Feeding Toddlers, Part One: The Cheese Stands Alone

Photo by Christian Bauer

Our son has always loved to eat.  In the hospital after he was born, the lactation consultant called him the “barracuda” breastfeeder.  He ate vigorously and often.  While this made for some sleepless nights, it also meant we didn’t have to worry too much about early weight gain, which I was initially concerned about as a first time mom.

As a 21 month old he still loves to eat.  We haven’t found much that he doesn’t like, but he’s definitely starting to have favorites.  Early on my prescient husband nicknamed him “ratón” (spanish for little mouse), a name all too fitting as cheese now seems to stand alone at the top of the list of favorites for our little guy.  He recently has taken to standing in front of the refrigerator saying “cheese, cheese, cheese” and, if that doesn’t work he’ll switch to “queso, queso, queso”.    Perhaps this has something to do with being half-Wisconsinite.  We do love our cheese.

Now, instead of worrying he won’t gain enough weight, the pediatrician in me sometimes worries he’ll gain too much.  And, it seems, almost all of the parents of toddlers I know have some kind of worry about feeding.  They eat too much.  They eat too little.  They will only eat orange foods.  No come nada.  They will only eat if I smother everything in ketchup.  They never eat vegies.  They don’t eat our home-cooked food.  The list goes on.

So, today, a few tips for parents of toddlers who love food.  (Forthcoming part two for parents of toddlers in the “no come nada/they won’t eat anything” camp).

1.  Buy yourself a copy of Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter.  No, I don’t get any commission for saying this, her teaching just makes sense to me.  If you don’t have time to read the book, start by reading this and this.  The really interesting thing about Satter’s teachings is that they work well for kids who love to eat and also for very picky eaters.

Most of the teaching about feeding that I do in clinic, and most of what we try to do with feeding our little guy, centers around Satter’s division of responsibility.  In short, parents/caregivers decide what, when, and where to eat.  The child decides how much and whether to eat.  Here are some ways to implement these ideas with a toddler who loves to eat.

2.  Parents/caregivers decide what to eat.  If your toddler loves to eat, and you’re thinking about obesity prevention, offer them healthy foods.  This may seem obvious, but isn’t always easy in today’s society.  For us this has meant no juice, no soda, no fast food.  No gimmicky snack foods.  If kids have never had it, they won’t ask for it.  Meals should be a mix of protein, grains, and vegetables.  Hopefully close to the proportions recommended by USDA’s new My Plate guidelines.  Cakes, cookies, etc are only for special occasions.

As an aside, one of my major beefs right now is that it is very hard to for low-income families to eat this way.  Fruits and vegetables are expensive.  A lot of this has to do with the way we subsidize certain crops and not others, but I digress.

3.  Parents decide when to eat.  Set three meal times and 1-2 snack times per day.  Eat dinner together as a family.  No grazing between meal/snack times.  If kids beg for food between times, and you know they are not hungry, distract them.  Read a book, go outside, start an activity you know they like.  Offer a cup of water.  This one is tough, but very important.  Beginning to set limits is an important part of toddlerhood, and food is part of that.  I have seen a lot of families that begin to offer food whenever the child asks in order to pacify or avoid tantrums.  Resist that temptation.

4.  Parents decide where to eat.  All meals and snacks should be eaten sitting down in a high chair or at the table.  Eating while running around or playing is not only a bad habit, it can be a choking hazard.  And, many children will opt to continue playing if they have to choose between food and play.

5.  Child decides how much and whether to eat.  In my experience this is the hardest one for parents to wrap their heads around.  Giving up responsibility to a toddler is tough.  But, we have to trust our kids.  For a child who loves to eat, this means that I can offer him seconds of healthy foods at a meal, if he asks.  We tend to offer seconds of vegetables or offer a fruit as “dessert”.

6.  Finally, don’t be overly restrictive.  Don’t put your toddler on a “diet”.  Enjoy feeding, and teach your child to do the same.  Trust their hunger and satiety cues, especially very early in life.

Why is this important to talk about?  As I mentioned last week, childhood obesity has become an epidemic.  It is our responsibility  to tackle this.  Feeding practices established in infancy and toddlerhood will affect a child’s relationship with food for the rest of their lives.  These issues are hard to talk about.  It is hard to say no to a toddler.  As a physician, it is hard to talk to parents of a toddler about overweight.  But, we must.  We, as parents and health care providers, should not be afraid to address feeding issues early in life.  Prevention is the best cure.

So, we try to eat together as a family.  We offer healthy options.  We are not perfect.  And sometimes, the rat(ón) gets the cheese.

What feeding strategies do you use with your toddler?  What struggles have you had?


3 thoughts on “Feeding Toddlers, Part One: The Cheese Stands Alone

  1. this is great! with the holidays, our good habits went out the window- and now my little 22 months old says marshmallow several times a day. I completely agree with everything you said and put the book in my amazon cart! thanks for the great advice!

    • Thanks for reading and sharing! I wrote this right before the holidays and have to admit that we broke a few rules this week. Our little guy now is saying “more cookies?” each day. But, holidays count as a special occasion and we’ll just have to get back on track, and that’s okay.

  2. Pingback: Feeding Toddlers, Part Two: The Picky Crowd | My Two Hats

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