Dietitians Dish: Teach children early about good nutrition

Iustina Iznaola

Most parents agree that toddler and preschool years are characterized by frustration and power struggles when trying to convince children to eat nutritious foods.

The anxiety builds up even more as parents and caregivers are aware of the responsibility to instill good dietary habits early in life.

Research indicates parents understand there is a link between poor nutrition and higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Learning and understanding more about how toddlers perceive foods is essential to make healthy mealtimes peaceful and successful.

It is necessary to acknowledge that a toddler's stomach is the about the size of a small clenched fist, and it is unrealistic to expect children between ages 3 to 5 years old to eat large amounts of food at each meal every day.

There are days when a slice of apple and a glass of milk seem to be satisfying and other days when they will want to eat a full meal, such as grilled chicken breast with stir-fry vegetables and steamed rice.

Compared to the infant stage, growth rate during the toddler period is significantly decreasing. At this age, children become more independent and interested in playing and being active. They easily become distracted with fun activities; therefore, eating becomes secondary in importance to them.

During infancy, the child is fed on demand; however, as he or she grows, parents can establish a meal schedule that includes three meals a day and two to three nutritious snacks. It is necessary to teach the child to accept and follow this schedule.

During mealtime, the child is expected to join and sit at the table with the other family members. The parents and caregivers have the responsibility to serve a healthy meal, but toddlers should have the right to decide how much they eat. Current research reports children who are allowed to make such decisions gain more self-control and become more aware of their hunger and satiety cues.

Many times, parents complain their children are picky eaters. This concept should not be taken lightly because many factors contribute to such behavior. Health experts conclude that in addition to toddler physiological development, personal preferences, family values and attitudes greatly affect toddler eating habits and whether they are likely to exhibit picky eating behavior.

As children grow, they begin demonstrating personal preferences for certain flavors and textures. Research reports that only a few food preferences are innate, whereas many are discovered through trial and error. The same research concludes that most food preferences and dietary habits are strongly influenced by family values and attitudes regarding eating behavior. Parents are important role models in their children's nutrition.

When children are exposed to novel flavors prenatally via amniotic fluid or during infancy via breast milk, the acceptance of those particular flavors is highly increased. Therefore, it is imperative that parents have healthy dietary habits if they expect their children to learn how to make nutritious food choices.

Preschoolers want to imitate what their parents and caregivers do and say. Consequently, if they are exposed to family mealtimes that incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, most likely they will want to consume these as well. Toddlers may be skeptical of trying new foods, but eventually, they will learn and accept the new tastes.

Research concludes that a limiting factor related to youngsters' food preferences is that parents fail to offer food choices that previously have been refused.

A child needs to be exposed at least 10 times to a certain flavor before he or she is willing to accept it. This finding is applicable to all foods not just vegetables. In addition to role modeling, there are other strategies to encourage children to eat nutritious foods, including more fruits and vegetables.

Examples are listed below:

Provide adequate equipment for eating, such as small utensils and plates, which are practical but also appealing. During mealtimes, do not use plasticware that have cartoons because toddlers get distracted. Instead, use white plates and single color utensils to allow them focus and visualize the foods. Plates and cups with cartoons are appropriate for snack time.

At mealtimes, have a conversation about the foods they are eating. Ask about the colors, textures and flavors they are experiencing. Make sure that meals are pleasing and fun. Colorful foods and beautiful meal presentations will most definitely spark an interest in your toddler, and he or she will be more willing to try a new food item.

Minimize distractions during mealtimes. Turn off any electronic devices such as TV, computers and cellphones.

Whenever possible, involve toddlers in grocery shopping. Allow them to pick different fruits and vegetables that they will want to eat and share with other family members.

Toddlers do not automatically know how to eat well. It is a skill that needs to be mastered like any other skill such as walking or potty training. It requires time and a great deal of patience and commitment.

Eventually, toddlers will learn and want to eat their vegetables if these are regularly served in appealing ways. Moreover, if they see that adults eat them all time, they will also want to model this behavior.

Iustina Iznaola is a Registered Dietitian at DeTar Hospital. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.