Toddler Eating Habits

I learned much of this information in my Babygroup (mommy and me) class, which is the most incredible place for resources and support for new moms and their babies and toddlers.

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HABITS

Toddlers often have different eating habits than babies. I have definitely noticed this with Theo, who turned one in late February. He still loves eating, thankfully, but he hasn’t been as consistent in terms of interest, intake and hunger. He is an especially physical, busy little man in constant motion, so at times it is hard for him to stop moving his body (or want to) to sit down and eat. Transitions are tough for toddlers, too, which only compounds the issue. I find it’s helpful to give Theo a warning such as, “in five minutes we are going to have lunch.” This helps him to know what to expect and not feel abruptly interrupted and taken away from what he is doing. In general, it is useful to tell your toddler about “the plan” before doing something. For example, before lunch I would tell Theo, “This is the plan. We are going to keep playing for five more minutes. Then Mama is going to go into the kitchen to prepare lunch, and when it’s ready, we will eat.” Don’t follow it with a tag question such as “okay?” – unless the plan is optional.

MOVEMENT & GROWTH

As previously mentioned, many toddlers don’t want to stop moving their bodies to sit down and eat. In fact, toddlers’ growth needs change at age one, so they may eat significantly less than they did from 6-12 months. For example, in the first year, babies usually double or triple their birth weight, while in the second year, toddlers tend to gain about a quarter of their first-year weight. Theo grew from 8 pounds 4 ounces to 19 pounds 11 ounces in his first year, which means he should only gain about 5 pounds in his entire second year! What a difference.

FOOD QUANTITY & INTAKE

If you have a toddler that loves to eat, that is NOT a cause for concern! Just follow his lead with a slow pace so that he can take the time to listen to his body and feel full. Don't overload his plate with tons of food at once. Trust that he knows how to self-regulate and will consume what he needs.

Also, keep in mind that many toddlers only eat one “good” meal a day. Therefore, it is best to think about a your toddler's diet in terms of a two-week period, rather than day-to-day. If he has had (or been offered) a balanced diet with fruit, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy over a two week-period, he is doing great. Don’t stress about what or how much he is or isn’t eating. You can’t control it anyway – all you can do is offer a balanced diet.

Think about yourself, too. Doesn’t your own hunger wax and wane depending on your levels of physical exertion, stress and happiness? You can read more about food quantity in my first Ask Gastromommy post.

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GENERAL TIPS

You can continue to “feed along the edges”, offering bites from time to time. Once your toddler starts pushing you away, however, your job is done.

When you give soup, drain the broth so they can more easily get the contents with a spoon.

Instead of baby cereal, which most toddlers don’t like past age one, you can give them oatmeal, cream of wheat, cream of rice or other hot cereals. Mix these with milk to get more milk into them.

You can use baby food (fruits), applesauce, real fruit or yogurt to cover pancakes and waffles. Avoid syrup and sugary foods as much as possible!

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STRUCTURE

Sit with your toddler while he eats. Be attentive (i.e., not on your phone) and relaxed. Eat together with him if you can, even if it’s only a snack for you. You can even share food from a communal plate, which Theo loves to do. Frankly, he enjoys eating whatever I am eating, as well as imitating how I am eating. For example, he has been really into edamame in the past few weeks. He loves picking each bean up one by one with his pincer grasp! One day we only had edamame with the shells on, so I was squeezing the beans out onto his tray for him. He thought it was very funny! Then he wanted his own shell and tried to squeeze the beans out himself. So cute. He did a pretty good job after some practice. He also saw how I was eating the edamame myself, scraping the beans out with my teeth, and wanted his own shell to do the same. He managed to get some beans out that way after watching and imitating me. Most impressive! 

The most important rule for us is that food stays at the table. It isn't to be eaten while walking or running around the house or while sitting on the floor. Theo has learned this quickly. If your toddler would like to sit at a little table (which we don't have yet) and be able to get up and walk away, that’s fine; the food still stays at the table.

RESPONSIBILITIES

Remember Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility, which is a great guideline for understanding children's and parents' responsibilities related to food. From infancy through adolescence, parents decide whatwhere and when to eat, and children decide whether and how much. Remind yourself of this: "Fundamental to parents’ jobs is trusting children to determine how much and whether to eat from what parents provide. When parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating." For more information on this topic, check out my post all about Ellyn Satter's DOR in Feeding

MORE RESOURCES

If you need simple meal ideas, check out my recipes. Another great resource is www.weelicious.com

My Babygroup teacher highly recommends Ellyn Satter’s website. Ellyn is a clinical social worker, nutritionist and feeding specialist. She has written many books for parents to help them avoid the eating and feeding challenges that many of us fear! To navigate the website: click on “how to feed”, where you will find a comprehensive list of articles of the topic of feeding young children. Under “child development ages and stages”, you can select specific age groups. For parents of toddlers, 11-36 months is most appropriate. www.ellynsatter.com