Beanstalk Express - Proper Nutrition ForToddlers

Beanstalk Express - Proper Nutrition ForToddlers

Raising Kids To healthy heightshealthy habits healthy bodies healthy lives

The years between 1 and 3 are most commonly referred to as the toddler years. These are years filled with tremendous social, physical and developmental growth. But don’t be fooled… They are also years associated tantrums, mood swings, unpredictability and oppositional behaviors that include hitting, pushing, biting and hair pulling! Much of these tumultuous behaviors have been wrapped into an appropriately titled phrase known as “the terrible twos.” - although most parents who have been through toddlerhood will agree that sometimes it starts earlier and ends even later!

Toddlers are notorious for seeking independence and autonomy. Yet, they still demand structure and the security of boundaries. Their inability to effectively communicate their needs often result in frustration and in some cases, one or more oppositional behaviors! Often times their inability to communicate is parlayed into an emotion that they can communicate – such as hunger and eating.

In fact, many unhealthy habits are established during the toddler years as a result of this inability to effectively communicate. From incessant snacking to meal refusal, our response as parents and caregivers is crucial to staying on course for healthy habit building. Being able to identify and overcome many of the common nutritional pitfalls that occur during toddlerhood may help parents persevere and stay on track.

The toddler years are the most formative years in helping your child to establish healthy eating habits to be cultivated and carried throughout life. Unfortunately, toddlerhood is perhaps one of the most – if not the most – challenging periods for getting children to eat at all- let alone eat healthy!

Many of the roadblocks that parents face has much to do with our own inability to fully understand what exactly is going on in our little tot’s minds and bodies. After a first year of literally eating around the clock, we are now faced with children who won’t eat at all! Or else it seems that way to us.

But what parents may not understand is that this ‘halt’ in appetite is quite common and actually to be expected. After a year of rapid growth that occurs during infancy, a toddler’s growth rate decreases dramatically after their first birthday (2). This means their caloric needs are decreased as well.

Mind their peas and ‘cues’ at mealtime

Family meals have long been associated with family bonding, connectivity and a sense of security among its members. Recent studies show that this connectivity and source of bonding may offer a variety of social, behavioral and psychological benefits that extend throughout adolescence. Studies have shown that adolescents who ate more family meals per week, 4-7 on average, were less likely to engage in cigarette smoking, marijuana and alcohol use and on average had higher grades, less anxiety and less suicidal thoughts (1).

Many would argue that the decline of the American diet and the epidemic of obesity began when family dinners declined. It would make for an interesting debate, considering the studies which confirm that children who participate in family meals are more likely to eat a balanced diet which includes fruits and vegetables, have less obesity rates, are generally happier and have higher self esteem. This parlays into all aspects of their lives as they grow into adolescents and teenagers.

Many families that have young children unconsciously create a disconnect with family meals due to a variety of reasons, which include adhering to toddler schedules, feeding two different meals (one for the children, another for adults) and the avoidance of stress and frustration that results from mealtime battles with their toddlers. These battles are common among toddlers and even preschoolers, and the reasons why are pretty vast.

Much has to do with their inabilities to communicate their internal feeding cues and properly say, “I am no longer hungry. Please don’t make me force-feed myself again for a cookie.” Coercion, threats and even deceptive techniques only add to their ‘fears’ of eating it. Try not to use coercion or punishment to get your child to eat. Or sometimes they are just flat out too tired. By being able to understand a toddler’s unpredictable mealtime behavior can ease both the child and the caregiver’s anxieties, and help bring about solutions rather than mayhem! And in the best-case scenario, bring family dining into more kitchens and dining rooms!

Ate 2 bites, refused to eat any more.

Self-regulation. Children are able to decide based on their internal cues as to how much food they need to be satisfied, or “satiated.”

Our innate ability to regulate our intake based on internal cues carries through to the first couple years of life. Research finds that sometime after the age of 2 these cues become disrupted – perhaps by influences within our environment, like the insistence for ‘cleaning the plate’, being served larger portions than are necessary, and even by observing those around us modeling excessive consumption (4).

“Two more bites and you can have dessert!”

“You can’t leave the table unless you finish your peas.”

“What if I make you macaroni and cheese instead?”

To help enable their ability to respond to their satiety cues, mealtime should always be distraction free – no TVs, loud music and toys at the table.

Praise your child for being able to “listen” to their bodies.

Instead of focusing on what wasn’t eaten, praise your tot for what he or she did eat.

Don’t worry if your child doesn’t eat much at one meal. He will make it up at another meal or with a nutritious snack. Parts of this innate ability for self-regulation includes their eventual balance of adequate calories over the course the day, and even a week!(4)

Children’s ability to “make up for” calories at different meals or snacks throughout the day is a normal occurrence. Discuss with your pediatrician any concerns you have with this behavior – especially if you feel your child is not eating enough to meet his needs.

New food Neophobia. Your child’s resistance to try new vegetables is not unusual – it is actually normal.

“ You can’t leave the table until you eat your broccoli.”

“I know it tastes yucky, but it’s good for you.”

Assumption that after only 5 or less rejections, their child does not like broccoli and it will not be offered again.

“Hiding” it under a sea of cheese sauce, butter, ketchup, mixed in with something sweet, deep-frying or any other ‘deceptive’ technique.

Encouraging our children to accept healthy foods into their diets takes practice. What doesn’t? Can you imagine if we were only expected to practice the ABC’s 5 times? Like most everything else that is not innate to us, repeated exposure, practice and perseverance is necessary in building a healthy foundation. On average it takes 10 exposures per vegetable before children accept it! Cohesion, threats and even deceptive techniques only add to their ‘fears’ of eating it.

