Having a two year old is fun, fascinating and frustrating all at the same time. Especially when it comes to eating. These little people are now asserting their independence and trying to gain some control over their lives, and they will take control if we let them. If this happens, we as parents feel as though we are losing control and life becomes a little more chaotic. Toddlers are smarter than we think! I have had to remind myself of how important mealtime structure is over the past week or so. My toddler has been sick with a bad cold, and because of this, we’ve been a little bit more lenient when it comes to eating. Now that he’s feeling better, he has now decided that he is in control of what, when and where he eats.
So we’re re-establishing some structure around feeding and eating in our house…
Feeding our kids: What is our responsibility?
What I’ve learned through personal experience and in the research that I’ve done on toddler nutrition, is that these little people NEED structure. When it comes to meal times, it’s important that we, as parents, take responsibility for the What’s, When’s and Where’s of feeding . However, it’s equally important that we let our young children be responsible for the Whether’s and How much’s of eating. This is the corner stone of Ellyn Satter’s (Author of The Division of Responsibility of Feeding, Dietitian and Mental health Specialist) philosophy when it comes to feeding young children. We decide what the child will be eating, where that child will be eating and when that child will be eating. This is how we provide structure for them when it comes to meal times–something that they NEED to both develop a healthy relationship with food, and to respect you as the parent.
Let’s break it down further…
You as the parent get to decide what you baby, toddler or child eats. Ideally, you should provide a variety of foods (at least three at meals and at least 2 at snacks) with different colours, flavours and textures. At family meals, your child should be served the same foods that the rest of the family is eating. In other words, even if you child is a picky eater, they should not receive a special meal and you should not play “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 prep (even in little tiny ways)–this will help them to be more open to trying a new food or eating their meal. When your kids get a little bit older, you can then give them structured choice at meal or snack times. In other words, give them two choices of snacks (one or the other). 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 every day so that your child knows when to expect another chance to eat. Because young children have small tummies, ideally they should be offered food every three hours or so. So, three meals with snacks in between and depending on bed time, before bed. This timing structure will help your child to eat until he or she is comfortably full and develop a healthy appetite for meals and snacks.
Meals and snacks should ideally be eaten at 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, your child will soon want to eat all meals in front of the TV because it’s more fun. When your children eat in front of a screen, they aren’t focusing on their food or their inner hunger or fullness signals, they’re instead focusing on what they’re watching. Also, you’ll find that you’re spending more time cleaning up spilled food and crumbs! 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 child.
Now it’s time to let go of the control…
The Whether’s and How much’s:
It is completely up to your child as to whether or not he or she eats 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. The good thing is, 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 eats a double portion. We have to respect their hunger and fullness cues, because they certainly are. We could actually learn a thing or two from them!