler to finish his meal. Let him eat at his own pace. Getting into good habits now may help avoid future problems of overeating.
What Dr. Fries says: “Children who eat faster tend to consume more calories. This can be due to taking larger bites and chewing their food less. Research shows that these tendencies toward faster eating can emerge in preschoolers.”
- Avoid using food to soothe
At this age, your little one may not have enough language skills to communicate his feelings with words, so may get frustrated and act out or have a tantrum. It can be tempting to bring out the emergency cookie, particular favorite food, or even a healthy snack to try to prevent a scene. However, this can have negative consequences in the long run.
What Dr. Fries says: “Using food to soothe from an early age may contribute to the development of obesity in young children. Toddlers could begin to connect food with emotions instead of their own appetite cues, prompting them to eat when they’re not hungry.”
- Remember that there’s no “perfect-sized” toddler
Don’t try to pressure a smaller toddler to eat more or withhold food from a bigger toddler in an effort to help him lose weight. It is a misconception that bigger babies are healthier babies.
What Dr. Fries says: “Babies are born with natural instincts to recognize their own hunger and fullness. Respecting and responding to your child’s hunger and fullness cues leads to healthier eating habits and growth.”
- Learn to “read” your toddler
Avoid putting too much food on your little one’s plate. Offer her a small portion and pay attention to signs from her that tell you if she’s full or still hungry. You can always offer her another small portion if she shows you that she is still hungry.
What Dr. Fries says: “At 18-24 months of age, toddlers can use a combination of words (such as ‘want that’ or ‘all done’) and gestures (pointing, reaching, or pushing the food away) to let you know when they are hungry and full. Look out for these gestures and expressions, and listen to what she tells you when it comes to her appetite.”
- Allow time for your toddler to practice chewing
By now your little one has likely moved on from lumpy purees to chopped family foods. You’ll still need to cut up food into bite-size pieces as he learns how to chew.
What Dr. Fries says: “From birth to age four, children’s mouths double in volume. Their chewing muscles become stronger, allowing finer control of the food in their mouths. Learning to chew with appropriate textures has many effects on their overall eating experience, from taste, smell, and texture perception to feeling full and accepting a wider range of foods.”
- Make mealtimes fun!
Try getting your toddler involved in the cooking—there are many age-appropriate cooking tasks toddlers can help with, such as rolling out dough, snapping broccoli florets off the stalk, scrubbing potatoes, and pouring ingredients into a bowl. Make sure your toddler is supervised in the kitchen at all times. Your toddler will look forward to family meals that he has helped prepare.
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