Your little one is about to be weaned from milk and suddenly they're faced with a whole new playing field at meal time. There is a huge range of choice for parents too. Some people want to grow and make their own baby food, while others are happy to choose produce from the grocery store to puree at home, while some simply pick up the pre-made baby food.
Whichever option works for your family, there are a few essentials you need to know about planning your baby's meals. Here are some common pitfalls that even experienced parents can fall into when feeding their toddler, as well as the latest research on allergen introduction and other specialized diets. We'll even talk about solutions to common mealtime problems.
Prepare to update your toddler-feeding skills!
16 Too Much Sugar
It's hard to believe, but the average daily sugar intake is actually higher for children world-wide than it is for adults (which isn't a healthy number in and of itself). We all know that too much sugar can result in many problems, key among them are obesity and cavities.
The World Health Organization has taken note of this problem and recommend that a child's diet consist of no more than ten percent "free sugars." Those are simple sugars added to processed food (including store bought baby food), and simple sugars present in honey, fruit, maple syrup, and other raw and natural food sources.
While making your own baby food goes a long way to avoiding these simple sugars, it doesn't quite get you out of the woods. Be careful to balance fruits and honey with vegetables and meat. And if you buy your baby's food, there are brands you can purchase with less sugar and that don't rely as heavily on fruit.
15 Making Juice their Primary Drink
I once knew a five-year-old with seven cavities! The parents were baffled as to how his oral health had declined. It turns out that he had an unlucky mixture of unfortunate teeth genetics and an obsession with high-sugar fruit juices. It's not surprising of course, everyone loves juice!
It might be easier to keep your child on water and milk until they are old enough to understand that juice is a treat and not a staple at every meal (or at least until they are six). Otherwise, toddlers tend to get very attached to juice and, as the WHO warns, it can contribute a lot of free sugar to their diet.
14 Avoiding Allergens Past Six Months
It wasn't long ago that medical professionals were advising parents to wait until specific ages to introduce potential allergens, and then monitor their child's reaction closely, of course. But a recent meta-analysis (where researchers review all previous research on a subject and update our knowledge based on what they've learned) has turned all of those old guidelines on their head.
Now researchers actually think that keeping your toddler away from allergens may actually cause them to develop that allergy! Dr. Elissa Abrams told the Globe and Mail that "in the U.K., when they started avoiding peanut there was as much as a tripling of peanut allergy." Right now more research is being conducted on whether withholding allergens will increase allergies, but consensus has been reached that it doesn't help prevent them.
Of course, your little one may still be allergic to anything you introduce them to, so make sure to monitor their reaction especially when they first eat something new.
13 Not Starting with Iron-Rich Food
You're probably aware that a baby's digestive system isn't ready for solid food until they've reached six months of age, but once they've passed their half birthday, don't expect an immediate transition to solid foods, even if you're serving it puree.
You can first offer solids before or after breast milk (or their bottle) and you can add milk to the food to make it more interesting and calorie-dense. But remember, the main nutritional need you are trying to fill with solids right now is iron, so pick something that is rich in iron for baby's first food. Any kind of pureed meat is a good choice, and so are eggs, beans, lentils, and tofu.
Once your baby is eating well you can be sure their iron needs are met and can experiment with the other food groups.
12 Unbalanced Vegetarian Diets
If you choose to have your child join you in your Vegetarian diet you'll need to add some key nutrients from other sources. Vegetarian diets can be perfectly healthy for toddlers, but parents will want to be extra vigilant with their child's protein requirements.
One study found that almost 60 percent of vegetarian children were not getting enough protein. Researchers also tell us that deficiency in protein and other essential nutrients is more harmful at younger ages, than in adulthood and can affect long term development.
11 Unbalanced Vegan Diets
Raising a child on a vegan diet presents a special challenge. Even if you're well practiced in meeting your own nutritional needs as a vegan, the essential nutrients can be hard to scale down for babies and milk products are tough to substitute early in a child's life.
Breast milk is vegan, but some who choose not to breastfeed also use a soy formula like this brand. This diet choice often stresses parents, who don't want to sacrifice their baby's health, but may not know how to safely feed a vegan baby.
Yes, you'll hear horror stories about parents who were arrested for neglecting their little one by letting their child become dangerously malnourished on a vegan diet. But that doesn't have to be you--simply ask your family doctor if you have any concerns about your child's vegan diet, or need to check that his or her nutritional needs are being met.
