Once your baby is up on its feet – there’s no stopping their curiosity as they always want to be on the go. In fact, toddlers use up lots of energy, and need a good balance of nutrients and protein to keep them active, as well as for healthy growth. And if they are attending pre-school, making sure they have great nutrition is even more essential. Energy is nutrition; so creating a balanced diet for toddlers is very important.
A varied balanced diet that contains all of the five food groups is vital for this stage:
• Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods give energy and should make up the main part of each meal with some white and wholegrain options included.
• Fruit and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fruit at breakfast and vegetables and fruit at the other two main meals is important. Toddlers should also have 5 or more portions of fresh, frozen, tinned or dried fruit per day.
• Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein such as nuts, lentils and tofu is a must as these foods also provide iron and zinc. Foods from this group should be included twice a day and oily fish should only be offered once or twice per week.
• Milk, cheese and yogurt should also be included – 3 servings a day of these foods. Milk is still important, but a child over 1 year old needs less than a baby. 3 cups of milk of about 90 – 110ml is enough. However, fewer milk drinks should be given if your toddler is eating yoghurt and cheese. Bottles of milk should be discontinued from about 12 months of age. From a year, fresh, whole cow’s milk can be given instead of formula, unless you are continuing to breastfeed which is obviously still best.
• Toddlers naturally like foods high in fat and/or sugar but they should be kept to a minimum. A dessert should be offered at the two main meals but it should not replace other nutritious foods from the other food groups.
• Meals that are high in fat and salt should also be avoided as well as diet or slimming food. Low calorie foods are not suitable for toddlers as they need extra calories to fuel growth. Convenience foods and ready meals are best given sparingly, unless they are specially made for young children. Healthy, wholesome family food is the best option. It’s nutritious and economical.
Managing the picky eaters
Sometime during their second year toddlers become more selective about foods they will eat. They are more assertive and will often refuse to eat certain foods. Refusing to eat new foods is a normal developmental phase for young toddlers and usually starts soon after they have begun walking.
As they go through this development, they will take much longer to learn to like and eat new foods than they did as a baby and a balanced diet may seem a bit more of a challenge. The reasons are:
• Because the food is new to them and they need to see it several more times before they’re confident enough to try tasting it.
• It may not be exactly the same as what they are used to. Because it is different they will be wary of eating it.
• Because they don’t like the taste.
• Because that food looks like something they consider disgusting.
• It may have been touched by another food they don’t like.
• It may be on the same plate as a food they don’t like.
• They may need to watch others eating a food that is new to them several times before they become confident to try it themselves.
• They may take much longer now to learn to like that food and they will do this by just tasting a little each time you include it in a meal. It is the number of times they taste that food not the amount they eat that will determine how long it takes for them to learn to like the food.
It can be disheartening when you have spent time preparing the food only for it to be refused or spat out – but it is important to stay calm and be patient.
There are also some simple, positive changes you can make to help your child eat more and more balanced diet and enjoy meal times:
• Encourage the family to eat together so that they will learn from copying their parents and older siblings – spacing meals appropriately.
• Parents should comment positively about the foods offered to encourage toddlers and show them that the food is enjoyable.
• A daily routine of three meals and two to three snacks should be designed around their sleeping pattern. Babies don’t eat well if they become over hungry or very tired. Stick to the routine.
• Large bottles of milk should be avoided. Too much milk will fill toddlers up and leave them with little appetite for food.
• Large quantities of fruit juice or other sweet drinks should be minimised, as these will decrease their appetite for food.
• Use brightly coloured bowls and utensils – as this will encourage your toddler to eat.
• Two courses should be offered at meals: one savoury course followed by a nutritious pudding or sweet course. This gives two opportunities for your child to take in the calories and nutrients needed, and offers a wider variety of foods making it easier to ensure a balanced diet. It also makes the meal more interesting for them.
• Parents should praise their children when they eat well. Toddlers respond positively to praise.
• Finger foods should be offered as often as possible. Toddlers enjoy having the control of feeding themselves with finger foods.
• A calm, relaxed environment without distractions such as TV, games and toys encourages positive eating habits. Toddlers concentrate on one thing at a time and distractions make it more difficult for them to concentrate on eating.
• A meal should be finished within about 20 to 30 minutes and parents have to accept that after this the toddler is probably not going to eat any more. Carrying the meal on for too long is unlikely to result in eating much more. It is better to wait for the next snack or meal and offer nutritious foods then.
• Parents should accept that their toddler has eaten enough when they signal that they don’t want any more and are encouraged to take away any uneaten food without comment.
Weaning is not a straightforward process – some babies just take more time to get used to solid foods than others, regardless of whether it is home-cooked or store bought. What is critical is creating a balanced diet which is essential for your growing little one. By understanding the importance of meal time and the nutritional value of the food groups, it will go a long way to ensuring development and of course, happy meal times.
*This article is an exclusive column from Dr Diana Du Plessis, spokesperson for Philips Mother and Child Division