Balancing an Uneven Diet

Parents of toddlers often wonder if their kids are getting enough to eat. It's an understandable concern, and offering healthy snacks can help ensure that the answer is yes.

Some kids at this age may seem too busy exploring the world to slow down and eat. Others may be fickle about food or refuse to eat what's served at mealtime. Toddlers benefit from eating a variety of healthy foods, but often don't eat a lot at one sitting. That's where snacks come in.

Healthy, well-timed snacks can help balance out an uneven diet, tiding toddlers over between meals and keeping them from getting so hungry that they become cranky. And you boost the intake of nutrients your toddler needs to be healthy when you serve fruits, veggies, whole grains, protein, and calcium-rich foods.

Most toddlers do well with three meals and two or three snacks a day — perhaps mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and again after dinner, if necessary.

Decide What's Appropriate

The influence you have on your child's eating patterns may never be stronger than it is right now. Toddlers can't run out to the store for candy and chips. They'll eat what's served to them and ask for what they know is in the cabinet. Take this opportunity to set the stage for healthy eating.

Stock up on fresh foods that are high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber) and try to avoid prepackaged, processed ones, which tend to be high in sugar, salt, and fat. If your child goes to daycare, ask what kinds of snacks are served there. If you don't approve, consider suggesting a healthier snack menu. If that's not an option, send in your own snacks for your child, even if it means a bit of extra planning the night before.

Toddlers should be feeding themselves, so think simple, finger-friendly, bite-size foods like:

  • low-sugar, whole-grain breakfast cereals
  • fresh fruit thinly sliced or cut into small pieces
  • whole-grain crackers and mini-muffins
  • cheese cut into thin slices or shredded

Think small portions, too. Adults tend to overestimate the amount of food kids need to eat, but the recommended serving size for a toddler's snack is actually quite small: ¼ cup (57 grams) dry cereal and ½ cup (118 ml) milk (serve low-fat if your child is over 2 years old) make a fine mid-morning snack, just as a half a banana and ½ cup (118 ml) of milk are great in the mid-afternoon.

Not only are small portions less overwhelming for a picky eater, but they also help prevent an avid eater from overdoing it at snack time.

Stick to a Snack Schedule

Kids do better with a routine, so try to serve snacks and meals at about the same time every day. That way your child will know what to expect.

Feeling the sensation of being full and then hungry again a few hours later teaches kids to respond to internal hunger cues — and knowing when to eat and, more important, when to stop is vital to maintaining a healthy weight. If allowed to graze all day without a schedule, kids may lose the ability to detect their own hunger and fullness, which can make them more likely to overeat.

A word about juice. Juice — even 100% fruit juice — contains about the same amount of calories as soda. And juice drinks have excessive amounts of added sugar. Letting kids carry around a juice box all day can lead to diarrhea in some and contribute to weight gain in others.

Limit your toddler's juice intake to no more than 4 oz. (120 ml) a day. When your child is thirsty, water and milk are the best choices. If your child is a juice fanatic, offer fruit rather than juice, because whole fruits contain important vitamins and fiber.

Let Your Toddler Choose

Your toddler may still be your baby, but is increasingly ready to hold the reins once in a while. Snacks are a great chance for kids to be in charge in a limited way. Offer a few nutritious foods at each snack, then sit back and let your toddler choose what and how much to eat.

Though it may be tempting, resist the urge to feed only foods that your child likes. (This is especially hard for parents of picky eaters who just want their kids to eat something!) Perhaps pair something your child likes with a new food at snack time. Even if new foods are rejected, continue offering them. Remember that it may take several tries before a child is receptive to eating something new.

Don't make a big deal of an uncleaned plate, even if means your child skips a snack or meal. But also don't allow kids to pick alternate foods or decide when meals and snacks should be served. You want them to learn that meals and snacks are available only at certain times and that they may choose from among the foods you present.

Things to Avoid

Most parents have bribed their child by promising some tasty treat, but this isn't a good strategy. Using sweets as a bribe creates the impression that they're more valuable or better than other, more healthy foods — plus kids quickly learn to use them as a bargaining tool.

As for sweets, there's really no reason, nutritionally, for young kids to have them. You don't have to deprive your child of birthday cake, though, or other occasional treats. But don't let these empty-calorie items become part of the regular snack menu.

Make sweets the exception rather than the rule and your child won't feel entitled to them or too surprised when you say no. Your toddler will be less likely to beg for sweets and chips if you keep these less nutritious snacks out of your home.

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