10 Not Feeding Milk with Lactose
Maybe you or other members of your family are lactose intolerant and your little one is already drinking lactose free milk. This could actually be a problem, because if toddlers (and adult humans, for that matter) stop drinking milk with lactose, they may lose their ability to drink milk.
Their stomach will simply stop making the enzyme that allows them to digest lactose (it's called lactase). This is actually a common cause of lactose intolerance, and it eventually happens to almost everyone, usually in late adulthood. It's actually quite unusual for anyone to be born lactose-intolerant, because infants need to digest the lactose in breast milk.
9 Too Much Salt
Toddlers from one to three years of age should be ingesting, at maximum, only two grams of salt per day. Children who are just being introduced to solid foods are accustomed to receiving a proper, low, amount of salt in breast milk or formula, and having too much salt in their diet can actually cause them stomach pains and even increase their blood pressure and give them higher risk for heart disease, obesity, and other illnesses.
There's no need to add salt to your child's food, and you may need to monitor how much salt they are getting from store-bought foods.
8 Not Giving A Happy Eater Attention
If you've been lucky enough to have your child eat happily and properly during meal times, make sure that you give them plenty of attention and positive praise when they do.
If instead you only give a child attention when they misbehave, they may seek that attention by misbehaving. If it's safe to ignore some poor behaviors at mealtime you should try to do so. On the other hand, some children are made uncomfortable when you praise them for eating properly, so take care to note your child's reaction to your compliments.
7 Too Many Mealtime Distractions
It's a simple mealtime problem, but a common one. How can a baby focus on learning to eat with distractions from the television or internet?
If eating is the only amusement around, a toddler will put more effort into it. On the other hand, if your child finds eating itself stressful, and/or has a learning disability that has increased difficulty at mealtime, then a distraction may actually serve them at mealtime. Some T.V. or soft music could distract a stressed child and reduce their anxiety.
6 Feeding When Baby is Full
If your toddler doesn't seem interested in mealtime, it can be tempting to try to encourage them to eat rather strongly. It's your little one, after all, and you want to make sure that they're getting their fill of nutrients.
But Dr. Jillian Harris tells parents that their children are able to tell when they've had enough food. If a toddler won't swallow, spits or vomits, turns their head away from food, closes their mouth to food or blocks their mouth with their hand, you should respect that your child is full.
Demanding a child eat more food will make them less likely to consume fruits and vegetables in the long term.
5 Sticking to a Few Vegetables
It can be a struggle to ensure baby is getting enough vegetables, it's very rarely their favorite part of the meal.
Dr. Harris also suggests that parents who are willing to negotiate with their children about their meals will have more success than parents who are demanding or who are nonchalant.
One element of that compromise is offering a wide range of vegetables at meals and between different meals. If you offer your darling carrots and broccoli and they'll only eat the broccoli, that's still a good meal.
If you also offer different vegetables throughout the week and keep experimenting until you find a few your toddler will reliably eat. Think out of the box here, there are all kinds of different squashes, beans, and root vegetables that you may not normally eat but that baby might enjoy.
4 Restricting Treats to Prompt Healthier Eating
Though it's a popular strategy, telling a child that they can't have a cupcake until their Brussels sprouts are finished won't successfully motivate them.
Instead, this increases a child's desire for the treat and makes them devalue the healthy food, in the long term. Instead, researchers suggest you be more straight forward with your child and gently suggest that they try the vegetable.
Also, if you eat the vegetable or the child's siblings do, then the child will be more likely to eat it themselves.
3 Long Mealtimes
Researchers suggest that children may become overwhelmed at mealtimes if they are too long. Instead, try to keep mealtimes short, particularly if your child seems to fill up quickly.
You can always have a second small mealtime later if your child gets hungry again. Make sure that you're also eating smaller amounts of food with them at both mealtimes, though, because your eating will help motivate theirs, particularly for disliked foods.
2 Having an Unpredictable Schedule
We've discussed that anxiety can be a big problem at meal times, and one of the most powerful ways to reduce anxiety is to make mealtimes highly scheduled.
If a toddler can predict when mealtime will occur, and mealtime is initiated by some familiar routine, like setting the table. This is also a good way to build a strong relationship between yourself and your toddler, where they know what to expect from you.
1 Avoiding Flavor
So many parents who make their own baby foods skimp on the flavor. We've ruled out adding salt, of course, but there are plenty of other spices that might make mealtime more interesting for your little one. Use the same patterns that you do in your own cooking, like dill with fish, basil with tomatoes, and rosemary with chicken.
Even combine vegetables with carbs and meats to make flavorful meals that also help your toddler get some extra nutrients in.