Fostering Healthy Eating Habits at a Young Age

Problems that Parents Experience
* Your 2-1/2-year-old eats little, fusses at the table and often refuses to eat dinner in the evening. You do not know what to do.
* Eating is a battle with your son who just turned 2 years old, and you are worried that he does not eat vegetables. Many parents know that it is very important for young children to have healthy eating habits but experience problems. The most important thing is to look very carefully at your child because each child needs an individual approach. This article provides general information and advice about food for children in their second and third years of life.

Small children copy the people around them. They also copy eating habits and usually want to eat the same foods as their parents. Therefore it is important to eat together. After a period of eating with their hands, children copy you and eat with a fork or spoon.

It is healthy for active young children to eat three meals and two snacks a day. All meals and snacks should be at predictable, set times. In fact, it is most healthy when the whole day is predictable. Some adults think that a predictable day is boring. Boring for adults is not boring for young children. For them, knowing what comes next is reassuring. They develop an inner clock which they can trust. It also stimulates good functioning of the organs, all of which also display regular, cyclical rhythms.

Example of a Predictable Day
* Breakfast * Play inside * Snack. If the child asks for his fruit but it is not yet time you can just say, “Yes you can have your fruit but it is not yet fruit time.” * Play outside If the weather is cold you can go out for ten minutes. If it’s nice, you can go out for two hours. * Lunch. The best time for lunch is after playing outside because the child gets hungry. * Nap * Snack * Play outside * Dinner. Make sure the child is not tired before dinner. Do not eat too late. Do not give the child any food at least two hours before lunch or dinner.

No Negotiation
You do not need to negotiate with a child under 3 years of age. The child does not need a choice. That means there is no discussion. You decide what to put on their sandwich or whether he gets an apple or a pear. When parents decide, it feels safer to the child than when the child must decide.

On cold winter days when you light the candle at the table, it means it’s time to wash hands and sit at the table. You can also light the candle when everyone is already sitting. Washing hands can be fun if you sing a song about washing hands. If you all start eating after singing a song or saying a prayer, the child sees eating as something special and something for which to be grateful. Small children often protest if you skip the ritual. You can expect a child under 3 years of age to touch his plate. So give him his plate when you all start together. Rituals help children eat their meal. Try to create a quiet atmosphere around the meal or snack. Eating joyfully and allowing sufficient time to eat aids digestion.

Activities for the Child When you Cook
Cooking a healthy meal with a toddler present takes twice as much time as when you are alone. You can also let your child play. You can let him copy you with his own little pots and pans. You can let him play outside. (I always had a sandbox next to the kitchen door.) If he doesn’t want to play, you can let him sit in his high chair and watch you. You can give him a carrot or a piece of cucumber and tell him what you are doing. The words that you use will draw his attention. Many children not only want to see what you are doing but want to help. Let him help you. It is good to prepare snacks and meals together. She can help with washing the vegetables, put her own plate at the table, or even put the rice on her own plate.

Do not allow your child to watch television before dinner! Often they eat less after watching TV because they need to process what they just saw. Research has also provided much evidence that television is also damaging to the brains of young children.

Simple Meals
The most important meals of the day are breakfast and lunch. Most children eat less at dinner so make dinners simple! It is the best when all food is simple. Simple meals mean less ingredients. Simplicity in meals is not boring for young children. Not only the taste of food but also the texture is an adventure. A long green bean, a soft-boiled carrot or blackberries all have different textures. The digestive system of a child in the second year of life needs to ripen and learn how to digest.

Healthy for a young child is the lacto vegetarian food with: boiled vegetables, fruit, whole grains and whole milk products. Introduce new products slowly. A lot of colors on a plate stimulate a child’s appetite. Try to make a rainbow of colors. Food must look tasty.

The Child Says “No”
Around the second birthday a child becomes more self-conscious. When they start saying no, they start to feel independent. Sometimes they show their independence at the dinner table and start saying “no” to food. This can happen suddenly. The child feels it if you get worried or irritated. Then it is exciting. Often the reaction is that he says “no” more strongly to the food.

Try not to give the child the opportunity to say “no.” For example, do not say, “Do you want a snack?” But “Come, Peter. It is snack time. Sit at the table. We are going to have a piece of melon. You see that I am peeling and cutting the melon.” If he resists and runs away, use humor, pick him up and strap him in his high chair. Often the transition from playing to eating is abrupt. When the child is in the middle of playing, you can do a round of what he is doing together and walk to the table together while holding hands and talking. Boundaries feel safe. You are the decision-maker. Put your child in the high chair as long as possible. This way he won’t walk away from the table, and it will become a habit.

