Feeding Toddlers: 5 Common Mistakes and 5 Easy Fixes

In honor of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ National Nutrition Month, I’m happy to share this post by Maryann Jacobsen. She’s a registered dietitian, mother of two, and co-author of Fearless Feeding How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. She is also the founding editor of Raise Healthy Eaters, a popular blog about family nutrition.

I’m in a room full of parents, teaching them about feeding their toddlers. When I ask the parents to share their challenges, their stories sound exactly the same.

The toddler, as a baby, used to eat everything and now he shuns many vegetables and meat. Some days he eats a lot and on other days he barely touches his meals. What I say surprises most of the parents, and turns their feelings of guilt into hope. I tell that that what’s happening is normal and that avoiding common feeding mistakes in toddlerhood will make a big difference in how their children eat over the long haul.

Here are 5 of the most common toddler feeding mistakes, followed by easy fixes.

1. Treating Picky Eating as a Problem: When a child’s eating habits change, many parents panic, thinking something is wrong. This leads to labeling the child as “picky” followed by the feeding mistakes mentioned below.

Most parents don’t realize that growth slows way down in the second year of life, leading to decreased appetite. During that time, the mind is also developing. Researchers believe picky eating may be an adaptive trait developed to protect mobile young children from consuming toxic plants. Studies show fear of new food peaks between 2 and 6 years of age and gradually declines as children age.

Easy Fix: When parents learn to expect picky eating as a normal part of development, they no longer blame themselves or their children, and mealtime is more enjoyable for everyone.

2. Giving Children too Much Choice: Does this sound familiar?

Parent: What do you want for lunch?

Child: I don’t know.

Parent: Leftover lasagna?

Child: No. I don’t like lasagna!

Parent: You just ate some last night. How about turkey sandwich?

Child: I want chicken nuggets! I want chicken nuggets!

Easy Fix: There’s no need to consult your child who, by the way, enjoys saying the word “no,” about what he’ll eat at each meal. Simply plan and serve meals with at least one liked item, periodically offering your child’s favorites. And if you do give choices, make them between two items: do you want a turkey sandwich or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

3. Getting the Jobs Mixed Up: Most feeding mistakes occur when a parent attempts to control a child’s eating (required bites, micromanaging food choice) or the child is allowed too much control over food choices (short-order cooking, grazing on snacks all day).

Easy Fix: International Feeding Expert Ellyn Satter recommends a division of responsibility when feeding kids: Parents decide the what, when and where of feeding and children decide the whether and how much of eating. This melts away food battles and children eat better without all of that pressure.

4. Filling Up Bellies:  About the size of a fist, toddlers’ tummies fill up easily. A common mistake is to allow children to drink milk and juice throughout the day or snack between meals, decreasing appetite and intake at main meals.

Easy Fix: Feed your child with structure, meaning most meals and snacks occur in a designated area like the kitchen table around the same times each day. Keep milk intake to less than 24 ounces and 100% fruit juice to no more than 4-6 ounces.

5. Making More Better: During a meal out I overhear a dad saying “good job” after his 3-year old son finishes his pizza. This dad is not alone. According to a study published in Appetite, 85% of parents use praise, reasoning and rewards to get young children to eat more at mealtime. The problem is this teaches children to ignore feelings of hunger and satiety and eat past fullness.

Easy Fix: Instead of commenting on how much children eat, encourage them to listen to their tummies. If they eat very little, remind them when the next meal is and to make sure they got enough to eat. When consistent feeding practices are in place, toddlers regulate their intake just fine. Just don’t expect them to eat the same amounts from meal to meal.

If you can avoid common feeding mistakes, you toddler will grow into a school-aged kid who branches out with food, feels good about eating and gets the right amount for his or her body type. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely worth it.

What challenges do you face when feeding your toddler?

Download our “First Bites to Finger Foods” guide to help make feeding time with your kiddos a little easier!

Picky Eaters: 3 Ways To Encourage Healthy Eating
Picky Eaters: 3 Ways To Encourage Healthy Eating
Picky Eaters: 3 Ways To Encourage Healthy Eating

Image of mother feeding baby girl via shutterstock.

