Toddler Eating Habits: How Do They Grow?

Question from Melissa:  So, my daughter (16 months) is not the best eater these days. I’ve read a million things on various websites about toodlers and eating, but I’d like to know what you think. This is the situation: she doesn’t eat ANY vegetables except some avocado on occasion; she regularly skips meals (so, has on a good day she has two meals and a bit of a snack); and much of her diet is diary (milk appx. 20 oz. and cheese) and bread (whole grain, but still…). This seems a horrible diet to me. Though I introduce different things to her, she doesn’t seem to like much of anything else. How many calories should she have in a day and should I just give her a multivitamin and not stress about this??

If I had a nickel for every parent who felt this way….

And thus begins the fun of toddler eating.  Even babies who would eat *anything* at 12 months old suddenly seem to stop eating when they become 14 to 16 months old.  But not to despair!  The average toddler only eats 1 good meal every one to two days.  At the other mealtimes, they just pick.  With these bird-like appetites, it seems amazing that they get enough calories to grow!  But somehow they all do.

If you look at the growth chart at this age, the amount of weight gained over time is much less than in the early months of life, so don’t expect the same leaps and bounds as you saw from 0-6 months.  

Besides the decrease in the volume of food intake, this is also a time when many babies significantly decrease the number of foods they eat.  Vegetables suddenly seem like poisons and simple carbs are often the only food to get any enthusiasm at all.  Some scientists posit that this was once an adaptive survival trait:  when the cave dwellers’ children became mobile and could wander out of the cave, they were in danger of harming themselves by eating poisonous plants.  And so, between the age of walking and the age of “reason”–4-5 years old in some children, 12-13 years old in others (and some people never become “reasonable” and always hate their veg)–children evolved to have a very limited palate.

Not eating your veggies, however, is no longer an adaptive trait.  And so, my dears, this is the time to outsmart your child and turn veggies and complex carbs into forms that are more acceptable to the toddler palate.

Tips for parents:

  • Trust your child.  It is very rare for a baby to starve themselves.  There is too much interest in self-preservation in our genes.
  • Offer your child healthy foods at regular meal times, with a few snacks along the way.  Let your child choose how much they eat.  The less you seem to care, the more they are likely to explore and eat! 
  • Get sneaky with healthy foods.  Toddlers are much more likely to eat pureed vegetables.  Make a chunky tomato sauce for your pasta with lots of great veg and then blitz it in the blender.  Or blend a chunky soup full of vegetable goodness into a silken puree.  Smoothies are also great places to “hide” vegetables.  And some babies will take the pre-prepared Stage 1 baby foods:  these are just fine.
  • As for smoothies:  freeze some bananas (they’re easier to manage if they’re peeled first) and then blitz your frozen bananas (for natural sweetness) with other frozen or fresh fruits, a bit of unsweetened yogurt and some water or a little juice.  Throw in some veggies for good measure:  canned pumpkin (yes, a healthy veg!), beets, carrots, spinach, and celery all work well.
  • Be persistent:  nutrition studies show that a child may reject a food 10-12 times before finally accepting it!
  • My advice on vitamins:  if your child is eating plenty of fruits, then she’s getting plenty of vitamins.  If not, a daily multivit is a good idea.
  • And finally, again, trust your child.  And your pediatrician:  we will see and weigh your child frequently enough during this period to avoid any health disasters.  And if you can’t stand the suspense, schedule extra appointments with your pediatrician to review the weight curve. 

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