Making a Mess
Do not become irritated if your child spills and plays with the food on his plate. It is often a mess. Stay calm. Try to relax and not to ask too much of the child. Let him eat by himself. Let him eat with his hands. Exploring his food this way is normal.

Feeding the Child
You can feed your child after you are finished and not the other way around! Often the child copies after a few minutes and starts eating by himself. While feeding it may help to play a game. For example you can imitate airplanes flying into her mouth or animals making different noises while walking into the stable. Sometimes it helps to distract her with a song or a story.

Eating Poorly
The digestive system can digest easier in the afternoon than in the evening. You can therefore give the warm meal with the boiled vegetables around noon. Toddlers eat only when they are hungry and they normally eat small amounts. A 2-year-old child actually eats less than a 1-year-old child because he needs less. He grows less quickly. If he refuses to eat, let him watch you eat. If you are done and try to feed him and he still doesn’t want to eat, you can just skip the vegetable and try again next time. Never force a child to eat.

Give a compliment on what the child does eat. “You ate all of your carrots! Well done. You liked it, didn’t you?” Ignore the fact that he didn’t touch the broccoli. Some children fear new foods and do not want to try them, but put the food on his plate again the next week and compliment him when he tastes it--even if he spits it out.

Some parents say you only can have dessert after you finish your vegetables. This often doesn’t work for children under the age of 3.

Keep in mind, too, that when an adult compliments the cook (often the other parent) about the food, the child becomes curious and is more willing to try it.

Sometimes family dinners are too late for a toddler. What you can do is give him his food first and after that, when the parents and older siblings are eating, let him try some of their food.

Skipping a Whole Meal
Skipping a meal is not a problem. He will probably eat the next meal. Try to stick to your schedule, and do not worry if the child skips a meal. If your child doesn’t want to eat what is served, a common mistake is that parents give something else instead. The child understands this very quickly and is more likely not to eat at meal times. To make sure the child is not hungry when going to bed, you can give him a cup of warm milk just before bed.

Tantrums at the Dinner Table
Tantrums at the dinner table can often be solved by a hug or distraction. If you send a child away from the dinner table, let him return after the number of minutes equal to his age in years. He really doesn’t learn anything and only feels miserable when he is sent away longer.

Directions for Good Food Choices
Organic food is, of course, the healthiest. It doesn’t contain pesticides, fertilizers or unhealthy additives.

Research has shown that most toddlers drink too little. They need to drink at least four cups a day including water, milk and juice. Make sure drinks are not served too cold. At each meal or snack, offer the child something to drink. If the child tends to eat only a little, give the drink at the end of the meal. On hot days when the child needs to drink more often, it is the healthiest to only have water or herbal tea in between meals or snacks. Water …nothing is wrong with water. It prevents weight gain and cavities. Show him you are drinking water yourself.

Whole grains are important to use at meals. Healthy grains are rice, millet, oats and barley. Spelt wheat is easier to digest than regular wheat because it has less gluten. If your child has a weak stool, skin or behaviour problems, eliminate wheat from the diet and consider purchasing spelt wheat for bread, pastas and porridges instead. These are easily available at coops and Whole Foods.

Research has shown that most small children eat too few vegetables. If the child does not want to eat vegetables, offer two kinds on his plate and be sure it looks tasty. Some days he will eat the carrots, other days he won’t touch the carrots and will eat the cauliflower. Sometimes the child does not eat the vegetable the first two times it’s on his plate, but eats it the third time. Offer vegetables twice a day. With lunch you can offer, for example, small carrots or a vegetable soup. Plants have three main parts: 1 roots, 2 leaves and 3 flowers, fruits and seeds. For a harmonic feeding pattern provide all three parts to your child over the course of each week. Good vegetable choices are boiled carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin, zucchini, peas and green beans. Spinach and celery are also good when you give them a maximum of twice a week. Raw vegetables except cucumber are harder to digest than boiled vegetables. Minimize the use of cabbage, leek, onions, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, bell peppers and zucchini. The last vegetables are all in the same family.

Fresh seasonal fruit such as peeled apples, pears and melon are healthy. In small amounts, bananas, oranges and berries are also healthy. Dried apricots, dates, figs and raisins are good, especially in the winter. Wait with pineapple until after the third birthday. If you want to give fruit juice, give a maximum of one cup a day. Fresh fruit juices (not from concentrate) are healthiest. You can dilute it with 50 percent water.

