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Why So Many Toddlers Have Bad Eating Habits

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TODDLER EATING
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Are you teaching your tots bad eating habits? Chances are, the answer is yes.

Research shows that 2- to 3-year-olds typically consume a diet high in saturated fat and sodium and low in fiber.  In addition, on any given day:

  • 25 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds don't eat a single serving of fruit
  • 30 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds don't eat a single serving of vegetables
  • When kids do eat vegetables, they're more likely to eat white potatoes (usually French fries) than any other type of vegetable

These aren't encouraging statistics. But here's the most shocking fact: on any given day, more preschoolers will consume sweetened beverages, desserts and snack foods than will eat fruits or vegetables.

You've read the statistics (17 percent of children and adolescents in the U.S. are now obese), and you've heard the news (this generation of children may be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents), but it's hard to know what to do differently.

Here are three common mistakes parents make that teach their toddlers bad habits, and three fixes that you can implement today.

1) The Snack Mistake

Even though nutritionists are generally in favor of the mini-meal snack as a way of steering parents away from providing truly crappy snacks, thinking about snacks as mini-meals can be a mistake. A big one.  When parents draw their mini-meal ideas from pizza and other unhealthy favorites, toddlers end up eating salty, sugary and fattening snacks. These load kids up with more calories than they need between meals, reinforce poor food preferences and train toddlers' taste buds away from fruits and vegetables.

Fix It:

  • Think beyond meal standards. Used correctly, snacks can teach your toddler to eat right by expanding, rather than restricting, food preferences.
  • Be mindful of the types of meals that are influencing your snack decisions. Pizza, bagels and cereal are the wrong kinds of meals for snacks because they have too many calories, and most toddlers already get enough of these foods.
  • Rotate fruits, vegetables, cheese and processed snack foods through the line-up in proportion to their healthful benefits.

2) The Cooking Mistake

Researchers have discovered that family cooks generally fall into one of five dominant personality profiles -- giving cooks, healthy cooks, innovative cooks, methodical cooks and competitive cooks -- and that every type of cook produces healthful eaters except one: the giving cook!

The giving cook specializes in comfort foods and traditional favorites and provides lots of home-baked goodies. Giving cooks use family favorites like lasagna and brownies to express their love. This teaches kids the wrong lessons about food and eating. It's also hard for the giving cook not to over-love, er, over-feed. You love your toddlers all the time, but should you really feed them treats that often?

It doesn't end with food=love, either. There are plenty of ways parents teach the wrong lessons around food, such as food=comfort, food=reward, food=guilt and food=punishment.

Fix It:

  • Teach your toddler about proportions by providing food in relation to their healthful benefits. Offer treats occasionally.
  • Consciously parent your toddler around food by minimizing the time food is used as a tool.
  • Teach your toddlers to use food to satisfy hunger, not to soothe a needy soul.

3) The Hunger Mistake

Did you know that there is a disconnect between how much young children need to eat and how much we parents want them to eat?

A recent study revealed that although most mothers start out letting their infants decide when to start and stop eating, sometime between 6 and 12 months, mothers become less likely to use their infant's cues -- crying, nuzzling, chewing on fingers, licking lips -- to decide when (and how much) to feed them. 

Researchers believe that mothers who use food to soothe their toddlers when they are fussy, but not hungry, may be more likely to overfeed them.

Fix It:

  • Figure out why you want your toddler to eat more and then see if your concerns are warranted.
  • Decide what you want your tot to learn about eating, and make sure that that's what you're teaching. If you want your child to respond to her own internal cues when she is older, then you can't teach her to ignore her internal cues when she is young.  If you want your toddler to have a healthy relationship with dessert, don't use it as a reward.
  • Once your lessons are on track, you need to trust your toddler.  Only she knows how much she needs to eat. And if she doesn't eat the way you would like, reevaluate the lessons your toddler needs to learn.

When toddlers learn bad eating habits early in life, they tend to eat that way throughout their lives, or struggle to reverse those habits later on. Conversely, teach toddlers the right lifelong habits when they're young and they'll have the tools they need for a lifetime of healthful eating. Starting today.

© 2011 Dina R. Rose, author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.