10 Tips to Shape Healthy Eating Behaviours for Toddlers

Parents play a crucial role in shaping their children's approach to eating. Here are some ways to prevent toddler eating problems.
  • 04 May - 10 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly

1. Set a good example

The first thing you can do to help avoid toddler eating problems? Eat well yourself – in front of them. Adults who enjoy a variety of nutritious foods in a happy setting are far more likely to have kids with healthy attitudes toward eating than adults who constantly diet, overeat, refuse vegetables, or simply leave kids to eat alone.

2. Take the pressure off

Any kind of coercion is the parental behaviour experts object to most. New textures aren't going to be accepted right away. But being forced overwhelms children. Even if kids do eat the food, they're likely to avoid it when they get the chance. Plus, pressure makes eating a control issue; it's not about food anymore; it's about a child's need to be autonomous.

3. Avoid using food as a reward

Offering cake to children who eat their vegetables is just another form of pressure. It adds to mealtime tension and won't help them like vegetables. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. When the reward is dessert, it sends the wrong message about what's worth eating. Sweets become more valuable than vegetables. A child who isn't hungry for any healthy choices shouldn't be hungry for sweets either.

4. Don't give up on new foods too soon

Too many parents stick to chicken nuggets because it’s eaten without complaint. But to eat a variety of foods, you must have a variety offered to you. Take help of the "three Es" in getting a child to accept new foods: expose, explore, and expand. These first two Es are preparatory and might involve sensory play, gardening, identifying the food at the market, and cooking. It's okay if they spit it into a napkin. Try not to get frustrated when kids don't eat, and don't get hysterical with pleasure when they do take a step.

5. Offer limited mealtime choices

It's easy to fall into the trap of preparing something different for each family member. But this doesn't improve eating habits, and it saps time and energy. Instead, offer limited choices related to what the rest of the family is eating. If you're having sandwiches, for example, kids can choose between meat and peanut butter (Accepting certain requests, like removing crusts, can give your child some control). As long as there is be at least one item at the table that the child knows and likes.

6. Keep serving sizes small

In this land of super-size servings, we sometimes forget that children are small and, therefore, need small, child-size portions. Start small; too much food is intimidating and discouraging for the child – and disappointing for the parent who sees a full plate even when the child has sampled everything.

7. Limit juice and snacks

Some children graze all day on cookies, crackers, and other snacks washed down with endless juice boxes. Neither habit helps when it comes to healthy eating because children are filling up on the wrong things and then aren't hungry for more nutritious options when it's time to eat real meals. It's unnecessary to cut snacks and drinks altogether, rather, parents should look at snacks as an opportunity to provide nutritional alternatives or new tastes.

8. Allow for messes

Taste is only one way young children learn about food. So it's good to be tolerant of messy mealtimes. Feeding is a multisensory experience. A new eater who is never allowed to play with food won't enjoy it as much as one who knows the fun of smearing bananas and crumbling crackers.

9. Keep typical development in mind

Not everyone will learn to like every food. Some people just taste flavours more strongly, especially bitterness. There's also a natural fear of new things that's strongest during the preschool years. Parents interpret it as pickiness, but it's actually adaptive and normal. Extreme food selectivity is also characteristic in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). When your child refuses new foods, keep trying. If, after repeated exposures, they still don't like it, just accept that preference for now. But if you're worried about their diet, talk to a health care provider.

10. Relax

Even children who seem to live on macaroni and cheese may not eat as poorly as parents think. Parents label children 'picky eaters' and it ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lot of such kids are actually quite normal. And many improve with age. One of the most important indicators of a serious problem is the child's growth curve. If a child is growing at a normal rate, they are meeting their nutritional needs.