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Family Nutrition: Parents- Powerful or Powerless When it comes to Food Choices by Toddlers

I see clients of all ages, from infancy to geriatrics.  The common theme of all of my clients is at one time or another they were toddlers.  Sometimes I see older clients who describe early patterns that I suspect are partly responsible for the way a current client eats or “diets.”  At other times, I see toddlers who “rule their roost” and need a little nudge from their parents for a stricter regimen.
I’ve written a lot about toddlers.  Mostly because I think this is a very specific time to start introducing good nutrition habits, but also because I am in the toddler zone with a four and almost three year old.  This is a time when textures, smells, and taste can be very scary.  If you mix that in with a child who is developing their independence, this can be one challenging time.
I have many parents ask me what the right thing to do is for their toddler and I’ve addressed this in some of my other articles (check them out by searching toddler in the blog search).  Here are a couple of things I will also suggest.
1)      At the age of 2, start offering your toddler the same meal you are cooking for the “adults.”
2)      Recognize that textures, smells, and taste can be sensitive to your toddler, but always stick with making the toddler try each item on their plate.
3)      Pay attention to portion size.  New items are overwhelming and portions should not be too big.
4)      When coordinating your meal, insure that there is one item that you are sure the child will eat.  This becomes the “safe” food.
5)      If your child refuses to eat any of the new items and asks for more of the “safe” food be firm and explain to the child that they can get more of the “safe” food if they eat or try the other accompanying foods.
6)      Be specific when you are talking about how much needs to be eaten of the accompanying foods.  Toddlers are smart and manipulative.  If you generally tell them to eat something they will expect and demand more of that safe food after one taste.
7)      If it becomes a battle and your child will not try the new items, simply excuse the child from the table to avoid a negative experience. 
8)      If your child complains of hunger offer an apple or other fruit or a vegetable.  If children are hungry they will eat what they are offered.  If they refuse it, they’re most likely not as hungry as their temper.

Are you reading this and thinking yeah right?  I get it.  There have been many times I’ve wanted to throw in the towel, but my end goal to have  responsible children who understand the true meaning of food for fuel always wins out. You as the parent are the number one controlling factor for instilling healthy nutrition to your child.  If you are consistent with your behavior your child will start to understand that food is for fuel and that leaving a table without eating anything but ¼ of rice results in a hungry stomach.  Your smart and manipulative toddler will soon learn that he/she will need to eat dinner to prevent hunger and fatigue in the future.
Research proves my thought that the parent is powerful.  A recent research study completed at Texas A&M University studied 75 children ages 3 to 5.  In the study, the toddlers watched two shows.  One show had commercials primarily advertising french fries and another advertised apples and dipping sauces.   After the shows were completed, toddlers were allowed to pick a coupon of either the french fries or the apples.  Parents were asked to provide input, half who encouraged their child to eat healthy and half who were neutral. 
Seventy five percent of the toddlers who watched the french fry commercials chose french fries if their parents remained neutral but when parents encouraged healthy choices this number dropped to 55%.  Forty six percent of the toddlers who watched the commercials with the apple slices picked french fries and when parents encouraged healthy choices only 33% continued to pick the french fries.
This study showed that advertisements do have an influence on children’s choices; however parents encouragement to eat healthy was able to undo some of the messages by commercials. 
Parents you aren’t powerless.  Be consistent, be a good role model, and may the force be with you to be patient.  Good luck and be well.
The picky toddler not happy with his choice


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