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Toddler Tips

The Road to Healthy Eating

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22, No. 2 March-April 2005 pp. 66-69

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My toddler has an enormous appetite. He seems to eat all the time and still nurses several times a day. Other mothers seem to follow their children around all day, pleading with them to eat and offering all kinds of food. My son, on the other hand, will eat anything and then look for more. I worry because many people in my family and in my husband's family are overweight. I fear that he is destined for the same problem if he continues to eat so much. What can I do to keep him on the road to healthy eating and within a normal weight range?

Mother's Response

Let him eat. My son is the same way. His hobby is opening the refrigerator door and saying, "There's something that I want in there." My husband was overweight as a child, and he does not want our children to face the weight issues he has. That is why we let our children eat when they are hungry we don't force them to eat at a pre-set time. We don't make them clean their plates, and we don't deny them food when they hungry. It is good that your son will eat anything—you can give him lots of nutritious whole food choices. Toddlers are growing and active. What they eat and how much may be one of the few things they can actually control in their daily routine. Why make a struggle out of something that doesn’t have to be? If his weight is in a normal range and he is eating wholesome foods, his hearty appetite is just fine.

Jennifer Gordon
Marquette MI USA

Mother's Response

I also strive to help my children develop good eating habits in order to avoid obesity and other food or eating issues. I have three children: a son who is five, a daughter who is two and a half, and another son who is three months old. Like you, I never had to beg my toddlers to eat.

We followed the same pattern for each of the children to set the stage for healthy eating habits: exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months followed by the gradual introduction of other foods until the children were eating “table food” by the age of one. Personally, I avoided using processed baby foods unless we had to be away from home. Even then, it was usually possible to find foods they could eat, whether in a restaurant or at someone else’s home.

Now that your son is old enough to request what he wants to eat, and possibly to get it for himself, it can become harder to monitor what he eats and how much. My first piece of advice is to relax about the amount he consumes at this stage. Both of my older children were voracious eaters until the age of two, and then their intake of food slowed down quite a bit. Most normal, active toddlers will burn off most of the calories they take in. That “toddler gut” that many children his age seem to have will start to disappear as he “thins out” between the ages of two and three. Talk to your pediatrician. If the doctor thinks your son’s weight is proportional to his height, then you may have little to worry about.

Next, offer your son healthy food choices. A stranger was once surprised that my children actually like to eat plain, brown rice cakes. My response: “They don’t know that they come any other way.”

My children are very fond of fruit and whole grains. While my daughter will eat any vegetable, my son is a bit pickier. Still, they both eat vegetables, as opposed to the “macaroni-and-cheese only” diet of some other children in my extended family. Have lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain crackers available for your son to snack on. You can even deliberately leave these items where he can reach them so that he can help himself. In addition, pay attention to your own eating habits. Children learn more by example than from being told what to do.

Remember that toddlers eat frequently. When my husband tries to suggest that we cut back on the number of snacks between meals at our house, I remind him that we want to teach the children to recognize their own hunger cues. (Snacks do end at least an hour before dinnertime, so that the children will eat with the rest of the family.)

Children who are made to eat when not hungry or who are denied food when they are hungry learn to ignore their bodies’ natural cues for food intake. They may learn that eating is a social activity or a way to deal with emotions rather than hunger. As nursing mothers, we know that you cannot force a baby to nurse if he or she is not hungry, nor should you deny a hungry baby a nursing session. Apply these same concepts to your toddler.

Fran Bilotta
Billerica MA USA

Mother's Response

This sounds just like my son. He has always been big, but at two years old he was off the charts! He doesn’t have a good family history when it comes to weight and my husband and I don’t want to see him teased for being “the fat kid” like we were. I started looking for patterns in his eating habits—something I had learned from my dieting days. I noticed that when we were busy doing something he didn’t run to the refrigerator every few minutes. Perhaps some of his eating was out of boredom. I also noticed that a lot of the snacks were being fed to the dog or dropped on the carpet. I made a new rule for the family. No one eats unless they are at the kitchen table. This was a hard concept for my son but it has saved me a lot of clean up time. He still regulates when he eats and how much, but it is less since the kitchen table is not the most interesting place to be. As long as your son eats whole foods that are good for him, I wouldn’t worry too much about how much he eats.

Alexis Hooper
Waldorf MD USA

Mother's Response

Your situation is exactly the same as mine was six months ago! My son, Ronan, had the same eating habits and the same family history. I was also concerned about his weight. At age one he was nearly 30 pounds without having eaten many solid foods, but soon after that he was eating exactly as you describe—anything and everything. I have a funny memory of Ronan throwing himself on top of the snack table at an LLL meeting and screaming, “No! Mine!” to any other toddler who dared approach. Our family physician told us not to worry until he reached age two, as many toddlers “thin out” by then. But by age two he was up to 46 pounds and his eating habits were not slowing down.

