Teaching Toddlers Healthy Eating Habits

According to an article by the Baylor College of Medicine, ten percent of children between the ages of 2 and 5 are overweight.  The obesity rates for children have tripled in the last thirty years.  That is an alarming trend that must be changed for the sake of our children’s health.  There are a lot of guidelines for nutrition with school-aged children, but what about starting even earlier?  Can we impact children’s health by beginning with them when they are toddlers?

In fact, it is best to start when they are first introduced to solid food.  That is often when they are the most agreeable to try new foods.  It is important to start them out on healthy foods that they need to eat when they are older instead of introducing them to French fries and junk food.  Introducing them to fruits and vegetables will start them on a nutritionally healthy path for the future.

Toddlers are known to be picky eaters who avoid trying new foods.  It can be difficult to get them to make healthy choices at this age.  There are several things the parent can do to provide healthy influence on their eating habits without causing food battles at every meal.

1.  Divide the responsibility.
Remember it is the parent’s job to provide the food choices in the home but it is the child’s choice of what to eat and when.  As it’s been said many times, when they are hungry, they will eat.  Don’t stress about how much or how little your child eats if you are providing healthy choices for them.
2.  Be willing to experiment.
Yes, toddlers are picky eaters.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer new foods for them to try.  According to the Weight-Control Information Network, it can take 10 tries for a child to like a new food, so you have to keep serving it even if they don’t like it at first.  And while you can get older children to try new foods, toddlers often refuse to even take a taste.  Don’t force the issue; just let them see you eating it and they may ask for a bite later.  Even if they don’t, they are learning by watching what you eat.  You can also put it on their plate.  Sometimes touching a food will get them used to the texture and they will be willing to taste it.
3.  Set a good example.
This may be the most important thing you can do to influence your toddler’s eating habits.  That’s why eating together as a family is so important.  They watch what you’re eating and how you treat food.  You may want to look at your eating habits and see if they are the kind of habits you want your child to follow.  Being healthy is a family affair.  All of the tips you’ve heard for children, like eating fruit for a snack instead of cookies will be wasted if your toddler sees you with a bag of potato chips.
4.  Don’t be too strict.
It’s okay for your toddler to like French fries and cookies.  In fact, it’s a good idea not to use the terms good and bad to define food at all.  It’s better to explain to them that their bodies need some foods more than others and that is why they need to eat more of those.  They won’t understand it all yet, but you’re laying the foundation for how they will view food in the future.  Forbidden food or bad food often becomes more tempting.  By letting them have small amounts of those kind of foods occasionally will take away much of the allure.
5.  Don’t use food as reward.
This includes saying they can have a cookie if they eat their vegetables or if they pick up their toys, they get ice cream.  Food is for nutrition and nothing more.  It’s important to start out finding other ways to reward them.  Bribing and rewarding with food will teach them the wrong view to have towards food.
6.  Learn portion sizes and eliminate the need to clean their plate.
Most toddlers eat less than they did as babies because they aren’t growing as fast.  It’s not uncommon to see them decrease their food intake until they have a growth spurt.  Parents need to learn the nutrition requirements for their children and teach them portion control.  Unlimited amounts of healthy foods can cause weight gain, too.  The exception to this is in most vegetables.  That’s why it’s okay for kids to fill up on vegetables the same as for adults.  The new My Plate by the USDA works for kids as wells as adults, just with a smaller plate so it’s a good guideline for parents to follow at mealtimes. Requiring a child to clean their plate teaches them to ignore their bodies’ signals of fullness, so it’s better for them to leave food on their plate than to overeat.  While giving them smaller portions will eliminate much of this problem, there will be times when they eat less than expected.  There’s no need for concern if they eat less, but it will mean that some food will be left on the plate.  Parents may have to learn to handle this appropriately if they weren’t raised that way.

If parents can change their views and practices to insure that the food their children eat is healthier, then they will have taken a very important first step in raising healthy children.  Toddlers especially learn by watching their parents and other adults and copying what they see.  The trends towards obesity in children can change if we start early establishing healthy eating habits.

About Marion Witte

Marion Witte was born and raised on a farm on the prairies of North Dakota. It was there that she acquired her Midwestern work ethic and her philosophy of helping others. Marion enjoyed a successful career as an entrepreneur, and upon selling her various business interests she began pursuing a life of philanthropy. She is passionate and outspoken about the need for radical changes in the way we view children and parenting. Her memoir “Little Madhouse on the Prairie” relays the story of her life, and it is the basis of her commitment to this work. She founded and manages the Angel Heart Foundation and its sister organizations “Next Generation Parenting” and “Brave New Leaders.”

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