As parents, we hold the power to set our children up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits and a happy relationship with food and their bodies. The eating habits we enforce now, from the very beginning of their relationships with food, can determine how they will eat for the rest of their lives. But sadly, in this country (and pretty much only in this country), parents are set up for failure almost from the get-go with bad eating habits that have become the cultural norm when it comes to feeding babies, toddlers, and kids.
In my holistic nutrition practice, all of my weight loss clients have one (or more) of these three bad habits in common: snacking, emotional eating, and eating on the run. So much of the struggle with losing weight and keeping it off comes down to breaking these three bad eating habits, but when you’ve been eating that way all your life, or when you come from a household where those habits were the norm, it is much, much harder to move past them. Growing up with bad eating habits can set you up for a frustrating years long battle with weight, dieting, stress eating, body hatred, hypoglycemia, and in more extreme cases, even type 2 diabetes!
Thankfully, it’s not too late to break these bad eating habits, even if your child is no longer a toddler! But it takes commitment, and a bit of going against the grain. These bad habits are so deeply ingrained in our parenting culture that it can feel weird to be the one parent who’s kid isn’t attached to a cup of Goldfish or Cheerios. But I promise you, it is so, so worth it. You will save yourself and your child so many power struggles, tantrums, and frustrations around mealtimes. And down the road, you can feel proud that your kids have healthy eating habits and are set up for a lifetime of healthy weight, strong bodies, and efficient metabolisms.
Here are the top 5 toddler bad eating habits to break now.
I also share how these bad habits are impacting your child now, how they will impact them later in life, and what healthy habits to replace them with!
1: Using food to calm/distract/entertain your toddler
Why this is a bad habit: When we use food as a pacifying tool to calm, distract, or entertain our toddlers and kids, we are teaching them two very dangerous lessons: your feelings don’t matter, and eating is a way to feel better. Now I know there are some dire circumstances (i.e.: screaming on an airplane, bored while stuck in line at the DMV, etc.) when a cracker is the only thing that will keep everyone sane and prevent a total meltdown, and that’s fine. But food should never be your go-to when your child is upset, bored, frustrated, or cranky. The only time you should give your child food (other than the aforementioned extenuating circumstances and special occasions like birthday parties) is when they are hungry.
Long-term impact: When we learn from a young age that food is a distraction from uncomfortable feelings, we are set up for a lifetime of struggles with emotional eating. We’ve all surely had bouts of eating our feelings: burying our face in a pint of ice cream after a breakup, stress eating pretzels after a long day, grabbing snacks at work when we’re bored. The occasional bout of emotional eating is normal. But when it becomes a regular, even daily occurrence — when it becomes your go-to for dealing with stress, boredom, fatigue, or sadness — that’s when you get into big trouble. When you’re eating from an emotional place, you are more likely to eat crap, eat too much, and ultimately, feel even worse about yourself. It’s a terrible cycle that is at the root of most struggles with weight.
What to do instead:
- Anticipate your child’s needs and stick to their schedule. Most often, crankiness occurs because the eating/sleeping schedule was disrupted. If you know you’re going to be out during mealtime, pack a lunch for your little. Avoid delaying nap time whenever possible. Keep your child’s routine and individual needs in mind when you plan your day. An occasional disruption is fine, but if you’re constantly prioritizing your own schedule over your child’s needs, you are going to have a fussy, anxious kid on your hands.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Too often, we shove food in our children’s faces without acknowledging the very real feeling that they’re having. Narrate what’s happening and what feelings they are dealing with. Often times, feeling acknowledged is all they need to feel soothed. (For more on this, check out Janet Lansbury’s blog)
- Give your undivided attention. Food should never be a substitute for your attention. Most times, focusing on your toddler, talking to them or playing with them for a few moments can be enough to “refuel” them for a time.
- A special toy that you save for when the going gets rough. For us, it’s a little purse filled with “grown up” objects: a wallet, toy phone, a squirt bottle, a silicone chew bracelet. Going through her little “purse” keeps M occupied for quite a bit, and is a savior for travel, longer car rides, or when we’re out and about running errands for a longer stretch of time.
- Water. This is another one I turn to a lot. A sip of water, and sucking on a straw cup, can be very soothing to a cranky kid. I love our Pura Kiki Stainless Steel Water Bottle and so does little M!
- A lovey or comfort object. Sometimes, just snuggling their comfort object, like a favorite lovey or stuffed animal, can be enough to soothe a toddler when they’re getting cranky. If your toddler doesn’t have a comfort object yet, now is the time to get one! They are wonderful for sleep, time away from mom, travel, and transitions.
