Recent research shows that unhealthy eating behaviors begin much sooner in toddlerhood than parents might realize. Early in infancy, babies are excellent self-regulators and parents typically provide healthy foods for their babes in the form of breastmilk, formula, and healthy introductory solids.
But starting around 9 months, infants often get their first tastes of foods with added fats and sugars. So, what's a mama to do?
Here's what the experts say you can do to maintain simple, healthy eating in your growing tot (while holding on to your sanity).
1. Remember babies are born natural self-regulators
Infants are born with an innate ability to self-regulate their intake of food. They are able to determine their hunger and satiety based on the volume of milk or food in their little tummies. This is what makes our little ones so adept at knowing when to eat and when to stop—even when their bottle is still half full.
The keyword here is volume. Infants have a little more trouble self-regulating based on caloric intake, which means that foods, milk, or formula with added fats can lead to overeating in infants and toddlers, despite their intuitive abilities to stop eating when “full." (If you have heard the sage advice of not adding rice cereal to baby's bottle, this is the primary reason behind that logic.)
An imbalance in a tot's fat-carbohydrate-protein ratio may be detrimental to a child's long-term health. Of course, one may not notice the impact of a few French fries or sweets on a toddler's weight or health right away, but given a little more time, toddlers who routinely consume foods high in added fats and sugars may be at higher risk for obesity, which can last a lifetime.
2. Know when (and how) unhealthy eating habits start
According to a study by Victor Fulgoni using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), one-off exposures to less-than-healthy foods tend to stick around and increase with time.
So, when do these exposures to unhealthy foods begin?
According to Fulgoni's study, “It's at about 9 months when things start to get a little weird. While a child's diet at that time is mostly full of good stuff—string beans, oatmeal, rice, peaches, yogurt and crackers are at the top of the lists—you can already see small amounts of [less healthy foods]— brownies and cakes—showing up."
Between 9 and 11 months, French fries are the 8th most commonly eaten “vegetable." By 12 months, potato chips make the top 10, at which point, dark green vegetables don't even make the cut. By 21 to 23 months, the top three “vegetables" are French fries, potato chips, and mixed pasta dishes. The good news? Around 60% of little ones consume some form of fruit every day (although much of it is from sugary juices). Unfortunately, only around 30% are consuming veggies daily, with many of those being potato-based.
A 2013 study based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the highest percentage of daily caloric intake in 2-year-olds consisted of milk (7% of energy intake) and cake/cookies/quick bread/pastry/pie (7% of energy intake).
Overall, the study concluded that many foods consumed by children are “energy dense, nutrient poor."
3. Know what simple things you can do to promote healthy eating
As a developmental psychologist (who loathes cooking), I can tell you…it's never easy ensuring your tot eats healthy all the time. Scratch that. It's impossible.
So, when the inevitable guilt starts to creep up, here's what you need to remember. If you ever plan to eat a Double Stuf Oreo again, your child will surely follow suit from time to time. It's okay.
Occasional treats are fine—as long as they are occasional and not regarded as forbidden fruit. Restriction of foods (especially to control your tot's weight) can actually lead to preoccupation with these foods and more intake in the long run.
If you despise the thought of cooking anything that takes longer to make than it does to eat, I feel you. It's okay.
Healthy eating doesn't require hours of cooking. In fact, some of the healthiest foods are fresh and uncooked. Catherine McCord of Weelicious recommends choosing “foods that pack as many vitamins and minerals as possible, like fruits and vegetables, nut butters, yogurt, whole grain breads, or crackers to fuel your toddler all day long. When your child is enjoying these foods, try eating along with them so they see just how much you enjoy them, too!"
But healthy eating isn't easy, even for experts! She adds—
“Getting toddlers to eat nutritious foods can be tricky. Everything in the world is more exciting than sitting down to eat a meal, so it's important to pack in as much nutrition as possible into every bite."
Other tactics from McCord include thinking about the food from your child's perspective: “Pick foods that are soft or easy to chew as well. There's nothing more frustrating to a toddler than needing to chew, chew, chew, thereby losing interest in the task at hand. Some of my kids' no-fuss favorites are Strawberry Aliens, Sushi Sandwiches, Banana Dog Bites, Chocolate Almond Butter Smoothies, Mason Jar Parfaits or refreshing Coconut Fruit Popsicles."
Even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be a healthy lunch if made with whole grain bread, 100% peanut butter, and naturally low-sugar jam.
My new go-to recipe is a shake consisting of:
· 1 avocado
· 1 banana
· ½ cup low-fat vanilla yogurt
· Milk (to desired consistency)
Super-fast and super-tasty! My little one wouldn't eat half of those ingredients when solo, but loves the combination of flavors.
If you are exhausted from trying to convince your picky little one to eat something remotely healthy and finally cave by busting out their favorite go-to snack, you are not breaking new ground. It's okay.
Sure, kids need to eat. But they are also crazy clever. If they know their refusal to eat healthy foods will be met with a yummy (but less-than-healthy) alternative, they will master the art of turning up their nose in no time!
According to Amy Palanjian of Yummy Toddler Food, “Offering a wide variety of produce—both cooked and raw—is one of the best ways to set your baby or toddler up for healthy eating success. The more they are exposed to early, the more they will be used to eating as they enter the natural (yet sometimes frustrating!) phase between 2 and 6 years when many kids become more selective with their diets.
“And even if you find yourself in that phase with your little one now, you can continue to offer a wide selection of foods to help ensure that they don't get too set in a food rut or routine."
“I like to have the goal of not serving the same foods two days in a row since that naturally, and easily, incorporates variety without power struggles or too much effort on my part."
If your picky tot is refusing your attempts at simple, healthy eating, don't worry about offering a more palatable alternative. Keep exposing your tot to healthy options, and they will come around. It may be frustrating now, but standing your ground (and ignoring a little bit of wasted food) will make your life oodles easier in the future. When you start to worry about your child's long-term health, take comfort in the fact that you are doing the very best you can to ensure a healthy future for your tot. No child's intake will be perfect, but making simple changes now can majorly add up for your child down the road.