Nutritional needs vary with each stage of life. Not only do you need to alter the diet of your child to their age, but also to their lifestyle and preferences! This may start to seem like an impossible feat, especially, if you have a picky eater.
Let’s start by trying to understand where toddlers and preschoolers are at developmentally.
Toddlers and preschoolers are beginning to crave independence. They are also curious and have a limited attention span. Establishing healthy eating habits in this stage of life is a crucial determinant of disease prevention later on in life.
Keeping in mind your child’s want for independence, but simultaneously security, can guide your decisions around mealtime. Children mimic those they eat with, so family meal time is a great time to implement healthy eating as the norm.
Here are some things you can do to help your child eat well at meal times.
- Allow them to experiment with food (curiosity it natural!)
- Offer structure by having set meal and snack times
- Offer a variety of foods from all food groups
- Encourage them to help with simple food preparation
- Allow them to choose how much they want to eat – never force food on a child
Forcing a child to finish all of their food, although common, is counterproductive. Forcing a child to finish a food teaches them to rely on external, rather than internal, factors for when and how much to eat.
It is important to stay away from restrictive or instrumental feeding. This is simply not necessary, as we are all born with the innate ability to control our energy intake. This means that if allowed to eat however much food they want, they will adjust their caloric intake perfectly to their energy expenditure.
How Much Food?
Something that most parents fail to realize is that a decrease in appetite when entering the toddler stage of life is completely normal. The decrease of your child’s appetite (compared to in infancy) is actually due to a slowing of growth velocity.
A good rule of thumb is to use a serving size of one tablespoon per every year of your child’s age. They can always ask for more if they are still hungry. To be more specific, toddlers (age 1 to 3) on average need 1500 calories per day.
Snacks are also very important at this life stage. Young children cannot eat large amounts of food at once, so smaller and more frequent meals are needed to ensure adequate energy is provided.
Although energy intakes of children are generally adequate, certain nutrients are consistently low in this age group. Here are some nutrients to make sure your child is getting enough of:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Folic acid
- Essential fatty acids (linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid)
Children are born with the preference for sweet and slightly salty foods, so introducing foods like vegetables may be hard at first.
The good news is that when it comes to new foods, there is still hope even if your child doesn’t like it at first. It may take around 8-10 exposures to a new food before the food is accepted by the child.
Additionally, a child’s eating is greatly affected by their environment and which foods are familiar to them. Therefore, creating an environment where eating nutrient dense foods is normal will help the child become accustomed to eating that way too.
No matter what, try to avoid serving certain foods as a reward. This will only increase your child’s desire for that food. Ultimately, your child will benefit most from a varied diet and a positive eating environment. Healthy eating is exciting – help your kids develop a passion for nutrition by showing them yours!