A mother recently contacted me because a baby food advertisement had caused her to panic – She had read that the first two years of life are the most important ones to establish healthy eating habits in babies, and that her toddler should eat around 1,000 calories per day.
While both of these statements were technically correct, almost any parent would confirm that their children go through phases of eating different amounts of foods, and having certain meal preferences. Most young children’s eating patterns are inconsistent at best, there are times when they seem to be more ‘picky’ and will barely touch what’s on their plate, and then other times where they seem curious about new foods or hungrily polish off a portion bigger than that of their parents.
The Good News: All of this is Completely Normal.
Children at this young age go through a lot of changes, spurts of growth and leaps of development, which can affect their appetite, their food preferences, nutritional needs, activity level and attention span.
Throughout their childhood, it is very important to offer your child healthy, nutritious meals. In America, the most popular dishes for toddlers include French fries, chicken nuggets, and mac & cheese. These are NOT good examples of how your child’s diet should look like, since they include deep fried, salty and heavily processed foods.
Introducing Good Nutrition, Early On
Children have an innate preference for sweet and salty foods. In nature, sweet foods are healthy and nutritious, salty foods are high in minerals. However, in our time of processed foods, children tend to consume too much sugar and salt.
The sooner your child gets introduced to healthy, wholesome ingredients, different flavors and (when age appropriate) different textures, the more likely they are to eat them early on and into adulthood.
Resist the urge to make foods more attractive for your child by adding salt or sugar to their meals. This does not meat that your child should never be allowed to eat French fries or chicken nuggets either. Rather, these things should be considered to be part of the “occasional snack” category instead of becoming their regular dinner choices.
Is Your Child Going Through a Picky Phase? Rule #1: Don’t Panic!
It is normal for children’s appetite and picky-ness to fluctuate on a daily basis. If you want to make sure that your toddler’s nutritional needs are met, I recommend looking at the weekly average instead of focusing on the intake of a single day.
If your child rejects a new food initially, don’t give up! Keep offering it again in the future – children have to try a new food around 15 times to develop a liking for it!
Tips for Introducing New Foods
- When you are introducing a new food to a toddler, it can be a good idea to offer a few different food choices that your child already is familiar with on the same plate. That way, they will have the chance to try a little bit of everything - and in case they do not like the new food, they will have an alternative.
- Toddlers have a strong desire for independence and making their own choices. Encouraging them to eat new, healthy foods will teach them to be open to new flavors and develop a broad palate.
- Forcing them to eat certain foods is never a good idea, as it is likely to cause a fight and result in resistance, which is of course the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
- When sitting down with your children to eat, do not use pressure or bribery. Instead, try to make mealtimes relaxed and fun, and display obvious excitement about the healthy dishes you are enjoying. Children learn by copying their parents as “role models”, and this also applies to the foods they eat.
Lead by Example with Your Diet
The best thing you can do is setting a good example yourself. It seems silly that you would expect your child to follow a wholesome, nutritious diet and develop cultivated table manners if your own dinner consists of a pizza eaten out of a box in front of the TV on a regular basis.
The mother’s diet has shown to have a significant impact on a child’s nutritional preferences. This actually begins as early on as during pregnancy, when the mother’s amniotic fluid changes “flavor” with the different foods that she eats.
After the baby is born, the nursing mother’s milk will taste differently depending on what she ate, continuing to expose her baby to a variety of flavors. Including bitter, spicy and sour foods in the mother’s diet will get the baby used to these interesting flavors early on.
When is Picky Eating Behavior a Cause For Concern?
Fussy phases in toddlers are rarely something to worry about. Most children outgrow these by the time they are ready for school and are able to eat a regular diet with a wide variety of healthy foods, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables and protein.
If you notice that your child shows an extreme fear of new or unfamiliar foods that causes stress and anxiety during mealtimes, affects their ability to participate in meals or activities, or if overly selective eating patterns involve avoiding entire food groups, it is time to talk to your pediatrician, since it could be a sign of a more serious behavior issue or have an impact on their energy levels, growth and development.
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*Disclaimer: this article is to be viewed as an opinion only and not as a replacement for medical advice. Please discuss all changes to your child’s diet and any serious health concerns with your pediatrician.