Research has shown that toddlers also eat too little fat. Fatty foods taste better. They give a full, satisfied feeling. They give warmth. Sunflower and olive oil, whole milk, cheese and even small amounts of butter are good sources of fat. You can also give ground nuts (no peanuts). Too little fat can cause diarrhea.

Milk Products
Whole milk is important for a young child. Give your child a minimum of one cup and maximum of two cups of whole milk or yoghurt a day. Goats’ milk is easiest to digest; however, it doesn’t contain folic acid. Consider goats’ milk especially if your child has allergies, eczema or behavioural problems. Yoghurt is lighter to digest than milk. The bacteria in yoghurt have a good effect on the digestive system. You can give yoghurt every day as a snack or as a dessert. You can also add cheese to meals. More than 3 cups of milk influences the appetite and increases the risk of infections.

Lentils are very good and easy to digest, especially red lentils.Minimize the use of brown, black and white beans, garbanzo beans and soy products.

Eggs, Meat and Fish
Eggs, meat and fish are not yet necessary for a child under age 2. If you decide to give eggs or fish, give them in small amounts. If you want to give meat, start with small amounts of organic poultry (chicken, turkey).

Sugar, Salt and Spices
Try to minimize sugar. Children nowadays eat far more sugar than in the past. Sugar has a bad influence on the digestive system and the immune system. Also try to minimize salt. If you want to sweeten the food use a little honey or maple syrup.

Herbs and Spices
You can start herbs after 10 months of age. Start with fresh herbs with the biggest leaves. After age 2, you can introduce cinnamon, coriander, cumin, anise, dill and fennel. Other spices such as garlic, can stimulate the bowel too much and cause cramps or a weak stool.

Healthy Breakfast
A good nutritious breakfast is very important for young children. Do not give sugar cereals for breakfast. A good option is oatmeal. Oatmeal is a fatty grain and fills the child. You can add dried fruit such as raisins and apricots. You can sweeten it with maple syrup or honey. You can mix it with goats’ milk, whole milk, rice milk or almond milk. You can also add ground almonds or hazelnuts. For a change you can give whole grain pancakes with maple syrup and fruit, or bread with milk or yoghurt.

Healthy Snack
A healthy snack is a bowl of fresh fruit. Small children often like fruit cut in small pieces, and they eat with a small fork. A few big pieces of fruit are also fine. A cup of plain yogurt with dried fruit is healthy too. You can sweeten the oatmeal with a little maple syrup. Smoothies for a change are also an option.

Healthy Dinner
A healthy dinner might consist of pieces of boiled vegetables mixed with spelt macaroni topped with mild cheese.

Try to breastfeed your child for a minimum of six months and continue until you or your child do not like it any longer, up to a maximum of two years. At age 2 when the child starts to say “no,” he starts feeling independent from his mother. If you look carefully at what your child is able to do and in what phase of his life he is, breast milk no longer fits in that picture. Many cultures, including Islam, recommend discontinuing breastfeeding after the second birthday. Do not breastfeed your 1-year-old child within two hours before a meal; do not substitute breastfeeding for a meal. A good and predictable moment to breastfeed is before the child goes to sleep and immediately after he wakes up in the morning.

Eating more than five times a day is not OK for a child Each time the child snacks or drinks liquids containing glucose, the body produces insulin. If a child snacks often, the body produces insulin often. When there is no food, the body produces insulin anyway. This gives the child a feeling of fatigue and hunger according to low blood sugar levels. Children’s organs require time to rest. It also is best for the teeth if the child eats no more than five times a day. However, some children benefit from a cup of milk in the evening before bed and before brushing their teeth, amounting to six times for them. Some parents give their children four meals a day, one every 3 and a half to 4 hours. That also is a good rhythm.

The key words for very young children are imitation, predictability, rituals and simplicity. For small children, eating healthy food is very important. Their organs are still growing. If they eat well at a young age, they will be healthier later in life. Make sure you have child-friendly and child-appropriate meals without garlic or spices.

Research with animals has shown that if you feed the young animal well at a young age, the animal will be healthy as an adult. A young animal which was not fed well in its early stages of development can not, as an adult, compensate for nutritional deficiencies. Animals are not humans, but this research shows the importance of developing healthy eating patterns in young children.

© 2009-2011 Ester Delhoofen. All rights reserved.