by Judith G. Cobb, MH, CI, NCP
As a mom of seven, I think I have a pretty solid idea of what, when, and how much most children need to eat. Each of my kids is entirely different from the others in food preferences and appetite. It beats me how seven children from the same two parents can be as different as they are. All of my kids survived my mothering, most of them are only minimally picky, and all of them enjoyed good health as children. Of course, the benefits of having me as a mom really surfaced when the kids got out on their own, started eating horribly, and started suffering for it. (Chalk one for Team Mom!)
Having seven children meant I was not willing to spend time preparing ‘special’ meals for picky eaters. I simply made sure we had enough choices at supper that the following rules could be implemented successfully.
The Pass Rule: You may pass on only one food. You must have at least a tablespoon of each of the rest of the foods on the table and you must eat that entire tablespoon. You may certainly have more of any food you like.
The New Food Rule: You must eat one tablespoon of every new food served. After that, you may have more or you may choose to never eat it again.
These two rules were implemented as each child was being introduced to solid food. They worked well in our family. We have a couple of kids who, as adults, still have the same intense dislikes. All of them have a short list of foods they’d rather not eat. All of them have very long lists of foods they enjoy.
I’m going to focus on children who are mostly weaned. The transition between being breastfed/bottlefed to eating only solid food should take six to nine months at least, should not begin before the age of six months, and can be delayed to as late as 12 months for some children. The rule of thumb is to hold off introducing solid food, including baby cereal and pureed food, until the child has cut his/her first teeth.
Here are some guidelines that apply once solid food makes up more than 50% of the child’s diet. I have very strong opinions about feeding kids, as I’m sure you’ll notice.
Kids eat when they are hungry. Have you ever tried to feed a child who wasn’t hungry? I assure you, it’s not worth the grief.
Kids eat as much as they need. This is generally true. If your child is truly not eating enough and is losing weight, a medical assessment may be a good idea. Issues like allergies, mineral deficiencies, and malabsorption problems can create pain that discourages a child from eating. Many years ago our youngest daughter, who was about 18 months at the time, stopped eating her usual foods. Oddly she started chowing down on foods that she normally refused – like mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs – soft foods. That evening when brushing her teeth I noticed blood on her toothbrush. Then I looked at her palms and the soles of her feet. They were all blistered and peeling. She had developed hand, foot, and mouth disease. Her behavior made perfect sense. We continued to allow her to eat soft foods while we gave her lots of helpful herbs. We knew she was better when she started refusing mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs (foods that she still won’t eat now as a teenager) and started asking for foods with more texture again.
Kids do not know what is good for them, so you have to be the parent and give them healthy food. There are many revealing and frightening studies about child nutrition and how it affects brain chemistry. High-fructose corn syrup, which is present in most packaged foods and fizzy beverages, is highly addictive and alters the way the human brain works.1 People, including children, who are addicted to something often have problems refusing that substance. I am frequently mortified at the amount of ‘fruit jelly treats’ that claim to contain 100% real fruit juice (among other things in fine print) that moms feed to their children. The presence of 100% fruit juice does not highlight the dangerous additives in that ‘treat.’ Your job is to be the parent. Do the research. Provide nutritious food.
Mealtime is not negotiable – children should sit with the family at mealtime even if they say they are not hungry. This is another soapbox of mine that really doesn’t have to do with children eating enough of the right kinds of food, but I’m going to stand on this soap box for just a moment right now anyway. I know some parents who feed their children first, get them to bed, then have an adult meal without the kids. As romantic as it sounds (and peace at mealtime is lovely), studies show that this is not in the best interest of the children. Families that eat meals together have lower incidence of drug and alcohol abuse in their children.2 While I am writing here about feeding toddlers, the roots of family habits are established when children are little. If you wait until your child is six or twelve to try to instigate family meals it may not be possible and it may be too late to have the desired impact.
Keep portions small. A toddler can have a massive appetite one day and a miniscule appetite the next day. By serving small portions and offering seconds (and thirds and fourths if requested) you’ll avoid many meal-time power struggles.