2: Excessive reliance on snacking
Why this is a bad habit: This is a tough one for many American parents to get over, because snacking is so ingrained in our culture. Contrary to what you may have heard, snacking throughout the day is not a healthy eating habit, which is a secret that most of the rest of the world is privy to. Snacking fills up your toddler so they eat less during actual mealtimes; it raises insulin levels; it can cause overeating; and it sets the body up for poor metabolic functioning down the road.
Most other cultures, and indeed, the healthiest and slimmest cultures in the world, eschew snacking for three square meals a day. This is how our bodies are meant to digest food, and how our ancestors consumed it. Now to be clear, little bodies eat less than adults, and there are definitely times when a healthy snack is necessary — if mealtime is delayed, if your toddler doesn’t nurse or drink milk (or milk alternative) at all, or if your toddler didn’t eat much at their last meal, for example. But if you find that your toddler routinely needs several snacks between meals, there’s a good chance those meals aren’t providing the balanced nutrition they need (or that they’re eating for comfort or out of boredom).
Most toddlers who still nurse or drink milk need no more than one snack a day, between lunch and dinner. The snack should be regular, routinized, and scheduled, really more like a mini-meal than a snack. Toddlers who no longer nurse and don’t really drink milk (or milk alternatives) may need two scheduled snacks, one mid-morning, and one mid-afternoon. Food should not be offered outside of these scheduled mealtimes!
Long-term impact: When we grow up snacking, we continue that habit throughout our lives. Snackers are much more likely to become hypoglycemic, to struggle with weight, and to spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about food. As adults, eating three healthy meals a day, with minimal snacks, helps our body to burn body fat for fuel, helps to stabilize our blood sugar and speed up metabolism, and allows us to focus on other things between meals.
What to do instead: The right healthy eating habits eliminate over-reliance on snacking!
- Institute regular mealtimes. Children, especially toddlers, thrive on routine. Having a set mealtime schedule that you try not to veer from too often teaches a toddler’s body when to expect food and encourages them to eat more during their set mealtimes, therefore minimizing between-meal hunger. If you find that a snack between lunch and dinner is necessary, make it scheduled and routinized, just like every other meal.
- Create eating rituals. Meals should be enjoyed seated, at a table. And this goes for a scheduled snack as well! The biggest problem with snacking is when it becomes an all-day, on the go habit, as opposed to a scheduled mini-meal. Follow the same healthy mealtime rituals (hand washing, sitting down, no screens, etc.) for all your child’s meals, including their scheduled snack, and avoid eating on the go, in the stroller or car, or while playing.
- Encourage balanced meals. If a “meal” for your toddler is some fruit, a baby food pouch, or cheese and crackers, they will of course be hungry between meals! Just because your littles are little, doesn’t mean their bodies don’t need actual meals. A balanced toddler meal includes vegetables (preferably something green), a healthy, clean protein (beans, organic tofu, eggs, low-mercury fish, organic chicken, or occasional dairy), an optional whole grain (brown rice, oats, quinoa), and a small serving of fruit. If you are overdoing it with one of these food groups while neglecting another, your child will not receive the fuel they need to stay satiated until their next meal.
- Breastfeed or offer a healthy milk or milk alternative for the first 2-3 years. Nursing your toddler when they wake, before or after naps, and before bed gives them some added healthy fats and fuel to “fill in the blanks” between meals. If you’re not breastfeeding, offering a cup of hemp or almond milk (with added coconut oil to increase the fat content) works just fine. If you want to give cow’s milk, make sure it is well-sourced from grass-fed cows, organic, and full fat. When we eventually consolidate our daytime nursing sessions, I’ll be giving M a cup of homemade almond milk with added coconut oil to tide her over between lunch and dinner.
- Offer a healthy fat with every meal. Often times, littles get hungry between meals because they are not getting enough healthy fats in their diet. Avocados, fatty fish, nuts and nut butters, coconut oil, organic grass-fed butter, full fat organic yogurt, and organic full-fat cheese (though I recommend going easy on this one) are all great options, one of which should be included at every meal. Encourage variety between dairy and non-dairy options.
- Model regular eating. If you yourself are a “grazer” or snacker, this is the habit your child will pick up on. Set regular mealtimes for yourself as well, so your child doesn’t see you eating between meals. If it’s not something they see happening, they will be much less likely to request food between meals!
- Keep them hydrated. Often times thirst is mistaken for hunger (in kids as well as adults), and food is given when water was all that the body needed! Keep a water bottle with you at all times, and regular offer water to your toddler throughout the day.
