For many parents the toddler stage can cause a lot of anxiety when it comes to meal times. Parents are always concerned if their child is eating enough and if there is sufficient variety in their diet.
At this stage toddlers are learning to express themselves, and controlling what goes into their mouths is often the best opportunity for them to do so.
Kim Underwood, Registered Dietician at Sidra reassures parents that all children, at one time or another, will go through a phase where they are only eating one type of food, or refusing everything that is put in front of them. Regular weight and height checks at a health clinic or with your pediatrician will give you a good sense of how your child is growing, and often reassures parents.
Kim shares some top tips and advice for dealing with meal times:
• Listen to what your child asks for, acknowledge that you have heard them and understood them, however, don’t feel like a bad parent if you refuse their request to eat only one type of food.
• Keep your meals and snacks at regular times throughout the day. Keep snacks small; a portion of fruit (½ an apple, 5-6 grapes, small box of raisins) or two biscuits is considered a snack size for a toddler.
• Don’t offer fluid at least 30 minutes before a meal time. Toddlers’ tummies are small and if they are full from a large snack or from fluid they won’t be hungry for their meal. Offer two courses at a meal, a main meal and a full fat milky dessert such as yoghurt, custard or a fruit crumble.
• Offer the same food as you and the rest of the family are eating, rather than cooking a different dish for each family member. Remember to cook without salt; instead adults can add salt at the table.
• Invest in a high chair, running around a table or around the room trying to feed your child is never a good idea. Not only is it risk that they could choke on food but it conveys that it is a game and they will want to play every time.
• When introducing new foods, don’t try to trick your toddler by hiding it in something they really like. It is best to offer a small amount and offer it frequently, at least 14 times. If they refuse it after that, then they don’t like it. Hiding it in food that they like will make them wary of it. Wait a month or two and then try again. Their preferences change as they get older.
• Allow your child to touch the food and always encourage them to feed themselves. Provide them with their own utensils. Not only are they learning hand to eye co-ordination, but touching food teaches them about textures. It may be a messy affair but exploring is important. Always clean up at the end of the meal, try not to wipe their hands and face clean after every mouthful; this can often create aversions to feeding.
• Eat together as a family at the dining table at least once a day. Your child may have eaten his/her meal earlier but still they can be involved in the social occasion. Pull up their high chair and encourage them to eat from your plate. Children learn from those around them, and there is no better place than the family seated together.
• Reward your child with love and praise when they are feeding themselves, have eaten a new food or finished their meal. This encourages and reinforces positive behavior. When they are misbehaving or are refusing to eat, although it is tough to do, try to remain calm. Becoming upset or angry reinforces unwanted behavior. If you really aren’t winning and they are refusing their meal, instead of offering meal alternatives, remove your child from the high chair, even if they protest. Give them some cuddles and when they are calm ask your child if they are hungry and would like to eat their meal. If they say no, then wait until the next meal time or snack time and they will likely be very hungry and will eat the meal you have provided.
• Regain control. If you feel your child dictates what they will eat, when they will eat and how they will eat, then you need to take back control. Focus on the positive aspects of your child’s eating and keep calm.
• It is important that you never force feed your child under any circumstance, the negative experience can last and can affect their feeding for many years. Children won’t starve if they miss one or two meals, rather aim to maintain control over the mealtimes.