By Phyllis Picklesimer
Media/Communications Specialist, University of Illinois College of ACES News and Public Affairs
URBANA, Ill. — What is the greatest challenge related to your toddler’s eating that you have experienced? Was it rejecting new foods? Only wanting to eat certain foods over and over again? Refusing to eat entire food groups such as vegetables? Exhibiting strong preferences about how food is prepared or how it looks?
“Actually, all these behaviors are very common and normal for toddlers,” said University of Illinois Extension family life educator Cara B. Allen.
It’s a well-known but not always welcome fact that toddlers are beginning to assert their independence, and one common way that they do this is by deciding what and when they will eat, she said.
“Why do parents worry so much about what their children eat?” she said. “They worry that children are not eating the kinds or amount of foods that will help them to grow up healthy. They think their kids will never learn how to eat certain kinds of foods if they don’t begin early. And, perhaps worst of all, they think they are bad parents because they can’t get their kids to do something as seemingly simple as eating a balanced diet.”
According to Allen, here is what is known about young children’s eating habits. Children are born able to know when they are hungry, when they are full and it’s time to stop eating, and when to make up for not eating much at one meal by eating more at the next.
“Research shows that as long as parents allow children to choose from a nutritious variety of healthy and appropriate foods, kids can be trusted to decide how much of these foods to eat,” she said.
Studies have also shown that even if children insist on eating their favorite foods for days in a row, they will eventually tire of this repetition and begin eating something else, she added.
“Also, almost all young children initially reject unfamiliar foods. Not until kids are exposed to and taste — or watch someone else taste and enjoy — a new food as many as 10 to15 times will they begin to like the food themselves. So, parents, eat that broccoli!” she advised.
Following are some do’s and don’ts regarding toddler’s eating habits:
• Don’t use other foods as rewards. If you say, “Eat your carrots and you can have some cake,” you communicate that carrots aren’t desirable.
• Don’t force children to eat. If you do, toddlers can stop sensing their own inner signals that tell them when they are full, and that can lead to overeating and obesity.
• Don’t make special meals. Just make sure there is always something at meals that a child will eat (for example, bread or milk) so they won’t go hungry.
• Don’t let children nibble throughout the entire day. Provide food only at meal and snack time at consistent times each day.
• Do provide a variety of healthy foods.
• Do give small portions and let children ask for seconds. An easy guide for serving sizes is a tablespoon of each type of food for each year of a child’s age.
• Do provide healthy snacks between meals. Young children’s stomachs are small, but their energy needs are high. Toddlers should be offered the opportunity to eat every two to three hours.
• Do offer new foods often and repeatedly.
• Do model healthy eating habits. Children are more likely to try food that they see their parents eating and enjoying.
• Do make mealtimes enjoyable. Encourage children to help with food preparation, make the meal a social occasion, and eliminate such distractions as television programs .
• Do relax! A parent’s job is to provide nutritious foods to promote good health. The child’s job is to decide how much and whether or not to eat.
From the Nov. 14-20, 2012, issue