Encouraging Normal Eating In Toddlers

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 3:04pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Normal eating is regulated mostly by internal signals of hunger and fullness, or eating when hungry and stopping when satisfied. It usually includes eating at regular times, typically three meals and one or two snacks daily to satisfy hunger. However, normal eating is also flexible and it varies in response to your emotions, your schedule, your hunger, and your physical nearness to food. We are all born with the ability to eat normally, but outside influences interfere with these skills, often beginning in infancy.

Practice good eating habits

To minimize the chances of future eating disorders and weight problems in their children, parents should try to practice normal eating themselves and promote normal eating in their families. Toddler-hood presents a perfect opportunity to lay the groundwork for future normal eating if parents can successfully overcome some common hindrances. Toddlers cannot make their own food choices, but they can choose between the foods offered by their parents. If parents force food on an already satisfied child or withhold food from a hungry child, even if done with good intentions, the child will confuse her own feelings of hunger and begin to move away from normal eating. Helping parents understand the following common eating behaviors of toddlers may keep them from interfering with the normal eating of their children.

Four common toddler eating behaviors

1.   Small quantity eating

Small stomachs require small snacks, which should be offered regularly and frequently throughout the day. Often the amount eaten at mealtimes is smaller than parents would like, particularly in the evening. In fact, many toddlers often only eat one full meal per day. This means that healthy snacks are important to help provide the energy and nutrition your child needs during the day. Children can balance the amount of food eaten with exactly how much they need if they are not forced to overeat or finish all the food on the plate.

2.   Inconsistent eating patterns

The amount toddlers eat from day-to-day often changes dramatically. Although this sometimes worries parents, this change is normal and doesn't mean your child is being difficult or is not well.

3.   Food jags

A food jag is when a toddler will only eat one food item meal after meal, day after day. As difficult as this can be for a parent, it marks a normal developmental milestone: demonstration of independence. They will refuse foods and insist on eating others just to see what happens. Insisting on one food does not necessarily mean the child only likes that food, just as rejecting a food does always mean the child doesn't like it. Food jags will pass with time, as long as parents don't make an issue of them. No child will become malnourished from eating only spaghetti for a week. In the meantime, continue to offer new different foods, expressing no frustration when they are refused.

4.   Food neophobia - fear of new foods

Another often unrecognized developmental milestone in toddlers is food neophobia, or a fear of new foods. Neophobia usually presents itself between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four months, and is not restricted to picky eaters. Even children previously judged as "good eaters" begin to reject any new food and even refuse familiar foods they once enjoyed. Though this is particularly worrisome for parents who fear their child will not grow properly without certain healthy foods, children won't let themselves go hungry. However, the more they are pushed to try new foods, the more zealously they will resist. Attention paid to food refusal reinforces that very behavior. Do not engage in a power struggle or show disappointment when foods are refused. Just remove the food after a reasonable length of time but continue to offer the same food regularly, as children may require five to ten exposures to a new food before accepting it.

Normal eating promotes a healthy mind and body

Learning to appropriately deal with the common feeding struggles above will help your child maintain normal eating habits. Normal eating promotes clear thinking and mood stability. It fosters healthy relationships in all areas of life. Normal eaters spend less time on thoughts of food, hunger, and weight, spending that brain power on more productive thoughts. Physically, normal eating nurtures good health, increases energy, and promotes proper growth and development in children. All of these benefits of normal eating translate into higher levels of self-confidence. Once your toddler begins to have a say in the foods she eats, there will never again be a day in her life when she will not have to make a decision regarding food. Therefore, teaching and modeling healthy and normal eating is one of the most valuable contributions you can make to your child's future.