You might have seen some articles floating around discussing a new study on what children are eating. The takeaway of the study is- your kids are eating too much junk and not enough wholesome fruits and vegetables. They start off eating really well as babies, but by the time they are toddlers you've gone and mucked it all up. Turns out, the new junk food and toddlers study is a little bit junky itself.
First of all, it is based on the child’s caregiver recalling what a child ate. You don’t know how many times I’ve had a parent tell me “she never eats vegetables!” and I’ve sat and watched a toddler happily suck on a piece of cucumber, eat one bit of carrot, one bite of celery, have her pasta with a little smudge of tomato sauce…and have it all add up to much more vegetable consumption than the parent's original impression. Toddlers are tiny people- their “serving size” for a vegetable is 1-2 Tbsp. This means all the little bites and tastes add up. That half chewed up apple slice might look like garbage that she didn’t eat to you, but that could be a full serving of fruit. Estimating toddlers intake is something I find challenging, and I'm trained to do it- any study relying on a variety of people's perceptions is going to cover a lot of extremes. My "two servings" could be your "zero servings".
Regardless of methods, perhaps the most important thing to recognize in this study is the fact that the gentleman doing the analysis, Victor Fulgoni, is a consultant for the baby food company Beech-Nut Nutrition. Registered dietitian Nicole Silber, who also works for Beech-Nut, stated:
“In fact, research shows that babies have more balanced diets between 6 to 8 months when they are given baby food. This is why I recommend that parents keep baby food in the mix a bit longer, either on its own or by incorporating baby food into the process of transitioning to table foods.”
So. There is an angle. This is the reality of food being an industry- people are going to try and sell things to you. It doesn’t mean there is something inherently malicious or invalid about this study, but we must understand that there is a clear bias present.
Selling guilt works.
This Washington Post article explicitly blames parents for the poor eating habits of children. They imply that parents are giving these foods to kids basically because it's cute, and then become trapped (by the child I guess?) into having to have these junk foods on a regular rotation. This completely removes any responsibility from the aggressively marketed “kids' food” industry. There is a lot of money to be made by convincing parents that kids need their own food, special food, not that homemade family foodstuff that everyone else is eating. Kids are too sensitive- not developed enough, not adventurous enough. They must have kid food! To be a good parent, you must provide food that is organic, colourful, fun, and fortified. Oh, and now, according to this new study, you need to include baby food in it for longer too. Don’t you want your child to be healthy? Don't you love them?
I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you feed your family. Are you a monster of a parent? Probably not. You are someone feeding a developing human, whose development sometimes makes feeding a challenge, within an environment that tells you that you and your family foods are inadequate in order to sell you products.
It's not the best environment to parent in. It makes it hard to feel like you are doing a good job with feeding. So, let’s talk a bit about toddlers, and what it’s like to feed them.
Toddlers are naturally suspicious.
When your baby was snuggled on your chest, a purring machine of endless bodily functions, she trusted you completely ("she" pronoun is used arbitrarily- this applies to all genders of children). She didn’t know that she was separate from you yet- you were extensions of each other, and she didn’t have to monitor her environment because that was done by you. When you introduced foods, she might have been an angel baby- eating kale chips, grapefruit, sushi..."In the clear, she's not a picky eater" you may have thought.
Toddlers are starting to understand that they are their own little people, and part of this process means that they become a very wary bunch. Their brain has developed enough to become skeptical of their environment, but not enough to think or reason to a point where they are able to get more comfortable. Your toddler is not capable of asking the questions she would need to ask in order to understand things- she doesn’t have the words or ideas in place yet.
Think about this in the context of food- she doesn’t know what it is made of, where it comes from, or how it is prepared. Even if she could ask questions about it, where would she even begin? The only way she can get more comfortable with it is to explore it, at her own pace. Foods that you thought she had accepted, she now isn't so sure about. What she loved last week, this week she is extremely suspicious of. She is officially in a stage of continuous, sometimes convoluted and erratic, exploration of her food.
When it comes to food, skepticism is not rejection, though we often interpret it as such. Each meal that has foods that are even slightly different is an invitation for anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if she has the chance to go at her own pace. Continuing to matter-of-factly introduce foods to her gives her an opportunity to manage her own caution and learn about these new, interesting things in her world. She needs to be able to look at it, look at other people enjoying it, touch it, put it in her mouth and then take it out, and eventually become comfortable enough to swallow.
