Nurturing Healthy Eating Habits- Geelong Surf Coast Living Magazine

This article was originally published in the Geelong Surf Coast Living Magazine- Spring Edition 2017 (page 153).  Published quarterly in line with the seasons, the Geelong Surf Coast Living Magazine has become the biggest and most sought after coffee table lifestyle publication in the region. Beautifully designed and presented, each edition of Geelong + Surf Coast Living hosts an abundance of stories featuring locals excelling in a range of areas.

Did you know that a toddler who refuses to try a new food at least half of the time is a fussy eater?  The Better Health Channel reports that approximately half of all toddlers fit this description. Eight out of ten Australian parents are concerned about their child’s eating habits, with one third of parents worry that their child isn’t eating enough.

Establishing healthy eating patterns in toddlers is important to avoid problems such as obesity and eating disorders later in life.  Here are our top four tips to help your toddler establish positive eating behaviours:

1.  Understand your Responsibilities at a Mealtime

Children are born with an ability to regulate their hunger and fullness.  They naturally eat what their body needs for growth and development, given the right opportunities. When parents provide too much or too little control during mealtime, they can disrupt their children's ability to listen to internal satiety cues.  

Leading researcher in mealtime behaviour, Dr. Ellyn Satter advises that to achieve mealtime success, parents need to understand that their child is responsible for whether they eat and if so, how much they eat.   

What does it look like in practice?  You provide a meal, including at least one ‘liked’ food at regular intervals throughout the day (at least 2 hours apart).  You provide food in a comfortable space e.g. the kitchen table.  You avoid putting pressure on your child to eat; neither reward nor punish eating behaviour (e.g. eat your carrots, then you can have dessert) and allow the child to decide how much of a meal they eat.

2. Eat Together

Toddlers copy what they see.  Eating together as a family gives you a chance to show your child not only how to eat but also how to enjoy food. Want your child to sit at the table, try a range of food and use a fork?  If they see you do it, they are more likely to do it too! Eating together fosters a relaxed environment where the focus is on conversation and each other, rather than what your child is or isn’t eating.

There are many social, emotional and physical benefits of eating together with your children.  Researchers at Harvard University have been studying family mealtimes for fifteen years.  They have found regular family mealtimes reduce the risk of depression and anxiety, increase a child’s resilience, reduces the risk of drug and alcohol abuse and teen pregnancies.  They found that family dinners increase your child’s vocabulary, more than if you read regularly to them (of course, doing both is great).  What else could you do with your child for less than 30 minutes a day that has such great outcomes?  While they report there is no ‘magic number’ of family mealtimes a week, they recommend aiming for 5.  Family mealtimes can be at breakfast, lunch or dinner.

3. Establish a Routine

Toddlers thrive on routine.  Not only do they benefit from set mealtimes spaced at least 2 hours apart throughout the day, they benefit from routines within mealtimes.  Always have a clear start, middle and end to your meal.  Get your child to help you prepare food, set the table or push their chair into position.  During the middle of the meal make it your routine to ask about the favourite part of their day and not focus on the food that they are eating.  At the end of a meal include a clear pack up routine such as scraping scraps into the bin.  It is important for your child to know that a mealtime is finished and that the ‘kitchen is closed’ until the next meal or snack time. This stops them being distracted by eating at other times, and repeatedly asking you for snacks.

4.  Have Fun

Children learn new skills by having fun.  Eating is a skill.  Throw the old rule ‘you shouldn’t play with your food’ out the window!  Exploring food helps children to become familiar with it and understand the sensory properties (e.g. feel, smell, look) of a food before putting it in their mouth.  If your child doesn’t like broccoli, you can pretend they are trees and you are a dinosaur chomping on it.  Fun takes the pressure and stress away from a meal.  When a child is happy, they will be more willing to explore and try new food.  They will also have a larger appetite if they are not feeling stressed.  

Eating is a journey and for your child they might have some foods they are still learning about.  Learn to Eat. Love to Eat. provides real life, professional advice to help you and your child enjoy mealtimes.  We run a range of workshops about starting solids and fussy toddler eating in Geelong and Melbourne.  To find out more go to www.learntoeat.com.au.  You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @learntoeat.lovetoeat for tips, articles and family meal ideas.

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