Thursday, March 20, 2014

On Feeding Toddlers

I am not a child development expert, nor am I a nutritionist. But I have three kids and I have cared for considerably more. I currently have a toddler and I discuss such things as feeding with other parents pretty regularly. I have learned a thing or two in my time and I am going to share it with you.

Feeding toddlers need not be complicated, but I find many people make it complicated. This is a shame. Because eating is a fun activity and we parents of toddlers need as many of those as possible to squeeze out the less fun activities, like rescuing the cat and washing crayon off the wall.

What do you feed a toddler?

The first and most important consideration is what to feed your toddler. Please, please, please feed him real food. If he doesn't have any other options he will eat real food and let us remember that our goal is not so much to raise a good child as to raise a good adult; An adult who can get along at a company dinner or his in-laws house without embarrassing himself and who doesn't suffer from an eating disorder or a food-related disease such as obesity or diabetes (or both). Keep this goal in mind and remember that your kid won't starve to death if he doesn't eat everything at every meal. There are more important factors beyond this meal.

Your Toddler's Breakfast

It is my observation that many people feed their toddlers cold cereal for breakfast on a regular basis. Worse, they feed them sugar-coated-strange-colored-is-this-really-food-? cereal for breakfast. Not only does this do nothing to help their developing brains (and I suspect it's actually detrimental) it virtually guarantees behavior difficulties at some point in your morning. It also sensitizes your child's taste buds to sugar. This makes the "normal" amount of sugar according to his sensibilities gradually higher and higher. He builds up a resistance and whatever sugar cravings he has is going to need more sugar to satisfy. Everyone has sugar cravings, it's just a matter of how much sugar you need to get over it.... Take a moment in your morning rush to think of the health of the adult you are creating when you make that much sugar normal.

So what do you feed your kid? Well, if you must feed him cereal, stick to things that aren't sugar coated and that are somewhat of a natural color, like Cheerios. But your child should start the day with more protein and fat than that, so topping it with flax seed or ground walnuts is a good idea. A serving a fruit will also not go amiss.

That being said, I prefer to cook. Oatmeal is really easy to make (I mean real oatmeal, not the sugar filled instant packets) and so are eggs.

My favorite breakfast for toddlers old fashioned oatmeal cooked with raisins, candied ginger and cinnamon and topped with ground walnuts or pecans and freshly ground flax seeds. You can make this in a crock pot or steamer with a timer if you like, but I just put it all in a sauce pan with water to soak overnight and turn on the burner in the morning when I put the coffee on. When the coffee's done, so's the oatmeal. (In reality, you don't even have to heat up the oatmeal, it will soften up in the fridge overnight and be perfectly edible in the morning, but I like mine warm.)
Use old fashioned oatmeal. Use enough liquid to equal the volume of all your other ingredients (oatmeal & fruit & etc.)
Now the magic is in the details - The raisins don't have to be raisins, any dried fruit will do. I like to use dried apples or dates sometimes or a combination. Fresh fruit is also good, but leaving it soaking overnight is not as good an idea.
I use candied ginger because I like the taste. I don't add any additional sugar. Ginger also stimulates the appetite.
I use cinnamon because it helps regulate blood sugar, which helps prevent hyperactivity and meltdowns. (it also stimulates the appetite)
I use only freshly ground flax seed and nuts and I always add them at the end after cooking because their oils are very valuable to the developing brain and I don't want to let them be destroyed by heat or time. These make the oatmeal too thick, but adding some milk or soy milk at this point soon fixes that problem.

Another favorite is scrambled eggs. I sometimes serve this with some fried potatoes or whole wheat toast and always include some fruit in season. I always scramble the eggs with vegetables, usually spinach. Simply put a little (real) butter in a pan and melt it. Add the spinach and let it cook till it wilts (or thaws if it's frozen), pour the scrambled eggs over top and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Cook slowly, so it is tender and not rubbery.

A Toddler's Lunch

I have also observed that the standard toddler lunch involves chicken nuggets or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and carrot sticks. This is... not a lunch... I'm not sure what that is. Aside from the dried-up lathe-spun carrots, I'm not sure there's any food involved.

Let us remember that our children are supposed to have FIVE fruits and vegetables a day- preferably five different ones. And this is simply not difficult. Your grocery store sells big bags full of pre-cooked frozen vegetables. It takes less time to dump some of them into a saucepan with a little water and simmer than it does to spread peanut butter and jelly on white bread and certainly no longer than heating up those frozen chicken nuggets.

For lunch, we usually have leftovers from dinner the night before plus some heated up frozen vegetables and some fruit if needed to round out the meal. I do not worry too much about protein at this point because my little one usually gets enough protein from his snacks, breakfast and dinner, but it's a balancing act. It's important to always know the plan so you can strike a balance. If extra protein is needed, I will fry up some cubes of tofu for him. He loves tofu.

One of my Sunshine's favorite lunches (he asks for it by name) is fried rice. I use leftover brown rice (I always cook up a bunch extra and store it in the fridge) and frozen mixed vegetables (peas, carrots, green beans, corn). First I heat some safflower or sunflower oil in a pan and grate some ginger and garlic into it and saute it just a bit till it's fragrant. Then I add the frozen veggies and toss them a bit and add some dehydrated onion and maybe a dash or two of soy sauce. When the veggies are thawed and begun softening, I add the rice and cook till hot. If we didn't have eggs for breakfast, I'll crack and egg or two into it and mix it up, cook till the egg is set.

