When it comes to nutrition and toddlers, the most important thing to remember is: Your job is to decide what food to offer, when to offer, and where the child may eat. Your child’s job is to decide what to eat and how much.
What to Offer
Offer a variety of healthy choices – 2 to 3 items at each meal. Children often prefer foods they can feed to themselves. Many children prefer food as separate items – if the family is eating spaghetti, your child may want plain noodles, sauce on the side, and a meatball on the side. Offer food in unbreakable dishes with utensils the child can hold. Give milk or juice with meals, and offer water between meals.
To encourage your child to try new foods:
Offer a new food with familiar, well-loved foods. Try the food yourself, describing its texture, taste, and smell. Give a small portion to begin with (3 peas, 2 beans) so there’s less waste. Children may need to be offered a new food 10 – 15 times before they’ll try it, and the first few “tries” may be a lick, or a small taste, or holding it in their mouth then spitting it out. Over time, they will eat more of it. Involving your child in choosing and preparing a new food may get them more excited about eating it.
Be a good role model: eat healthy, try a variety of foods yourself, talk about healthy eating. Exercise, and have fun being active together.
When to Offer Food
Most young children eat three meals a day, plus two or three snacks. This helps them keep a stable blood sugar level (and thus a stable mood and energy level) throughout the day. Try not to let your child graze all day long. It is better to eat full meals and let the body rest/digest between meals. If your child whines about this, remind yourself that they won’t starve if they have to wait!
Also, don’t use food as a distraction every time you’re in the car, at the library, and so on. Try to develop other ideas for keeping them busy.
Where Your Child May Eat
Most experts recommend feeding your child only at the dining table or in the kitchen, rather than eating all around the house. They also recommend sitting and talking with your child, both for safety’s sake and as a great opportunity for building communication skills, and strengthening your relationship. Turn off TV’s and other screens and focus on time together.
What Your Child Chooses To Eat
Your child may be eating less than she did just a few months ago. It is normal for a toddler’s appetite to decrease, as their rate of growth slows after age one. You will notice that some days your child barely touches his food, and other days he seems to eat non-stop. This is fine. Look at how much food and how much variety they take in over the course of a week, not just one day.
Don’t force your child to eat. Toddlers are trying to assert their independence, and it is easy for food to become a power struggle.
Supplements: consult with your child’s doctor. If a child has a well-rounded diet, none may be needed. In Seattle’s non-sunny climate, a common recommendation is 400 IU / day of vitamin D. Omega 3 fatty acids are recommended by many naturopaths. If your family is vegetarian, or vegan, pay special attention to vitamins B12, D, riboflavin, calcium, and protein.
Reducing Risk of Choking:
Children should always sit when eating. There should be an adult nearby. Avoid foods that are hard to chew (steak, jerky, stringy celery), small and round (hard candy, popcorn; grapes – cut these in half; carrot slices, hot dogs, chunks of cheese– cut these into thin sticks); spoonfuls of peanut butter (OK to spread thin on things). All parents and child care providers should learn choking rescue, just in case: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOWwyJEFiPo
How Much Should a Toddler Eat
Here’s a chart that lists recommended daily servings for toddlers of each food group (with definitions of appropriate serving size), total calories needed, and other key info about healthy eating.
Infant and Toddler Forum has a really helpful site showing what a toddler size portion of food looks like, whether that’s 4 French fries, or one-quarter of an apple, or 4 ounces of yogurt.
Read more about making mealtimes pleasant.