I got a referral to a nutritionist at our local children’s hospital and I also made an appointment at a naturopathic clinic that specializes in children. I wanted to get expert advice that went beyond what I had learned through reading books and attending LLL meetings. Our family already ate a whole foods diet with very little “junk.” I also have an older child who is average for height and weight. I knew my son’s issues were unique to him. Both clinics reassured me that my son was active and healthy. They recommended the same common sense advice I had been following: offer healthy foods (focusing on low calorie ones first) and let my son decide how much to eat. For toddlers, weight loss is unhealthy. The goal was for Ronan to gradually grow into his weight. At these visits I learned that he was still gaining weight. At two-and-a-half, he was up to 50 pounds.

At this point, I followed my mother’s advice and began to limit my son’s diet in subtle ways that would not make him self conscious. It seemed that he was not able to identify the “full” feeling on his own and needed some motherly guidance. I no longer served anything “family style,” but put portions on each child’s plate and told them that was all there was. This seemed to work well for him. If there was an activity to look forward to as soon as we were done eating, he was less likely to linger on at the table.

I also started giving Ronan a smaller portion than he had asked for. When he was finished, I would ask, “Does your tummy feel full?” to help him identify the feeling, and offered to save his uneaten portion for later to encourage him to walk away before every scrap of food was gone. If he was full, that was enough reassurance for him and he would forget all about eating it later.

He is almost three years old now and I am finally seeing him begin to “thin out.” He is still huskier than most four and five year olds, but I am confident that he is growing as he should for his body type. He’s well on his way to being one great big healthy guy.

Nissa Freed
Kirkland WA USA

Mother's Response

What your child eats is more important than how much he eats. If the refrigerator and cupboards are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and unsalted crackers rather than chips, cookies, and soda, your son will have no choice but to eat healthy foods. Make exercise another important part of the day, too. Emphasize that exercising the body is just as important as bathing, tooth brushing, and other daily routines. If your son sees that you are active and exercise, he’ll grow to think that it’s a regular part of the day. If your family doesn’t have a regular workout routine, start off slow.

It is definitely challenging for busy families to make time to exercise and eat right, but the rewards are well worth it!

Stephanie Wagner
Ventura CA USA

Mother's Response

My son is also very fond of food. I understand how you must feeling. On the one hand, I’m glad that my son is open minded about trying a variety of foods. On the other hand, I have worried about health, physical, and social problems that can result from eating in excess.

In order to prevent our son from being overweight, my family has implemented a few different strategies. Since our culture teaches us that we can eat anywhere and at anytime, my husband and I have designated specific times and places for eating. Some families only allow eating in the kitchen. Some don’t allow snacking in front of the television. My children accept that our routine simply doesn’t involve food at these times.

Look for patterns in your son’s eating. If he has binge foods, don’t buy them. Keep them out of the house, except possibly for special occasions, and substitute healthy options. My child’s rapid weight gain really began when he ate “empty carbs.” He cannot stop himself with crackers, rice, or pasta. When I served a main dish that I knew he wouldn't like, I used to prepare pasta and meatballs for him. I realized he didn’t need that. Now I just serve two or three types of vegetables or fruits with the meal and he will be satisfied with those, even if he chooses to pass on the main dish. When I do serve pasta or rice, I use whole grain varieties, which are easier to eat in moderation, more nutritious, and keep us all satisfied longer.

Also note portion size. Consider using smaller plates for children. Their stomachs are smaller, so why not? Leaving serving dishes on the counter not at the table, helps discourage refills. Dr. Sears has two books I’d recommend: The Family Nutrition Book and Dr Sears LEAN Kids. Both titles have many ideas that can be modified for younger children. Chances are, your child has some physical activities he really enjoys. Capitalize on them. If weather permits, get outside and move every day. If forced indoors, make up games and exercises. Our favorites include Simon says and racing like animals. We go where our imaginations lead us.

Last of all, it is important to keep realistic expectations. With my son’s genetic make-up, he’s not likely to ever be thin, and he’ll always be among the tallest of his peers. I accept that and love him because he’s a precious, unique person with very endearing qualities. You are committed to helping your child establish healthy eating and exercise habits because you want him to enjoy the best quality life he can. While you modify what is within your control, remember to also revel in how wonderful your child is and to appreciate how special he is to you.

K. S.
Independence MO USA

Last updated October 2, 2007 by jlm.
Page last edited .

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