Feeding your toddler - A Four Part Series Part 1

Part 1. Mealtime Management

There is more than nutrition and the food you provide that makes family mealtimes successful, the way you feed, or your ‘food parenting’ is just as important.

As a parent you will influence many of your child’s thoughts and behaviours around food including

·      likes and dislikes,

·      how well they eat and

·      mealtime behaviours.

Getting this right is crucial to avoid problems in the future like fussy eating, making healthy choices, weight issues eating the same meal as the rest of the family.

Research in food parenting is a fairly new area and it has revealed a lot of very useful information that many food experts have suspected for years:


1.     Encouragement is pressure

Encouraging your child to eat is not a good thing.  Prompting with’ don’t forget to eat your green beans’ or  ‘you can’t leave the table till you clear your plate’ has negative consequences.  Initially it makes the kitchen table a high-pressure environment disturbing the sense of calm that is essential for successful eating. Pressure causes the release of stress hormones, which turn off appetites instantly leaving your child no longer feeling hungry.

A child who is eager to please his Mum and Dad will probably clear his plate or eat those green beans, and this can lead to him becoming overweight as he is always eating beyond his appetite. Being told to eat forces him to ignore his own body’s signs that tell him to stop when he is full and alters his appetite so that he loses his self-regulation (knowing when to stop eating when full) signals. Babies are born with an innate ability to regulate their food intake and this lasts till around the age of 5.

Most toddlers will refuse your requests to eat; they can become angry as you have taken away their independence around the meal that they were in charge of. It’s not unusual for this to escalate into a tantrum and for them to refuse those foods forever…adding them to their ‘most hated’ foods list. Other toddlers don’t become cross, they will just ignore you altogether!


2.     Offering a reward is bribery

How often have you said “just one more spoon then you can have ice cream for pudding” or “if you don’t finish your dinner you wont be allowed a biscuit later”.

The reward becomes significantly more desirable than it would have been without the task attached to it. The dinner that needs to be finished or the last spoonful is just ‘a means to an end’ to get that ice cream or biscuit.  As a result the child doesn’t learn to like the food they had to eat to get their reward, they just learn to tolerate it and the reward food becomes even more attractive!

A recent study from the USA asked children to eat a new food offering them prizes of stickers and TV time as a reward if they did.  Some children readily agreed and received their reward, others dug in their heals and refused. However almost all of those children added the ‘new food’ to their disliked food list when asked about it at a later date. This study evidences that you can sometimes get children to eat with bribery but you cant get them to like the food, in-fact you could increase their dislike of the food even more!

We realise that encouragement and reward leads to negative thoughts and behaviours around foods. It’s leads to disinterest in food at best and becoming overweight or malnourished at worst.  Entire family mealtimes can become high-pressure environments and toddlers can begin to dread them, refusing to sit at the table or even come into the room at mealtimes. Fussy eating behaviour can be exacerbated and children can develop a fear of even seeing a new food at the table.


3.     There are no good foods and bad foods

Parents sometimes make the mistake of suggesting that some foods are good or healthy where as other are bad or unhealthy. Bad or unhealthy foods are often restricted or avoided in the home and what research tells us is that these foods become tremendously desirable to children, as they get older. For example if a toddler is never exposed to chocolate, when he becomes a school aged child he will overindulge at any opportunity such as when going for tea at other children’s houses or spending all his pocket money on it at the school disco. Children are innately drawn towards foods that they cannot have. Likewise if chocolate is brought into the home at Christmas or Easter, your child may overeat and be unable to self regulate, only stopping when they feel or become sick. Furthermore, as they grow older children may feel guilty when eating bad or unhealthy foods, which may damage their self-esteem. A better plan is allow treats as a regular part of normal family eating. Have rules though so kids know what to expect, this might be ‘sweets at the weekend’ or ‘ice creams after dinner on Thursdays’. It doesn’t matter what the rule is, agree on something that works for your family and stick with it!


What do you think? Could these guidelines work for you and your family? Check out part 2 next week to discover your food parenting style.

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