Your child will look to you for validity and acceptance of new foods. If you are staring down at your plate with a look of disgust, don’t think that didn’t just set Junior back about 10 more tries. Parent modeling is crucial to encouraging healthy food preferences, and has been associated with greater vegetable intake among school-age children (4).

Playing with their food, showing restless or excitable behavior at the table

Being over tired, or over excited.

“If you don’t sit still and eat your lunch, you will have no dessert.”

“Go to time out return when you are ready to eat your lunch.”

If your toddler is no longer napping, try to plan a quiet time before meals where he or she can unwind.

If it is obvious to you that your child is over tired or excited, it’s best to have him leave the table, quiet down and then offer him his meal in a quiet, distraction-free setting.

Try not to use cohesion or punishment to get your child to eat. This could potentially create negative associations with mealtime and/or with healthy food.

Using sweets or desserts as a reward sends your child mixed messages; such as “If you eat it, you will be rewarded for your bravery”… it also reinforces the notion that healthy food is bad, sweet food is good.

For many toddlers, it appears that their third word after ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ is ‘SNACK!’ Our children today are snacking a lot. And this incessant snacking is helping fuel the epidemic of obesity among our children.

The reality is this: children do need to snack! In fact, in addition to 3 meals each day, toddlers need 2 to 3 snacks to help meet their high-energy needs. So “snacking” is not the culprit in unhealthy habit building, it’s what our children are snacking on, and how frequently they are snacking that contributes to unhealthy food preferences, overconsumption and weight gain.

Enough emphasis cannot be placed on these formative toddler years for healthy habit building. Early and frequent exposure to unhealthy snacks that are high in sugar, fat, salt and artificial colors and additives can certainly derail your long-term efforts of staying on track. Being prepared to face many of the challenges associated with the snack debacle will help you steer your way through possible pitfalls and keep you on track to helping build healthy habits in your child.

Excessive whining, begging and pleading for snacks throughout the day

The most common response that even the best intended parents have is to give in. Although our options are pretty limited, giving into their incessant requests perpetuates this behavior, so more than likely they’ll be back at it again the next day.

Excessive snacking, especially on high sugar, salt and fat items can interfere with your child’s abilities to interpret their bodies cues for hunger and satiety.

Grazing on snack foods throughout the day can interfere with their intake at mealtimes.

Weight gain: In a recent Feeding Infants and Toddles Study, it was determined that toddlers, on average, exceeded their recommended daily calories by 31%. The culprit? Energy dense and nutrient poor food items (2).

First off, set boundaries with your toddler. You are in charge – charge of planning, shopping and providing healthy snack options for them to choose from.

Plan a snack schedule and allow your toddler to choose 2 or 3 daily snack choices. It may take a little time for them to understand the new schedule, but with perseverance, the new routine – like all other routines -will kick in.

Early exposure to highly processed, high sugar snack foods

Many parents unknowingly give in to snacks based on clever advertising that targets our children, or nutritional claims which suggest the food item is beneficial for their young toddlers. The fact is, most processed snack foods on the market today are either high in sugar, fat, salt, artificial colors or additives - most of which offer no benefits to your toddlers growing bodies and may, in fact, provide more harm than good.

With an innate preference to sweet and energy dense food items, many of these processed snack/food items are an instant hit among children.

Frequent consumption of these energy dense and highly palatable snack items may make healthier food choices less appealing to young children and inhibit healthy habit building.

The high sugar content of many of these snacks can create an imbalance in our children’s energy levels – creating cranky tots!

Babies, toddlers and preschool children need very little sodium in their daily diets. Most processed foods are very high in sodium.

There is no doubt that at some point your child will see or be exposed to “junk food.” There is no escaping from it! Infrequent consumption of most processed foods will not be harmful to your child’s health or healthy habit building. But the key is infrequency. Healthy choices should be offered on a daily basis as their foundation of healthy habit building is built. Introduce your young toddler to healthier versions of cookies – such as oatmeal, whole grain, fig centered and un-glazed animal crackers. Introduce baked over fried, reduced sodium over regular. When possible, choose organic, as they tend to omit artificial chemicals and additives.

This isn’t to suggest you should ‘ban’ all snack items that aren’t picked off a tree or pulled from the ground from your toddler’s life! The billion-dollar snack industry makes it very difficult to ignore that such tempting and tantalizing snacks do exist! Unless we live in a cave, our children will eventually be exposed to them through TV, play dates, preschool and grandmas house! There is a difference between moderation and forbidding these types of snacks and foods from our child’s diet. Forbidding, restricting and using derogatory terms such as “bad for you” and even “junk food” – has been shown to backfire on parents. This type of authoritarian position on ‘junk food’ has been shown to lead children to develop a preoccupation with these forbidden foods– which can lead to overconsumption and poor self-control over eating (4).

So where do parents start? Should we include these highly processed foods into our children’s diet for fear that they will one day binge on them? Or keep them out of the house all together – out of sight, out of mind? The answer to this is complicated because obesity is the result of various factors that include genetic predispositions, behavioral and environmental factors. Because everyone is different, there is no clear answer. But to help develop a foundation that includes healthy foods, than healthy choices should be what is most frequently available, offered and encouraged.

Modeling the same behaviors we expect our children to adopt is at the core of their success in building healthy habits.

1. Neumark-Sztainer D, et. al., “The ‘Family Meal’: Views of adolescents,” Journal of Nutrition education, (2000): 32; 329-334

2. R Briefel, “Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study,” Pediatric Basics (2004) no. 105

3. Isaacs JS. “Nutrition for the Preschool Child,” Clinical Manual of Pediatric Nutrition. The American Dietetic Association, 2007; 73-81

4. J Savage, et. al., “Parental Influences on Eating Behavior: Conception to Adolescents,” The Journal of Law Medicine & Ethics (2007) 35:22

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