This week we’re tackling toddler-feeding schedules: when they should eat, what they should eat, and how to manage mealtime conflicts. It wouldn’t be a health blog if we didn’t discuss the different food groups, but there is more to learn just the standard food groupings.
Utilizing the new pyramid visual of a plate is also an excellent way to think about establishing a healthy eating schedule for your little one.
Sample Feeding Schedule:
7:30 am: Breakfast
- Oatmeal with low-fat milk or waffle with nut butter
- Sliced fruit
- Milk or Water
10 am: Snack
- Or plain/low-sugar yogurt
- Whole grain crackers with cheese
12:30 pm: Lunch
- Cooked peas and carrots
- Whole grain bread with avocado/hummus
- Shredded tuna
3:30 pm: Afternoon Snack
- Or Ants on a Log
6:00 pm: Dinner
- Whole wheat pasta with lean ground turkey and tomato sauce
- Cheesy broccoli
Now, let’s start with the foundations and work our way up the levels to the pinnacle of this pyramid.
When does self-feeding begin?
Children will likely begin feeding themselves around nine months. Children begin to use utensils around 12 – 15 months.
Self-feeding is an exciting milestone, but it also comes with a host of challenges and with new risks posed by choking hazards. If your child is in the process of making this transition, check out these food safety guidelines.
How many meals per day?
It is traditionally recommended to provide three meals per day with two snack times (3 snack times is sometimes recommended depending on your child’s schedule and appetite).
Once you find your rhythm, it’s essential to stick with it. As you’ve probably heard before, creating structure around mealtime is critical for toddlers. Structure is especially useful when it comes to creating a healthy diet as toddlers are beginning to learn the art of identifying when they are hungry or thirsty.
It is common for toddlers to refuse eating or even to pass up an entire meal. As long as you’ve established your routine schedule, the child can learn that passing a meal means planning not to eat until the next scheduled meal/snack.
Young children are excellent at picking up on patterns. Having a fixed schedule will help them learn to listen to their bodies and make decisions based on whether or not they are truly hungry.
What’s in a snack?
Snacks don’t have to mean “junk food.” There a variety of nutritious, kid-friendly snacks.
A few examples include carrots, grapes (sliced if large), low-sugar yogurt, dried fruits, hard-boiled egg, ants-on-a-log (celery and raisins with cream cheese or peanut butter), clementines or oranges, and applesauce.
Core Food Groups
We’re not reinventing the basics here, most of these food groups are easily recognized staples. Below are the core four food group categories:
- Protein: Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, tofu and nuts
- Dairy: Milk, milk products, yogurt, and cheese
- Fruits and vegetables
- Grains: Cereals, oats, rice, wheat
Now that you know the core four, another good rule of thumb based off of the number four is to “quarter it.” Toddlers typically require about ¼ of an adult-sized portion.
While this is a reasonable estimation in general, toddlers do have nutritional requirements that are more specific to their age group.
Thinking Through Toddler Specific Nutrition
Let’s break down some of the toddler specific recommendations within the core four.
Protein: Steer clear of animal fats and look for selections of lean meats or other low-fat options. Nuts contain several vital nutrients and may also be included in the diet.
Dairy: This one is a no brainer! Growing bodies need calcium, so look to include items in your child’s diet that are high in calcium. Stanford Children’s Health also recommends including fat-free or low-fat products from this category.
Fruits and Vegetables: Variety is the fruit of life. But really! Choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables based on color and texture is one way to create a good balance of nutrients and flavors for your child. Starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas, lentils) are recommended as well.
Grains: Look to include whole wheat, oatmeal, and brown rice. Be sure to check the sugar content of oatmeal and avoid overly processed oats.
Managing Mealtime Mayhem
Now that you have some foundational knowledge, there is only one battle left to tackle. Unfortunately, having all the knowledge and the best schedule in the world can’t fix your child refusing to try what you’ve put on their plate.
Picky eating and stubbornness are often the most daunting aspect of this journey. Many parents will give in to their child’s demands, providing unhealthy food rather than letting their child skip a meal.
Most sources will strongly recommend against this. The overwhelming advice is to avoid drawn-out fights with your child over trying new foods, or even over finishing their serving. A big battle over the new food item will only cement the idea in your child’s mind that this food is different from the others.
Instead, casually suggest that they take one bite of the new food. Also remember, if your little one doesn’t like it today, they may like it on a different day or with a different presentation or preparation style.
For extremely picky eaters that refuse everything on their plate, don’t be so afraid of your child missing a meal that you cave into their food demands. This is a slippery slope that encourages bad eating habits that can last a lifetime.
Instead, let your child know that the same food will be available for the next meal and give them some freedom to choose a healthy snack instead.
Offering toddlers a sense of autonomy in the form of choices can be key, but always remember that you control what food items they are allowed to pick between.
Changes in Appetite
Variability in your child’s appetite is entirely normal. Toddlers will pass through phases of decreased or increased appetite. This will likely lead to some instances of skipping meals alternating with bouts of what may seem like overeating.
Consult with your trusted healthcare provider for any prolonged change in appetite, and to ensure your child is receiving the essential vitamins and minerals via their diet.
Remember, never treat sweets as a reward or use them as a bargaining chip. This can lead to unhealthy eating habits in the long run and encourages negotiations during mealtime. Some even recommend including dessert at dinnertime as a way of normalizing this treat.
I know. It’s hard to believe that a dietitian would recommend dessert as part of dinner! However, by not making dessert a “forbidden food,” it helps prevent binging on the food at parties or friends homes when they finally have it available.
Stay Clear of Health Fads and Misinformation
As adults planning our diets, we hear a lot in the news about the benefits of going gluten-free, dairy-free, etc. However, gluten and dairy are regarded as safe unless your child has a pre-existing allergy or is lactose intolerant.
There is also a fair amount of concern and misinformation surrounding GMOs, Organic, and All-Natural food labels. Nowadays, “green washing” is a standard marketing technique whereby a company labels their product as “organic” to boost sales.
Unfortunately, current guidelines on labeling foods “organic” are not comprehensive. If you’re concerned about the quality of your child’s diet, it’s best to do a quick Google search on the brand you’re buying.
Also, consider spending half an hour reading articles about organic food labeling. If you want to be safe, you can trust foods with the “USDA Organic” label.
Food for Thought
Every toddler has a different nap time schedule and typical times for when they are hungry. Do your best to create a plan that works well with your family’s day-to-day activities to try to avoid as many interruptions as possible. As mentioned before, consistency is so important.
All any parent can do is their best! And the fact that you read this article shows just that.