You might offer your toddler a bit of your favourite dish- whether that be pâté chinoise, spaghetti, haam daan ju yoke beng, or a deli sandwich- and she could leave it totally untouched on her plate. You might write that off as a failure- “well, she doesn’t like it." In reality, she has already started exploring it. She accepted its presence on her plate, and she got to look more closely at it. She got to watch you eating it, and make note of the fact that you didn’t spit it out, turn a weird colour, or become violently ill.
Studies have shown it can take more than 20 different exposures to a new food before we fully accept it. I don’t know how many times I have been exposed to olives, but I think it took me a lot more than 20 exposures, and a lot more spitting into napkins than I’d like to boast, before I came to accept them. Every exposure isn’t evidence of rejection, but part of a long process of exploration.
Give your toddler family foods.
Toddlers and kids don’t need special kids' foods- they can be very convenient, and part of a varied diet, but they aren't necessary. They do need to be given opportunities to explore foods at their own pace, to learn to eat the food their family eats. Society has set up the expectation of what they are supposed to like- but they don’t know what toddlers are supposed to eat, they literally just got here and are way more interested in how much of the dogs ear they can get into their mouth before you notice than what our cultural saga on toddler feeding is all about. Let them take their time to warm up to foods, but don’t underestimate what foods they can warm up to.
Trust that your toddler has an internal drive to explore foods, and become a competent eater. “I DO IT” is something of an anthem for toddlers everywhere. They want to do it- and we can give the chance to. We can feed our children well, and I don't believe that adding more baby food to their diets is the magic bullet to do this.
How to actually serve family foods to your toddler:
- Serve very small portions to cut down on food waste- literally 1-2 spoonfuls.
- A particularly cautious toddler might not be ready to accept a new food on their plate. “Can I put this here?” as you offer a serving spoon of the new food is a good question to ask. Accept a “no." There’s always next time.
- At a meal, make sure there are at least 1-2 things that they are comfortable with and usually accept. A couple of foods, whether that's a basket of bread, big bowl of rice, glass of milk, tray of crackers, steamed broccoli, boiled egg, or a dish of pickles, let's them know “okay, there is going to be something for me to eat even if I’m not sure about that new food over there.”
- Let them have as much as they want of their “safe foods." They will be more likely to explore if they know you aren’t going to restrict the foods they feel comfortable with. This might mean there will be some meals where they only eat bread- that's fine. Rome wasn't built in a day, and a competent eater wasn't created in a single meal. Pushing your child to eat things they don't want is counterproductive of the long term goal of being able to accept a variety of new foods.
- Present new foods without fanfare. You can describe the foods- “this is crumbly, sort of like a cracker. It’s salty, and has some spices. Your grandmother used to make it for me when I was a little girl.” Then leave it at that- don’t push for “just one bite," no “you’ll like it” or exaggerated “MMMmmm this is SOO good”. She knows what you are doing- this is pressure, and it makes her feel like she isn’t doing a good job. This can take a meal from a low to high anxiety in just a moment, and no exploration can happen when your toddler is overwhelmed with anxiety. That pushes them to retreat back to safe, familiar foods.
- Toddlers are terrible menu planners. Let them make decisions about what they eat at the table, not at the pantry or fridge. You can play the middle-manager role here- “this is just the way it is, this is how the universe was created, this is just what has to be for dinner”. As long as there is something on the table that they find acceptable and can eat if they are hungry, this isn’t cruel. The uncertainty of not knowing exactly what to say to get the thing they want from the pantry can produce anxiety, which is not pleasant for your toddler. “I love you too much to negotiate” is a line I love from eating experts Katja Rowell (MD) and Jenny McGlothlin (MS, SLP).
- Your kids are not going to like everything- they are their own individuals with their own evolving palates, and they will get to decide what they like as they continue to explore food. We get to have preferences as adults, and we all have things we don't like very much. There are some foods your kid will never, ever like, and that's totally normal.
My ideas and thoughts are heavily influenced by Ellyn Satter. She is the creator of the Division of Responsibilities in Feeding, "Child of Mine", "Your Child's Weight", and "Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family". I don't directly refer to her in this post, but want to reference her as a leader in the field of pediatric feeding. You will continue to hear more about her work from me, and I would recommend heading over to her website and check out her stuff if you want to read more about feeding your kids.