Food habits begin at an early age and have lifelong implications. Good nutrition is essential for physical and emotional growth. A poorly nourished child may be restless, irritable, or more withdrawn than a well-nourished child. Limited food choices may prevent a child from having the nutrients or energy needed to promote growth and development in mental, social, and physical activities.
Children are most likely to learn healthy eating habits when parents, caregivers, and other influential adults eat a nutritious diet themselves. Adult role models are the single most important influence on what a child learns to eat. Toddlers especially, watch others closely and are great imitators. They develop good food habits if a variety of nutritious foods are offered in a pleasant, relaxed setting. Remember, actions always make a stronger impression than words.
Family mealtime is more than nourishment. A pleasant mealtime atmosphere also encourages the development of children's self-esteem and independence, as well as their motor, social, and language skills. Children practice their motor skills as they pass food dishes to others. They observe and practice social and language skills through family conversation during the meal. A toddler's eating schedule may not always follow an adult's schedule but including the toddler at the family meal encourages a life-long habit of meal sharing. On days when a child is tired or cranky, or too hungry to wait for mealtime, it may be best to feed the child early. A toddler's emotional and physical growth, as well as eating habits, change dramatically between 1 and 5 years of age. Behaviors tend to swing about every 6 months and can range from balanced to difficult.
Children prefer fairly dependable daily routines, including meal and snack time. Children have small stomachs and often need to eat more than three times a day.
Save highly sugared foods, soda, fruit flavored drinks and candy for occasional special treat snacks. Serve child sized portions. One tablespoon of food per year of age between 2 and 4 years is usually enough. Giving children their own special plates and bowls plus smaller utensils helps control portion sizes. Plates with edges also help the child scoop up his or her food.
Food jags are normal. When children are given choices from each food group every day, they learn how to include a variety of foods in their daily intake. Allowing children to serve themselves also promotes eating in amounts according to hunger, rather than expecting them to finish a pre-determined amount. Limit the number of food choices offered at any one time. Plan meals to include one food that the child likes and continue to offer new foods from each of the food groups.
Milk and fruit juice are healthy choices but should not be offered in unlimited quantities. When toddlers eat or drink too much of only a few foods, they may miss the nutrients they need from other foods. Toddlers need 16-24 ounces (2-3 cups) of milk per day. Cut foods into bite-sized pieces, preferably before the child is at the table. Children are unable to handle cutting with a fork or knife, and will likely have a tantrum if they are not allowed to try. Force feeding a child by coaxing, cajoling, or giving rewards is seldom successful. Children can learn at a very early age to control their parents by refusing to eat. If your child dawdles over a meal longer than 30 minutes, remove the plate without comment and limit or omit snacks before the next meal. Do not call attention to your action or act as if you are punishing the child.
For more information, ask for PM1257, Food for Me Too Nutrition for the toddler and preschooler at your county extension office or download from the publications store at the ISU Extension website, www.extension.iastate.edu.