3: Eating on the go
Why this is a bad habit: It is a common occurrence in this country to see kids walking around with food, eating while being pushed in their strollers, or being fed piecemeal while they’re busy playing or doing other things. This is a bad habit for several reasons: first, it discourages the healthy habit of mindfully eating a full, balanced meal, seated at the table. Second, it is a safety hazard — eating while walking, running or playing increases the risk of choking. Thirdly, distracted eating on the go means being less connected to the body’s signs of hunger and fullness, which can lead to over or under-eating. Lastly, eating on the go usually means eating packaged or processed foods, which are not a nutritious food option for growing bodies (see number 4 below).
Long-term impact: The bad habit of eating on the go is one that so many of us are guilty of as adults. Grabbing a quick sandwich while walking to a meeting or eating a protein bar in the car, while sometimes more convenient than sitting down to an actual meal, leads to unhealthy food choices, not feeling satisfied (which leads to overeating later), nutrient deficiency, and stress. If you’re eating on the go, it also means you’re not taking time out of your day to refuel and take care of your body, the effects of which can permeate many areas of your health: weight gain, breakouts, hormonal imbalances, chronic stress, anxiety and depression just to name a few.
What to do instead:
- Institute regular mealtimes. Just like with avoiding excessive snacking, it is super important to keep regular mealtimes in mind when you are planning your day to avoid eating on the run. If you find that you are regularly missing your toddler’s mealtimes, you might be over-scheduling them!
- Pack a lunch to bring with you. If you know you’ll be out and about during your and your child’s mealtime, pack a healthy lunch or stop to eat at a healthy restaurant (read: NO FAST FOOD!!!). I love our little LunchBots stainless steel bento box, which I pack with a healthy meal and bring along whenever we’re out during mealtime.
- Institute a “bottoms down” rule when eating. If your child is eating, they must be seated, always. In a highchair or other seat, in your lap, or seated in front of you. Not only is this much safer from a choking perspective, it also encourages mindful eating of a meal, as opposed to distracted eating on the go.
- Model healthy eating habits. Again, if your toddler sees you eating on the go all the time, they will think that’s an acceptable option. Share meals with your little, seated at the table together to really engrain the concept of what mealtimes should look like. And follow the suggestions above for yourself as well!
4: Relying on packaged or processed foods.
Why this is a bad habit: While having a baby food pouch or some crackers on hand can save you in a pinch, these packaged foods should not make up a significant part of your child’s eating. Healthy food does not come from a pouch, box, or bag (with a few exceptions), and starting your child’s relationship to eating with a reliance on packaged foods sets them up for a lifetime of poor eating choices. We want our children to see that real food comes not from a takeout container, box, or bag, but from the farmer’s market, the vibrant produce aisles of the grocery store, or from mama’s (or dad’s) loving efforts in the kitchen.
Regularly eating processed or packaged foods, even the “healthy” varieties, creates a confused definition for your child about what real, healthy eating looks like, which is very difficult to overcome later in life. And, of course, relying on packaged or processed foods robs your beautiful growing child of the vital nutrients that only fresh, whole foods can provide! Remember, we are literally providing the building blocks for their bodies and future health, right now, with every bite they take! We of course want to make sure we are using only the highest quality building materials!
With all that in mind, I recognize that there are certain circumstances when it is a lifesaver to have a healthy, packaged option on hand (travel, eating out where you’re not familiar with the options, etc.). There are some great brands like Plum Organics, Happy Baby Organics, and Sprout Organics that offer some healthy options, but even so, there are a few things to look out for. With pouches, make sure the sugar level is low, and vegetables are ahead of fruit in the ingredient list. With crackers, make sure they are are made from sprouted whole wheat or brown rice, as opposed to white rice (and in general, try to limit crackers, cookies, and puffs — they really don’t provide much nutritional value at all). But again, these are for special circumstances, and not to be used daily. If you find that you are relying on packaged/processed foods daily, you may need to revisit some of the ideas above (like respecting mealtimes and avoiding snacking).
Long-term impact: This one is fairly obvious. If you grow up thinking packaged, processed foods are real food, that will be your go-to as an adult. And as we all know, a diet high in packaged, processed foods can lead to weight gain, cravings, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, and a whole slew of related health problems. So many of the chronic health problems we have in this country stem from our cultural reliance on fake foods. Let’s start our littles off right.
What to do instead:
- Meal plan for the week. Planning our your meals and cooking a few things ahead of time for the week will mean that there is always some real, healthy food on hand to feed your child or bring along. Even if I don’t plan out the whole family’s meals each week, I always make sure to whip up a batch of bean patties, grilled salmon, and steamed or roasted veggies to have on hand, which means I never need to resort to packaged foods when we’re home! Need recipe ideas? Check out my Pinterest board of healthy recipes for the kiddos!
