Hands up if you:
1. Find cooking separate meals for adults and children day after day a bit tedious, let alone far too time consuming
2. Have kids that eat OK, but know what they like and don’t like and some days don’t eat much at all
3. Start to feel stressed about whether your toddler is eating enough when they start waking more in the night than usual
If this is you, then what the most up to date research is telling us about how to help toddlers develop healthy eating habits and how their eating affects – or more importantly does not affect – their night time waking, is going to be a great relief to you.
We love it because it’s easy, fun, makes meals times more relaxed and enjoyable as possible!
Before we start with the top 5 tips, here is my favourite meal time stress reducer. Research shows that encouraging more solids in toddlers (6-12 months of age) that are waking frequently during the night does not affect the number of times they wake for reassurance overnight. It does reduce the amount that they need to be fed overnight, but even when feeding less, their amount of night time waking, needing reassurance, does not reduce.
This tells us that if your toddler is being regularly offered a wide variety of healthy food, is eating and drinking well, there is no need to actively encourage them to eat more in the hope of reducing night time waking.
So, now that we have taken the pressure off solid intake and night time waking, here are our Top 5 Tips to help your toddler develop healthy eating habits:
1. No toddler will starve when there is food around to be eaten
It’s quite natural for toddlers of eat cyclically, some days eating like a horse and others like a mouse. Try not to worry about this, but keep offering your toddler a wide range of healthy food, knowing that they will eat when they are hungry. If you are needing to use heavy distraction to encourage your toddler to eat e.g. TV, toys, iPad, etc., it may be that your toddler is not that hungry. Experiment to discover your toddlers natural eating rhythms, don’t worry if they don’t eat what you offer them at that time (although it can be frustrating) so that meal times are relaxed and enjoyed for what they are. This will help your toddler to learn to regulate their own intake, enjoy and appreciate food, which is important in developing healthy eating habits.
2. Offer babies a wide range of food groups between 6-12 months – before they get fussy!
After approximately 12 months of age, many toddlers get very fussing with what they will and won’t eat. This is a form of self-preservation, as they become more mobile and inquisitive this fussiness about what they will and won’t put in their mouth can save their lives, as they don’t eat those poisonous berries in the neighbours garden. Between 6-12 months of age the easiest way to help your toddler eat a wide variety of food and eat the types of food you like to eat, is to simply offer them the same meals that you prepare for the rest of your family. If you are cooking healthy food (with no added salt) and have a balanced diet, this is fine, just adapt (puree, mash, soften or leave it as it is) the food to suit the stage of eating that your baby/toddler is up to. This works if you are doing baby lead weaning or not or you are somewhere in-between.
3. Model healthy eating
Toddlers feel safe and confident eating what you are eating as most toddlers are very risk adverse when it comes to trying new foods, as per tip number 2. If you want your kids to eat their vegetables, sit down with them as they eat theirs and have your own portion too. Show them how to eat and enjoy healthy food. Better still, if you can, try to eat as a family, making meals a safe, loving and enjoyable experience – not based around the quantity of food eaten.
4. Avoid saying “Eat your vegetables and you can have some pudding!”
It’s fine to offer food as a reward for good behaviour – that will not create an unhealthy relationship with food. What can create an unhealthy relationship with food is offering food rewards for eating certain foods, for example, avoid rewarding eating vegetables with a piece of cake. All it will do is reinforce the dislike of vegetables. Interestingly researchers have also found that telling toddlers that the food is good for them to encourage eating is unhelpful.
5. Having to offer foods many, many, many times before a toddler will take an interest is perfectly natural behaviour
Again, this behaviour comes down to self-preservation, they want to be completely sure that this new food is OK. When you are in the thick of this continual rejection, do not be perturbed – it’s normal. Most parents when questioned offer a new food 3-5 times before they stop offering it, claiming their toddler does not like it. Keep persisting, while you are getting through this stage, make like you have amnesia, and keep offering a little of the foods they have not yet warmed too. Offer it up with the foods that they think are yum and just wait, one day it will make it into their mouth. Until then, you will have a thriving compost heap.
Amy and Elspeth