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Is There a Sweet Side to Sugar?

If you’re a parent, you know that many kids—perhaps even your own—overdo their sugar intake. Whether they slurp on a sugary drink, nosh on candy at the movie theater, enjoy a slice of cake or a cupcake at a party or enjoy some cookies after school, many sugary foods and beverages are nutrient poor and contribute calories—and not much else.

Because OD’ing on sugar can reduce intake of more nutritious foods, contribute to excess calorie intake and unhealthy weight gain and increase the risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like dental diseases (especially dental caries), the World Health Organization (WHO) recently drafted new revised guidelines for sugar intake.

Unlike current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association recommendations to limit “added sugars”—sugars added to foods during processing or preparation and at the table—the proposed WHO guidelines recommend a cap for “free sugars”. These “free sugars” are sugars added by manufacturers, cooks or consumers such as glucose, fructose and sucrose (table sugar) as well as sugars that naturally occur in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates. Although the new proposed guidelines by the WHO include its previous recommendation of less than 10% of total calories from sugar daily, they also include a suggestion to reduce “free sugar” intake to below 5% of total energy intake daily for additional benefits.

For a child who consumes 1,200 to 1,600 calories daily, 10% of “free sugars” is the equivalent of 120 to 160 calories (or 30 to 40 grams); 5% of “free sugars” equals 60 to 80 calories (or 15 to 20 grams). To put this in context, one can coca-cola has about 39 grams of sugar and one package (1.69 ounce) M&M plain chocolate candies has about 31 grams of sugar. To find out how much total sugar and added sugar many products contain, respectively, you can check out the United States Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database and Food-A-Pedia.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist and mother of two, I applaud any effort parents make to help their kids reduce their intake of added sugars for the reasons cited above. Capping added sugar intake by keeping fewer sweet snacks and desserts in the home and encouraging smaller portions of sugary treats when eating and drinking on the run can allow more opportunities for kids to incorporate nutritious foods that help them develop and manage their weight as they grow.

Although achieving current recommendations for sugar intake (and current as well as proposed WHO recommendations) would require children to dramatically reduce their current sugar intake, doing simple things like replacing even a few sugary sodas with sparkling or plain water, having smaller portions of candy and baked goods and eating more naturally sweet foods like fresh fruits or even dried fruit (with no sugar added) can help.

But while I so support shrinking sugar intake, I also believe that sometimes sugar has a sweet side. Just like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, sometimes, having a little sugar—white or brown sugar, honey, or even some maple or chocolate syrup or catsup—can help kids enjoy nutrient-rich foods like low fat or nonfat milk or yogurt, whole grain, high fiber cereals and fresh fruit. Dipping apple slices in some honey or chocolate sauce, sprinkling brown sugar or pouring some maple syrup on plain oatmeal, adding honey to plain yogurt or dipping grilled chicken slices in catsup can help kids enjoy the taste of the more nutritious foods and beverages. It’s all about context, and incorporating small amounts of sugar in otherwise nutritious meals that your kids eat is very different than allowing them to routinely drown in big boxes of candy or oversized cups of sugary sodas.

I also think there’s room in a child’s diet for small amounts of 100% fruit juice. Even though WHO considers fruit juice to be a source of “free sugars,” following American Academy of Pediatrics’ juice recommendations—up to 4 to 6 ounces daily for 1 to 6-year-olds and 8 to 12 ounces for 7 to 18-years-old—is prudent. Of course, fresh fruit is more fiber-rich and filling than juice, but many juices like orange, grape, apple and cranberry juice can deliver a good dose of key nutrients and other beneficial substances kids need.

Do you think there’s a sweet side to sugar?

Check out my previous Scoop on Food blog for tips to help kids satisfy a sweet tooth.

Image of strawberry on a spoon with sugar pouring over it via shutterstock.


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5 Myths About “Going Vegetarian”

In celebration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ National Nutrition Month, I’m thrilled to share this wonderful guest post for The Scoop on Food by Sharon Palmer, The Plant-Powered Dietitian™.

