Getting a toddler to eat a healthy meal can be a parent’s worst nightmare. As a parent, you want to make sure your child is healthy, and getting all of the nutrients he/she needs to grow. In a perfect world, a child will come to the table, eat what is served, smile at you and say “Thank you! That was the best dinner ever!” But in the real world, many parents get the hairy eyeball, hear a lot of whining about the icky stuff on the plate, and have to fight just to get 2- 3 bites of something relatively healthy into their child’s mouth.
To understand the difficulty an unsuspecting toddler faces with eating, first you need to understand the eating experience. Eating is a package deal for us all, involving flavor, smell, appearance, texture and previous experience.
The actual taste of a food is just one small part of the eating equation. Flavor is a reaction from the taste buds. There are about 10,000 taste buds on your tongue, which live 10- 14 days, then regenerate. It takes about 3 months to replace all the taste buds on your tongue.Young children have a greater concentration of sweet taste buds on the tip of their tongues. Making it easiest to taste cookies, candy…junk food. Also, we, as a species have not evolved much from cave-man days when bitterness meant “poison”. Our brains tend to try to protect us from this, despite our advances in understanding food. Also, children tend to follow in their parent’s food prints, so if Mom or Dad hate the flavor of broccoli, so will junior. The question is, does junior hate that food out of taste or learned behavior?
Sometimes it has nothing to do with nature vs. nurture, but really just perception. 80% of our food preferences are based upon smell. Sadly, a food may not smell inviting during cooking; think about dry beans, as they are rehydrated in water, vs. baked beans. How a food looks, is a close second in terms of making foods unappealing. Think about how hesitant you might be if everything on the plate is beige (e.g. chicken, applesauce, corn). Or what if something is the wrong color? Remember blue ketchup? It may often just come down to texture. Food can feel wrong to us- mushy or crunchy or slippery; making it inedible.
Despite your best efforts to get little Johnny to eat, keep in mind that in addition to those issues we all face, most foods are new to a toddler. So, when we are trying a new food we can either have a good or bad experience. When we enjoy our foods, saliva is made, chewing/swallowing kick the digestive tract into gear, and the pancreas may make 30 times more enzymes to break down foods than if you didn’t like the food. When we dislike what is on the plate, the salivary gland barely works,swallowing is difficult, and the stomach and intestines may contract (you may vomit).
So, what is a parent to do? Here are some tips to help make mealtime more pleasant and meet nutritional needs of your child:
1. Expose your child to a new food 10-25 times in a variety of ways.
2. Be patient; a toddler will not starve himself. If after 15 minutes, he chooses not to eat, let him leave the table. Respect his appetite (he may not be hungry) to avoid fights. When he is hungry, give him his plate (not a bunch of snacks).
3. Follow a schedule- Toddlers cannot tell time, so you need to help them learn to feel the first signs of hunger and determine eating is the answer. It is very important to stick to a routine with toddlers, avoiding overloading with juices and excess snacking.
4. Make food fun! Mix colors, textures, temperatures and smells. Toddlers love to “help”, so include them cooking.
5. Be a role model! Kids imitate those around them, so start eating your veggies!
6. Sneak in foods such as pureed veggies to soups and whole grain breadcrumbs in meatballs.
7. Focus on mealtime- turn off electronic devices, sit together and enjoy the food and each other.
8. Make desserts a part of the eating experience, but keep them to 1-2 times a week. Key to teaching toddlers about healthy eating is not to bribe them (if you eat your green beans, you can have cake). Also, consider removing a planned activity (such as watching a movie) as punishment, not withholding dessert/food.
It can be daunting to raise a nutritionally balanced child. With a lot of patience, some creativity, and an enormous amount of perseverance, a child will try even the most surprising foods (think brussel sprouts or wheat germ). Bon apetit!
Jennifer Giffune, R.D., L.D.N. Is a freelance author, professional speaker and nutrition counselor. She currently is providing nutrition counseling services for Hampden County Physician Associates at their offices in Westfield, Southwick, Feeding Hills and West Springfield. If you would like to schedule a counseling session with Jennifer, please call (413) 786-1500.