Feeding a toddler is hard work because of all sorts of normal shifts that happen after the first birthday. But new data out this past month (see below) reminds us how pre-packaged baby food isn’t the best food source, despite package claims. Whole food, the food your family eats, and the fresh stuff is the way to go.
Infant hunger matches their rapid growth; we’re used to our babies ravenous and near consistent basis from day one yet as infancy progresses feedings space out and form meals. By a year of age most children go 4 hours or more between eating. Toddlerhood is a completely different story; growth slows after a year of age and toddlers start to test limits in profound ways. Food is no exception. It can be tempting to reach for whatever’s convenient that you know your kid will eat (fish crackers, anyone?) but in the long run making good nutritional choices for whole food regularly will exceed the nutritional detriments of pre-packaged “toddler” food. In fact, a new policy statement released by the AAP this month is urging parents (and schools, daycares etc.) to take a “whole diet” approach to kids’ nutrition, namely focusing on a mix of foods from the five food groups and avoiding highly processed foods. Read more about the policy here from my friend Dr Claire McCarthy. These “fresh is best” ideas aren’t new to you I suspect but the data about food being marketed to us (and our children) is:
Why Toddlers Don’t Eat Like You Want Them To
- Growth rate slows after a year of age
- The first 6 months of your child’s life are the most dramatic time for growing in their entire life. In first year of life birth weight triples, about 10 inches of height are gained. After a year, things slow down. Consequently so does eating.
- Weight gain and length gains slow significantly after child’s first birthday as toddler growth evens out. You’ll likely see this reflected in the ways your child eats from day to day or week to week.
- Pickiness is normal of course. Toddlers become picky as they learn and practice their tools and tactics for autonomy
- Erratic eating habits are normal, loving one thing and hating it the next day is too.
- Less hungry because of slowing growth rate may cause parents to worry but this up and down roller coaster with eating shouldn’t change parent behavior in providing great choices. I still love to think of mini meals as snacks (bits and parts of meals conveniently ready to grab and go).
AAP Study Findings
- 1495 infant/toddler food products studied
- Infant formulas, fortified milk & oral electrolytes excluded
- More than half (41 of 79) ready-to-serve mixed grains & fruits contained added sugar
- Big majority of cereal bars, fruit, desserts & juices have added and “high” sugar
- 72% of toddler dinners were high in sodium, the recommendation for salt intake in 1 – 3 year-old children is 1500mg/day
What Parents Need To Know
- Look closely at nutrition labels when you can if you’re serving processed foods.
- Craving salt is something that is learned and acquired in early childhood — what you do early in your child’s life may dramatically change eating for a lifetime. Here’s more: Too Much Salt? More Bad News
- Nearly 80% of kids between 1 – 3 exceed 1500 mg/day sodium intake so working early and often to get processed foods high in salt out of their diet is an important strategy.
- Processed formula is not necessary for toddlers — after 1 year of age it’s rare that a pediatrician would recommend powdered or prepared formula for a child.
- Your child should eat meals and limit milk to 16-20 oz of 2% or whole milk between 12-24 months.
- Divide Responsibility: It’s your child’s job to eat, it’s your job to buy and serve healthy food
- Up and down is okay. Not everyday will be perfect, aim for a nutritionally balanced week
- AAP’s five step approach
- Choose food from the five food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, low-fat dairy, and quality protein sources, including lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds and eggs.
- Offer a variety of food experiences.
- Avoid highly processed foods.
- Small amounts of sugar, salt, fats and oils are okay! Use them with nutritious foods to enhance the eating experience.
- Offer appropriate portions. Grazing is okay! For toddlers, plan on serving mini meals throughout the day, instead of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
E Canfield says
What’s your take on actual baby food for younger toddlers? My 1year old has a deep love of several fruit-and-veggie purees. We’re mostly treating them like the apple sauce in pouches that get marketed for older kids’ lunches, as part of his mid-morning snack, usually.
Hello Dr. Swanson, I am a pediatrician on Western Mass. My partners and I love your web sire and blogs. Would it be ok if we listed your website on our practice website, as a resource for parents? We always find your blogs practical and realistic.
Northern Berkshire Pediatrics
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Hi, Dr Wiseman,
I’d be thrilled if you would link to the the blog on your website. It’s a privilege to share these words and ideas and your curation of the content on your website is exactly my hope for authoring up to date parenting information.
Thanks for leaving a comment and for spreading the word!
Jen from MN says
I’m a Public Health Nurse working in a WIC clinic and this is a subject that is touched on every week with parents! Thanks for spelling it out in a way that makes sense and is easy to understand. I’ll be printing this off and sharing it with my WIC families this month. Thanks for being a health advocate in nutrition, immunizations and in parenting!