Obesity rates among children aged 2 to 5 years old have reportedly plummeted by 43% over the past decade. This is huge news considering the efforts we’ve been taking as a nation in recent years to fight the obesity epidemic. There’s no denying there’s been an increased interest in food and nutrition, but as a registered dietitian who promotes the power of plant foods, I believe the improved health of our children may be linked to an increased emphasis on such foods. We can thank the growing list of best-selling vegetarian cookbook authors, vegetarian and vegan celebrities, and even our former president, Bill Clinton for giving the “veggie” lifestyle a whole new reputation. Even Jay Z and Beyonce adopted a vegan diet for 22 days this past winter.

While plant-based eating is slowly gaining momentum, many myths surrounding the “veggie” lifestyle still linger–especially when it comes to providing our children with optimal nutrition for their growing minds and bodies. Here are 5 misconceptions surrounding feeding our kids a vegetarian diet, debunked.

Myth: Children will not be satisfied with plant-based meals.

Truth: Your children will hardly miss the meat when you focus on all the whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes available in the plant world. Start with breakfast, for example: pile your child’s breakfast plate with fresh berries, whole grain cereal topped with toasted walnuts, homemade quick breads, or buckwheat pancakes with peaches or pears. The options to go “veggie” for the first meal of the day are endless.

Myth: It’s impossible to feed children vegetarian snacks throughout the day.

Truth: Store pre-cut veggies and fruit in your fridge, and chopped nuts and dried fruit (with no sugar added) in your pantry for snacks. Many plant foods are nature’s perfect finger foods and make for naturally delicious and convenient snacks. What’s not to love?

Myth: Children will not get enough protein if they don’t eat meat.

Truth: It’s a widespread misconception that it’s difficult to get enough protein from plant foods. We now know that it’s very simple to obtain all essential amino acids from plant-based sources such as legumes, soy, nuts and seeds. Incorporate a good quality protein at each meal or snack and your children will easily meet recommended protein intakes.

Myth: Children will not get enough calcium if they don’t eat dairy.

Truth: It’s important for growing bones to get adequate amounts of calcium–and two to three servings per day of green leafy vegetables, almonds and broccoli should help you and your children reach the daily recommended calcium goal. You can also add calcium-fortified foods such as tofu, orange juice, or plant-based milk alternatives to the mix.

Myth: Preparing plant-based meals is laborious, complicated and boring.

Truth: Plenty of kid-friendly and plant-friendly recipes are as simple as could be! And thankfully, gone are the days when vegetarian diets are considered to be about as hip and tasty as munching on alfalfa sprouts and chomping on seeds. Think: whole grain pitas filled with cucumbers, bell peppers and hummus, whole grain spaghetti with marinara sauce, and even a classic peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Image of girl cooking with vegetables via shutterstock.

Do your kids follow a vegetarian diet? If so, do you have concerns?

For vegetarian (and non-vegetarian) recipe inspiration, check out our Food & Recipes Guide!

How to Eat Healthy During Pregnancy: Vegetarian Meals
How to Eat Healthy During Pregnancy: Vegetarian Meals
How to Eat Healthy During Pregnancy: Vegetarian Meals

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Will New Food Labels Help Kids Eat Better?

Confused or frustrated by food labels? There’s a good chance the dizzying array of numbers and information currently on food packages will be a bit more clear when new and improved food labels appear on your favorite packaged foods. Although the specific changes have yet to be fully fleshed out and will take time to implement, the Associated Press reports that the proposed changes by the White House and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include the following:

  • A more prominent display of calories;
  • “Calories from fat” would be removed;
  • A new line for “added sugars” would be added”
  • Serving sizes that reflect amounts people eat –not what they should eat—would be listed;
  • Both “nutrients per serving” and “nutrients per container” would be given for foods that are often consumed in a single sitting eg frozen dinners or a can of soup;
  • Nutrients that Americans need more of—for example, potassium and vitamin D—would be included.