- If you don’t cook, keep no-cook healthy foods on hand. Cans of organic low-sodium beans and wild caught sardines are go-to’s in our house, and combined with a veggie and some fruit, they make up a 2 minute meal that is a total no brainer! Other options are ready to eat fresh fruit and veggies like avocados, cucumbers, and tomatoes for the little ones, and all other raw veggies for when your toddler has all their teeth.
- Stock up on healthy prepared foods. Whole Foods or your other local health food store is the perfect place to get organic rotisserie chicken, grilled salmon, roasted veggies, and bean salads for the week!
- Model healthy eating. If packaged or processed foods, or unhealthy takeout options make up a large part of your own eating, that is what your child will learn from. Having a little one watching your every move is the perfect excuse (if your own health isn’t enough of one!) to finally clean up your own eating.
- Simplify meals. A lot of parents get overwhelmed by the prospect of cooking real foods for their kids because they think it involves a whole huge production. Well it doesn’t have to! I spend no more than 30-40 minutes a week, TOTAL, cooking for little M, and she eats a super healthy homemade diet of whole, nutritious foods. Again, some beans, avocado, and blueberries are a lovely 2 minute meal! Add some quinoa, and you’re mom of the year.
5: Giving in to picky eating
Why this is a bad habit: This one is a bit controversial, I know. But hear me out. Giving in to your child’s refusal to eat the healthy foods you’ve put in front of them sets a dangerous precedent. It makes them feel like they’re in charge, leads to power struggles and manipulations around eating. It also leads to the dreaded limited palate that some kids develop (i.e.: only eating white foods, or a diet limited to mac and cheese and chicken fingers). Now I’m not implying that you should force your child to eat foods they hate, but it is your job to introduce your little to a wide variety of healthy foods, and never “give up” and just feed them what is easy (like mac and cheese). If they don’t eat what’s in front of them, that’s fine! But it is not your job to then go into the kitchen and make them something else, just to get them to eat. Eventually, they will eat! And it’s important to keep in mind that toddlers generally eat less than babies, and to gauge their overall eating, we have to look at the whole week, not just a single day.
Long-term impact: I have several adult clients who come to me with super limited “mono-diets” or extreme pickiness. Refusing to eat vegetables, for example, is completely unacceptable for an adult. But these habits become ingrained in childhood — 9 times out of 10, super finicky adult eaters were indulged as children by parents who allowed them to eat unhealthy or unbalanced meals just to get them to eat. Developing a broad palate for a variety of healthy foods is much more difficult as an adult than as a child. So make sure to set your littles up for success from the start!
What to do instead:
- Offer a variety of foods from the start. It is your job to offer the food; your child can decide whether or not to eat it. But keep offering rejected foods regularly. One day, my toddler hates broccoli, the next day it’s her favorite food. There was a week when she refused fish, but I kept at it, and soon she was back to loving her salmon and sardines. If we give up too soon and feed them “easy” foods (which usually means unbalanced foods higher in sugar, dairy, or processed ingredients), we are robbing our children of the opportunity to develop their palates.
- Don’t play the short order cook. This is hard, I know, and I struggle with it myself. But when I stay true to this rule, the finicky behavior goes away often by the next day, if not by the next meal. If your toddler refuses what’s in front of them, that’s fine! They’ll eat again in a few hours.
- Experiment with different modes of delivery. Sometimes, toddlers refuse to self-feed and want to be fed by mom, or want to use a fork. Sometimes they get overwhelmed by a plate full of food in front of them and need to be given just two or three pieces at a time. Try a few different modes of delivery before you give up on the particular food or the meal.
- Avoid packaged baby/toddler food. Even the healthiest, organic packaged baby or toddler food has one thing in common, it is too SWEET. Fruit is often the first ingredient in these pouches, crackers, or puffs that are marketed towards littles, which further entrenches children’s preference for sweet foods. If they are used to getting lots of sweet foods, it is a lot harder to get them interested in broccoli or quinoa, or other savory healthy foods.
- Encourage self-feeding. What I love about the baby-led weaning approach to eating (learn more about how I started with this type of feeding) is that it puts more control in the baby’s hands (literally), which encourages much more adventurous eating. We skipped purees and baby food and went straight to real, whole foods, which helped little M develop her broad palate and become an awesome eater!
- Feed them real food from the start. Skip the kids menu and feed your toddlers real food, like what you’re eating (provided it’s healthy ; ). Even if you gave your baby purees in the beginning, by now they are ready to eat real, flavorful, fun foods. Avoid the bland kid-food trap, which increases the odds of a limited palate and picky eating.