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Home >  Information A-ZAll Kids Information ArticlesTips for Toddler Mealtimes

Tips for Toddler Mealtimes
by Cynthia Epps, MS, IBCLC

When it comes to feeding toddlers, even the most well-meaning, intelligent parent can be reduced to tears. Prior to the first birthday, if your child indicates they wish to eat something, the usual response is to acquiesce – their wish is your command. This response is a natural carry over from early infant feeding when the parent’s job was to cater to the baby’s cry for food, to make her happy no matter what. But once your baby graduates into the second year of life, this approach just doesn’t seem to work anymore. Separation and individuation has begun. Not only will your toddler want to self-feed, but he will also want to test your limits. Unfortunately, for many toddlers, controlling food is tantamount to controlling you. Not only can such struggles make you and your child miserable and render mealtimes unpleasant, but they can negatively influence your child’s eating habits and result in poor growth. What to do? First, it is helpful to adjust your expectations around meals. Normal toddler eating patterns vary from eating small amounts to eating what appear to be enormous amounts of various foods, sometimes within the same day or the same meal. Sooner or later, all toddlers get distracted during meals and forget about eating altogether. This behavior is the result of your toddler practicing self-regulation in relation to her growth.

From one year on, toddlers will not eat as much as they did during their first year. They grow more slowly, and their energy needs are not as high. Despite erratic appetite and sporadic hunger, toddlers get the calories they need by averaging volume over several days. Most toddler volume studies reflect an average intake over 2 to 3 weeks that meets the child’s nutritional needs, providing the parent is consistent in offering nutritious, varied meals and snacks, and, keeps mealtimes pleasant. This last tip – “to keep mealtimes pleasant” – is one of the most important details of a typical toddler mealtime, according to Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, and internationally recognized authority on infant/toddler feeding. In her book, “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense,” Satter writes that when your child is eating at the table, she may feel a bit anxious, but your presence makes her feel safe. Your toddler keeps a grip, does her job, and feels successful. But you feel anxious too, worried that your child is eating so little. Unfortunately you lose your grip and say, “Here are some eggs. You like eggs,” or, “Would you rather have some crackers?” and try to put some on your toddler’s plate.

At this moment, the well-meaning parent has upped the ante to the point where the toddler not longer feels successful, and can no longer cope. What happens next, according to Satter, is complex and confusing. Your toddler is likely to get upset, and cause a fuss. He may feel ashamed, but shows it by asserting himself. The reward for struggling with you is your undivided attention. The penalty is a lost opportunity for a good meal. By offering a variety of foods, at structured mealtimes, around a family table, you provide the opportunity for your toddler to succeed with meals. Limits should extend to specific requests. Simply let your toddler know that she cannot manipulate you to bring out different foods than those offered on the table and that you are not going to dole out food between meals and snacks at your toddler’s request. Giving in to your toddler’s panhandling essentially says that you want him to learn to eat from the table, but he can also have whatever he wants any time he wants it. Using sensible limits does not deprive your child, but simply makes it possible for him to be successful with eating. Offering planned snacks between meals allows your toddler to come to the table hungry, but not famished.

What, then, is “enough?” Satter breaks the traditional food pyramid down into toddler servings and offers guidelines for portion sizes. She encourages offering “the nutritional minimum”, that is, the amount of food needed from each food group to have a nutritionally adequate daily diet for protein, vitamins, and minerals. All this sounds familiar. But where most parents stumble is in comprehending appropriate “toddler” portion sizes. From one to three years, Satter defines a portion of pasta, rice or potatoes as equal to 2 to 3 tablespoons, and a portion of bread, only 1/4 of a slice. Fruits and vegetable portions equal 1 to 2 tablespoons, or 1/4 a piece of fruit. Eggs equal only 1/4 of one egg, and meats, poultry, and fish, 2-3 tablespoons. A toddler portion of cooked, dried beans equals 2 tablespoons, and milk or dairy products equal 1/4 to 1/3 a cup. Fats and oils for toddlers should be encouraged and served, writes Satter, “to appetite.” Keep in mind that during the toddler period the brain is still developing rapidly, cautions Satter. Cholesterol and essential fatty acids are a required component of brain and nervous tissue. Toddler mealtimes are a period of exploration, independence and developmental complexity during which your role comes down to one principle, respecting the division of responsibility in feeding. You are responsible for feeding, and your toddler is responsible for eating. Set up meals and snacks for your child so she can feel successful, and you can encourage healthy eating habits.

Cynthia Epps, MS, IBCLC, is a metabolic nutritionist and board certified lactation consultant in the Los Angeles area. In her private practice, she specializes in lactation consults, transitioning to solids, and gentle weaning.

©2005 Los Angeles Family Magazine


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