Over the past couple of weeks I have had to remind myself of how important mealtime structure is, especially for my two-and-a-half year old. See, we had a baby two months ago and let's just say, we've let things slide a little bit due to being in the trenches of the newborn stage. We've noticed some bad habits forming so are planning to re-establish some structure around feeding and eating in our house…
What I’ve learned through personal experience and in the research that I’ve done on child nutrition, is that toddlers and kids NEED structure, but they also need to feel as though they have some control. When it comes to meal and snack times, it’s important that we, as parents, take responsibility for the Whats, Whens and Wheres of feeding. However, it’s equally important that we let our toddlers and young children be responsible for the Whethers and How muchs of eating. This is the corner stone of Ellyn Satter’s (Author of The Division of Responsibility of Feeding, Registered Dietitian and Mental Health Specialist) philosophy when it comes to feeding toddlers. Furthermore, we as parents decide what toddlers eats (or give them structured choice), where they eat, and when they eat. This helps them develop a healthy relationship with food, while also respecting boundaries.
You as the parent get to decide what your toddler eats. Ideally, you should provide a variety of foods for nutritional balance (at least three at meals and two at snacks) with different colours, flavours and textures. At family meals, your toddlers should be served the same foods that the rest of the family is eating (unless of course, they have a severe food allergy or intolerance). In other words, even if your toddlers are picky eaters, they should not receive a special meal and you should not take on the role of "short-order cook" (as tempting as it is). When they are old enough (I can now do this with my toddler), try to include your child in meal preparation (even in little tiny ways). This will help them to be more open to trying new foods and eating their meal. Try giving your older toddler structured choice at meal or snack times. For example, give them *only* two choices of snacks ("would you like yogurt and berries OR pita chips and hummus?"). This gives them a little bit of control while still maintaining structure.
Eating should not be a free-for-all. There should be structured meal and snack times on most days so that your toddler knows when to expect another chance to eat. Because toddlers have small tummies, ideally they should be offered food every three hours or so. This likely translates into three meals with snacks in between and depending on bed time, before bed. This timing structure will help your toddler eat until he or she is comfortably full and develop a healthy appetite for meals.
When you are at home, meals and snacks should be eaten at a designated eating area (presumably a kitchen or dining room table), free from distractions. If some meals are served at the table and some of served in front of the TV on the couch, your toddler will soon want to eat all meals in front of the TV because it’s more fun. When your toddler or child eats in front of a screen, they aren’t focusing on their food or their inner hunger/fullness cues; they are instead focusing on what they’re watching. Establish one or two places (preferably at a table) where everyone in the family eats. This will encourage more family meals (which have MANY benefits) and also provide more structure for your toddler.
As mentioned above, toddlers need structure, but they also need to feel as though they have some control. It's hard as the parent to hand over the control after you've fulfilled your role in the feeding relationship, but it's absolutely crucial that you do. Forcing your child to eat a particular food or to "clean their plate" will not do them any favours in the long run.
The "Whethers" and "How muchs":
It is completely up to your toddlers or children as to whether or not they eat what you’ve served (and how much). I know—this is really hard for us as parents, especially after we’ve spent time making a healthy, tasty meal or snack. We need to take a step back and let our kids decide if they are going to eat their food and how much they are going to eat. No pressure, no forcing, and no bribing. We should also allow them to eat at their own pace, without pressure to "eat faster" or "keep up" with the rest of the family, unless of course they taking hours on end to finish a meal. Again, there has to be boundaries. The good thing is, toddlers and young kids will not let themselves starve—they are VERY intuitive when it comes to eating. If they don’t eat much at one meal or snack, they’ll make up for it in future meals or snacks or even days afterwards. Sometimes my son does not touch his food and sometimes he out-eats my husband. It all evens out by the end of the week somehow. We have to respect his hunger and fullness cues, because he certainly is. We could actually learn a thing or two from our toddlers!
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