If children don’t eat at mealtime they should not be allowed to eat until the next mealtime except perhaps to eat what was on their plate the first time around. Unless your child has a metabolic disorder (e.g. diabetes), missing a meal once in a while will not hurt them. You are not being a bully if you make your child miss a meal. This needs to be set up, not as a threat, but as a logical consequence. “In our home we eat together. If you choose not to eat what I prepared when we eat it, you will have to wait until the next meal to have food.”
Snacks should not be pre-packaged. Most pre-packaged snacks are high in sugar, bad fats, and preservatives, providing very little by way of nutrition.
Children should be offered three meals and three snacks each day, including a protein or complex carbohydrate bedtime snack. Keep the portions small, and allow extra servings at meal time especially.
Many years ago a young mom came to me with her two year old son. He had become a picky, demanding eater. It was not unusual for her to prepare five or six meal choices for him for every meal, making one after the other as he refused each one in turn. I had never seen such a thing before. Finally, in desperation she took him to the pediatrician. He said he could cure the boy. It would take 3 days and would require hospitalization. The doctor realized this was not a medical problem. It was a power trip for the boy. This toddler had learned that he could make his mom perform like a marionette when it came to food, and he was having fun pulling her strings. The doctor proposed to put the boy in the hospital on a supervised fast for 3 days. He guaranteed that at the end of the three days the child would be cured. Reluctantly and desperately the mom agreed. Just as the doctor had said, at the end of the three days the child no longer needed to be in control of the power struggle. This was an extreme case and it called for extreme measures that I would not suggest doing without medical direction. You may, however, be able to avoid this kind of a problem by using the advice I have provided.
Children, like adults, need protein at every meal. A small portion of chicken, beef, lentils, or legumes is ideal for the ‘under 2 year old’ crowd. Eggs and fish can be added for the ‘over 2 year old’ group. Nuts and nut products should be held back until the age of five due to the risk of choking and allergies.
Children need more servings of vegetables than fruits every day. Be sure to offer every color of the rainbow in the veggie choices each day to ensure the widest assortment of nutrients.
Cow’s milk is not important or valuable for a child who was breastfed and is being weaned. Dairy is in the top five allergens in North America. Pasteurized dairy is very difficult to digest, and it is nearly impossible to assimilate the calcium from pasteurized dairy products. Click here for more information on Cow’s milk.
Whole grains can be a valuable part of a child’s diet. With the intense hybridization (not the same as GMO) of wheat, I suggest using other grains until the child has reached the age of four or five. Using millet, quinoa (which is really a vegetable), spelt, flax, brown rice, organic oats and barley, and the like is preferable to using commercial wheat products.
So, how do you really know if your child is eating enough of the right kinds of food? If you answer ‘yes’ to all of the following questions, you can rest assured your child is eating enough and eating healthfully.
- Is your child growing at an appropriate rate? All children have growth spurts and growth slowdowns. Don’t worry about a slowdown unless your child truly is too small for his/her age.
- Is your child developmentally on track? Is he/she doing age appropriate activities? Is his/her eye-hand coordination on track? What about large motor coordination? Verbal skills?
- Is your child well? Does he/she have a good immune response? I strongly disagree with the idea one doctor shared with me that healthy children average one cold every two months. My kids never did that. If they were sick more than once a year I looked for reasons why and made whatever changes it took to keep them healthy all year long.
- Does your child look well? If not, find out why. It could be food quality , nutritional deficiencies in spite of good food choices, allergies, or malabsorption issues. If your child does not look well, do what it takes to figure out why and make corrections.
There you have it. Nearly 35 years of parenting experience as it relates to feeding toddlers neatly summarized in three pages or less.
If you are having challenges with your children’s health or just don’t know where to begin and would like some help, please contact me, Judith Cobb, to book an appointment. Skype, phone, webinar, and face-to-face appointments are available. I also invite you to Follow my website (cobblestonehealth.com) and Like us on Facebook (Cobblestone Health Ltd).
Copyright © 2015 by Judith Cobb, Cobblestone Health Ltd. All rights reserved. Please respect the time it takes to write and publish articles. If you will link to this article and give proper attribution, you are encouraged to quote sections (though not the entire article).