Toddler Snacks

We do two snacks a day. One we call second breakfast at about 10 am and one we call the after nap snack around 4 pm. If we are going to be out at that time we make sure to bring a snack along. I try to pair a piece of fruit with a bit of protein if I can. Here are some wonderful toddler snacks:

  • Carrots (& other veggies) with hummus (I will steam the carrots a bit so they're tender crisp, easier to chew & digest)
  • Apple slices with cheese or peanut butter (or sun butter) (Stick to all natural peanut butter, the hydrogenated kind is no good for anybody)
  • Avocado slices & cherry tomatoes or grapes (cut in half) (Avocados are chock full of good brain building fats)
  • Berries in season or stewed and cooled dried fruit and yogurt (use plain yogurt and add the fruit and sweetener itself so you can control what's going into it. Flavored yogurt often has more sugar than fruit in it and Greek yogurt is often full of thickeners. You can thicken non-Greek yogurt by straining it with a cheesecloth.)
  • Whole wheat crackers with cheese or peanut butter (make sure to spread the peanut butter thin to avoid choking)
And Dinner

At dinner your child should eat what you are eating. (I hope you are feeding yourself well.) You should eat together, at the same table. 

But How to Get Your Kid to Eat?

First, understand that your child does not have to eat everything in front of him all the time. Getting that through your head now will make everyone's lives a lot easier, including his. Forcing your child to eat everything on his plate when he doesn't want to just makes dinner time into a battle and encourages unhealthy attitudes toward food. So don't bother. Give him three meals and two snacks a day and let him eat as much as he wants. But there are some ways to get him to eat more.

Eat with him.
When you put your kid in a chair and put food in front of him and walk away, there is really no surprise that he's going to spend the next half hour playing with his food, trying to feed it to the dog and fussing to get down (or if he can get down, wandering off). Join him. Eat with him, even if it's only a little bit. Give him your attention. Talk about the food, the weather, whatever. It's good for him.

Give Thanks
Children thrive on ritual and making grace a ritual part of a meal can trigger your child's sense of "what comes next" i.e. eating. Here is mine- "The Earth gives us the food we eat, the sun warms it and makes it sweet, we remember all who give of themselves so we may live."

Just Feed Him
None of this "what do you want?", "Can I get you some of this?" nonsense. Do not fret about whether or not he will eat. Make the food. Put it in front of him. He'll either eat it or he won't. If you spend 20 minutes trying to figure out what he's going to eat only to have him maybe eat it, you'll just make yourself crazy. If he doesn't eat it today, he'll eat it tomorrow. He will get hungry. He will not let himself starve.

Feed him on Time
Again, kids like ritual. If you feed him at the same time every day it will get easier. If he always knows that lunch comes after Sesame Street or the walk in the park or coloring time, then he will always be ready for lunch at that time. If there is no routine and lunch is sometimes at noon and sometimes at 2pm, it's no surprise his eating habits aren't that good. If you want your child to be well-behaved, you're going to have to discipline yourself first. 

Eliminate Distractions
I can't believe how many people let their kids eat in front of the TV and then wonder why they won't focus on their meal. Or worse, make them sit at the table with their backs to the TV while other people are watching it. The TV should be well away from the table (like on a different floor of the house) or off during meals. Other distractions should also be eliminated. Make picking up toys part of your pre-meal routine so they're not scattered about providing distractions during meals. Make sure your child's diaper is clean and that he's comfortable and insist that everyone sit at the table during meal times, to avoid the distraction of people walking around. And put the pets in another room.

Let Them Play
I don't know why some folks get so upset about kids playing with food. At this age, a child with a cup is going to pour liquid onto his dinner plate. He's going to squish rice, potatoes and whatever else between his fingers to see how it feels. That is okay. He's engaging with his food, even if he isn't eating it all. He may not eat it today. Just assume he's making friends with his food so that one day he'll feel comfortable enough to eat it. This is how he learns. I promise, your child will not play with his food in this way for the rest of his life and if you don't make all excited about it, he'll get over it sooner.

Notice that there is nothing up there about making your kids sit at the table till their plates or empty or promising them a treat after they eat or making them eat one more bite. These tactics are not helpful in the long run and should be avoided. Give your child 30 minutes to eat, or until everyone else is done eating (whichever takes longer) and then clean up the meal and set him loose. He'll eat when he's hungry. Giving him nutrient poor foods, like processed chicken-like-substances, mystery fruit snacks and white bread simply defeats the purpose so don't give into it.

I know, I know, who am I? What do I know? I am a mother with three kids ages 2 to 21 who always eat their vegetables (they don't like all vegetables, mind you), have passable table manners and do not have overly developed sweet teeth (though they do like a treat once in awhile) and who do not have any eating disorders or weight problems.  And I am a nanny who has no problem getting "finicky" kids to eat as long as their parents aren't around (sometimes it takes a few meals, but I do always win). So there's my advice for what it's worth. If anyone else has any comments or suggestions they are very welcome!