According to a New York Times article, the proposal will be open to public comment for 90 days, and it will take months to finalize the changes. The article also says the FDA will give food companies two years to put the changes into effect.

Overall, I like the proposed changes and do think they have the potential to help parents feed their kids—and themselves—better. Knowledge can be power, and seeing how many calories a seemingly small package, can or container of food has without having to do so much math can be an eye opener. In my opinion, at the end of the day, knowing calorie intake is key for long-term weight management, so having a more prominent display of calories—especially on single serve items—can be helpful. However, I do caution parents and their kids to realize that the serving size listed on a food or beverage is not always the amount they should consume in a single sitting. It’s always important for parents and their kids at all ages and stages to keep current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the recommendations outlined in MyPlate in the back of their minds to guide how much of any food or beverage to consume. Getting rid of “calories from fat” is also a great change. It’s confusing, and doesn’t distinguish between healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) and those we want to limit (saturated and trans fats). And fat is not the enemy—about 20 to 35% of daily calories should come from fat according to current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Listing added sugars would also be an excellent move. Unlike naturally occurring sugars found in milk and fruit, added sugars are added during processing. Calories from added sugars contribute calories and not much else. Since kids and parents tend to over consume added sugars and solid fats—also referred to as empty calories—learning which products have them and how much they contain is key to reduce them in the diet. Currently, parents and their kids consume up to about one third of all their calories as added sugars and solid fats.

I also support an emphasis on nutrients on food labels. Although people eat foods rather than nutrients, highlighting how much of certain nutrients products contain—especially nutrients many (including kids) fall short on—can help kids and their parents meet nutrient needs and optimize their health.

Only time will tell if the new food labels of the future will help kids and their parents make more nutritious and mindful selections at the grocery store and eat enough—but no too much—to meet their needs and maintain a healthy body weight. For now, I think these proposed changes will help us all take one more step in the right direction to eat more healthfully and reap the many benefits of a nutritious, balanced and calorie-appropriate diet.

To learn more about food labels, check out Planning Healthy Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label on the FDA Voice, and my previous Scoop on Food post on food labels.

Do you like the proposed food label changes? Why or why not?

Use our Food and Recipe Guide to find quick and healthy meals for your family.

Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid

Image of woman and child choosing produce in grocery shopping mall via shutterstock.

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11 Tips to Nourish Active Kids

With the Sochi Olympics in full swing, what better time to provide top tips from a few nutrition pros to help active kids meet their nutrient needs?

Although a 2013 JAMA Pediatrics study that looked at national survey data of more than 1200 children aged 6 to 11 found that 70% of them met federal Physical Activity Guidelines—at least 60 minutes daily of moderate- to vigorous intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking or running)—you likely have or know plenty of kids who spend more than seven hours a week participating in organized sports and other competitive activities including ranging from basketball, baseball, crew, soccer, dance and swimming to gymnastics, cheerleading, wrestling, tennis and squash.

While all this activity is great for our kids’ hearts and other muscles, staying fueled and energized with nutritious foods and beverages is essential to help them perform their best—not only on the field or on the court, but in the classroom too. As sports nutritionist Tara Gidus says, “You wouldn’t think of letting your kids play football without a helmet, right? Just like they need the right equipment on the field, they need the right nutrition to support their activities on and off the field.”

Whether your kids are going for gold, or simply engaging in various physical activities for the fun of it, here are 11 tips from Gidus and five other top RDs to help them nourish their active lifestyles.

Batter up with breakfast. While it may sound cliché, children who eat breakfast get better nutrition overall than those who skip this vital first meal. Eating a nutritious and filling breakfast may also help kids keep their cool even when other players, parents, coaches or referees lose theirs. If you’re short on ideas beyond that usual bowl of cereal, here are 20 breakfast ideas.

Eat like a champ. Kids can fuel their active muscles well beyond breakfast by having lunches and dinners that provide carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. Some ideas for lunch and dinner include a turkey breast sandwich on whole grain bread with avocado, sliced and spread (or a bit of mayonnaise) and a piece of fruit or half the sandwich with a bowl of low-sodium vegetable soup; peanut butter and jelly on whole-wheat bread, a banana and cup of nonfat milk; cold pasta salad with deli turkey slices; whole-wheat pasta with lean beef meatballs and marinara sauce; or salmon served with quinoa and spinach.

