Children and their eating habits, (or the lack of) are rated by many parents as a major source of concern and stress in their family life – fussy eaters, slow coaches, fad eaters, food addicts!
Eat right, don't fight is written for all those who are interested in food, nutrition and the eating behaviours of babies and young children. Authors, Jan O'Connell, Rosey Cummings and Gina Ralston, family and child health care professionals for Tweddle Child and Family Health Services in Victoria, help parents solve their children's feeding problems every day.
The book covers the nutritional and dietary needs of children aged from birth to four years and offers advice on breast feeding, encouraging toddlers to broaden their diet and step by step strategies to win over fussy eaters. The following extract from Eat right, don't fight, focuses on the age old question of just how much or how little toddlers should eat.
Parents often worry that their children eat too little or too much, that they eat too many foods that are unhealthy and too few that are nutritious. Some believe that their children live on fresh air and fun, and wonder how they seem to burst with so much vitality every day.
These concerns can cause stress levels to climb, particularly at mealtimes, when a young child appears to be hiding more in her lap that reaches her stomach. It is important to know that a decrease in the rate of growth during the second and third year is usual. If your child is generally healthy, and growing and developing normally you can be assured that she is probably eating enough.
*the average weight gain in 2.5 kilograms per year or 1-2 year olds and 2 kilograms for 2-3 year olds.
Most children eat different quantities of food from one day to the next. It is unlikely that they will consume all of the major food groups in a single day. This is a normal pattern for children of this age (and for many adults) who eat small quantities frequently. This can be an advantage as it gives parents the option of offering an assortment of foods.
A variety of healthy foods eaten over several days will satisfy your child's nutritional requirements. Looking at your child's food intake and its nutritional value over the period of a few days or a week can be more valuable therefore, than focussing on today.
Being aware of and understanding your child's eating patterns involves looking at the what, when, where, how and how much questions relating to her current eating habits.
Observe her food and fluid intake during the day and night. If you are concerned that she is not taking enough (or eating too much), try using a diary to get an accurate picture of her eating and drinking patterns. You could use a diary format (included in the book) to jot down every morsel and drop that passes her lips. Use one diary page each day over a seven day period.
Preferably, do this without her knowledge as it may increase her awareness of your concerns and thereby contribute to a negative attitude towards food just as bickering and badgering her might. In addition to food intake, the diary might also reveal:
- Your child's preferred eating and drinking times
- Her favourite foods and drinks
- Her daily and weekly fluid intake
- Whether or not her diet is a well-balanced one
If you find that your child is eating enough - see dietary guidelines - then you can relax. If you find on the other hand that she is not eating sufficient quantities then you will need to find out why.
Consider the following questions when you read your diary information:
- Is my child too tired to eat?
- Is she unwell?
- Does my child like this food?
- How much have I offered?
- Is it served up in an appealing way?
- Is this her usual eating time?
- Is it her preferred eating time?
- Have there been any changes in the family routine?
- Has my child been more or less active than usual?
- Is my child's eating pattern different at day care or grandma's house? What might be the differences and influences in these situations?
Answering these questions might result in simple solutions, such as offering meals at an earlier time, increasing your child's outdoor playtime before meals or making food look more appealing. Grandma or grandpa might also be able to help by jotting down their observations when your child is visiting.
Tips for managing mealtimes
It is important that children eat enough regularly enough to keep up their energy. A toddler who is famished will often be tired too, sometimes too tired to eat. Children show 'tired' signs at the table by picking at their food, playing with it, jabbing it and definitely not eating it. Younger children might be grizzly and yawn. Think about your child's mealtimes in relation to her sleeping patterns. Try these ideas:
- Look at your child's eating and drinking diary. This should provide you with information about her favourite eating times.
- Offer your child an early lunch at 11:30am or even earlier. This seems to suit many young children, especially if their days start early.
- It might suit your child to eat earlier than the rest of the family, especially if you like to eat late. If she has already eaten, she can sit with the family at their mealtime and have a healthy snack.
- If she is eating before the rest of the family, take some time out to sit with her and have a chat. Have a snack or a drink while she is having her meal.
- Try giving her lunch as the main meal. Young children have preferences, just like adults, about when they enjoy eating.
Work towards making mealtime a happy experience for all the family, a time to enjoy eating and each other's company. It is ideal if families can share mealtimes together but this may not be practical or possible at every meal. Many families make up for this loss by eating together on the weekends.
Set realistic expectations. Toddlers have limited concentration spans. To be fair to your toddler and your family, limit her meals to 20-30 minutes. This will help her learn to sit and eat with the rest of the family but accommodate her need for a change of activity and position.
Eat right, don't fight by Jan O'Connell, Rosey Cummings and Gina Ralston. Published by Random House Australia RRP $27.95. Available from leading bookstores.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, February 2004. Updated July 2009.