By Caren Mangarelli, MD
Caren Mangarelli, MD is a pediatrician with the Healthy Lifestyles Program at Duke University. The program focuses on empowering kids and families with the skills and knowledge needed to live a life of healthy eating and active lifestyles.
Many parents get very anxious when their child makes the transition from infant to toddler feeding. Some parents worry that their toddler won’t get enough calories to grow appropriately, or that they won’t get enough of certain nutrients if left to feed themselves. Toddlers are still growing, but at a slower rate than when they were infants. They are also learning to become autonomous and want to do things for themselves. Feeding requires a set of skills that your toddler will learn over time. It is important that parents provide a healthy environment and appropriate limits so that toddlers learn healthy eating practices right from the start. Parents also need to trust that their toddler intrinsically knows how much he or she needs to eat. Here are some suggestions to promote healthy eating:
1. Parents should provide structure to their toddler’s day, including predictable meal and snack times. Most toddlers need 3 meals and 2 snacks per day.
2. Parents should make sure that the feeding environment is safe by having their child seated when it is time to eat. They should also make sure to present food in a form/size that they can handle safely. This means making sure to cut things up in small pieces and avoiding food that might promote choking. It also means avoiding foods that are hard or tough and difficult to chew.
3. Make sure that you offer healthy choices at all meals and snacks. Toddlers are unpredictable and you should look at every meal and snack as an opportunity to get healthy, nutritious food into them. Don’t stop offering a certain food because the last time they didn’t like it. Their tastes change over time.
4. Sit and eat with your toddler. Toddlers are much more likely to eat and less likely to feel pressure if people around them are also eating.
5. Set a good example by demonstrating good table manners and healthy eating habits. If a toddler doesn’t see mom or dad eating vegetables they are much less likely to try them.
6. Accept the mess.
7. Don’t pressure your toddler to eat and stay calm and unemotional about eating. If your toddler senses your anxiety or gets lots of negative attention at meal time, he may continue bad behaviors just to get more attention or to see your reaction.
8. Don’t become a short order cook (or you may continue to be one for the rest of your child’s life). If your toddler decides not to eat what you offer, that is fine. They can wait until the next meal or snack (when they are good and hungry) to be offered food again. Toddlers will not purposely starve themselves.
9. Don’t allow panhandling for food between scheduled meal and snack times. If you do, you will sabotage your own meal and snack structure. Water is all that they should be offered between meals and snacks. This is also important for dental health.
10. Turn off any distractions (TV, DVDs, smart phones etc.). Help your toddler learn to pay attention to her eating and hunger. Meal time is family social time.