Power up with produce. Eating fruits and vegetables boosts kids’ immune systems to help them stay healthy and active. Let them pick out a few of their favorites—like carrots, broccoli, asparagus, grapes, watermelon, strawberries or bananas—each week at the grocery store, and offer small amounts of these and others you buy at each meal and snack. Getting kids involved in grocery shopping and giving them a say empowers them, helps them take ownership of what they eat and also helps them meet their daily quota for produce.

Snack smart. Like meals, snacks should provide carbohydrate—the main energy kids’ brains and body needs—and some healthy fat and protein. Examples include whole-grain graham crackers with peanut butter; an apple or other fruit of choice with low-fat string cheese; reduced or low fat cottage cheese topped with cinnamon and chopped pears; cucumbers with hummus, nuts (like cashews or almonds) and a clementine; Pistachio Chewy Bites (a combination of whole pistachios and dried cranberries); or a container of low fat or nonfat Greek yogurt, a natural beef jerky and a piece of fruit (like watermelon or an apple). Fresh or unsweetened frozen fruit also work well in snack-time smoothies.

Change the rules after school. Calling an “afternoon snack” a “second lunch” instead can help kids think more about having a sandwich, burrito, bowl of cereal, hummus and carrots on pita or other “real food.” It can also reduce their intake of so-called snack foods like candy, chips and cookies. Having a hearty second lunch can also help kids be less hungry for dinner—but that’s OK because they’ll be better fueled when they need it most for afternoon play and sports.

Milk it after practice. Low fat flavored milk—like Organic chocolate milk—has a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein; that makes it a smart choice for athletes recovering from a long practice or event. Shelf-stable single serving portions are available and make a great recovery beverage within 30 minutes of practice or competition.

Move meals. Don’t be afraid to move mealtimes. Young athletes spend the entire day in school and often come home hungry. Rather than waiting until 6 PM for a full meal, consider moving mealtime to earlier in the day. Depending on the age of the child, kids often benefit from two dinners—one after school and one three or four hours later.

Don’t forget fluids. It’s always key to make sure active kids stay hydrated throughout the day. Send your child to school or sports with a water bottle. If you know they’ll be playing for more than an hour or hour and a half, it’s OK to give them a sports drink to prevent dehydration and providing essential electrolytes. The fluid paired with the fuel from food will keep them hydrated and energized.

Make a mini-cooler a must. Young athletes are often on the go; that means food is as well. Think of a mini cooler as part of your equipment and make sure the kids have one to take to practice and to sporting events to help them stay nourished and at the same time keep food safe for consumption.

Boost their energy at half time. To nourish, hydrate and cool off sweaty kids, offer orange slices, grapes and/or strawberries at half time. Or they can sip on a water bottle with fruits like orange slices, cut strawberries, and raspberries throughout the game.

Fuel often—but not excessively. It’s important to keep kids fueled at regular intervals. Because many children, especially younger ones, get so engaged in what they are doing and don’t always want to stop to eat, it’s important to build in breaks to refuel. At the same time, parents should be mindful about how much kids are eating in relation to their activity level. It’s easy to think that kids need a lot more calories if they’re being active, but unless kids are participating in competitive athletics for several hours on most days, most kids take in enough calories during the day to offset their exercise.

How do you fuel your active kids?

Need more food inspiration? Check out our food and recipe guides!

Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids
Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids
Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids

Image of happy smiling little boy holding prize cup via shutterstock.

Sources: Tara Gidus, MS, RD, CSSD, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition; Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook; Heather R. Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Board Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition; Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDV, FACSM, coauthor of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance; Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, Board Certified Specialist in Sports Nutrition; and Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN.

*Full disclosure: Dulan is a current spokesperson for Setton Farms for Pistachio Chewy Bites, and I am a current spokesperson for the Got Milk? campaign.



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