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Is Your Toddler Eating Too Much Junk Food?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

It’s hard to get children to eat right. Numerous studies recently have pointed to food patterns established in early childhood as the beginning of eating habits, good and bad, that extend for years into the future. So the logical question to ask is, “What are the very youngest eaters eating?”

Researchers in Australia set out to do just that. They asked parents to recall everything their young toddlers (ages 12 to 16 months) consumed in the past 24 hours. Go ahead. Do that yourself right now. What did your child eat from the moment he or she woke up yesterday to the moment he or she woke up this morning?

Over 550 parents took part in the study. They reported that children ate the most of dairy foods and cereals. A quarter of the children were breastfed during the time period and another 32% of children drank formula. Although the study didn’t identify cereals specifically, typical American toddlers often eat dry breakfast cereal as finger foods, cooked cereals as spoon foods, and various teething biscuits and crackers.

Most children ate at least some fruits and vegetables (87% and 77%) but half the children ate just tiny amounts of meat or meat alternatives. The more formula toddlers consumed, the less diverse were their diets overall. A whopping 91% of children ate “discretionary items” – that is, snacks, sweets, and other low-nutrient foods.

What about your own child? How much did your child eat that was dairy, cereal, fruits, vegetables, and high quality protein like meat? How much did your child eat that was “discretionary”? How diverse is your own child’s diet?

Although certainly year-old children are just beginning on their dietary adventure and still rely on breast milk or formula for a substantial part of their nutrition, what is offered to children and what they eat tends to be pretty limited.  To avoid future eating disorders and to promote the best growth now, here are some ideas to consider.

  1. Offer a variety of nutrient-dense foods, like bits of fruit and vegetable, cubes of cheese, tender or pureed meats and fish. What you serve the rest of the family is ideal as the basis of your toddler’s diet so long as you give him some of all of what is served, not just the starchy foods.
  2. Limit less-nutritious foods like crackers and biscuits. Don’t be fooled by nutritious-sounding foods like fruit juice, fruit-flavored yogurt, and kiddie meals of all sorts. Become a reader of labels and choose foods that are low in sugars and fat and list only a few ingredients.
  3. Avoid completely nutrition-free foods like candy, cookies, chips, soda, non-carbonated drinks and drink mixes, Jello, and desserts. If you can’t avoid feeding these to your child (but why?), limit your child to less than one serving per day of this entire class of edibles.
  4. Make water your child’s snack beverage. If it’s not time to drink milk, then plain water should be his thirst-quencher. Not watered down juice or water with any sort of additives. Just water.

Remember that children will not starve themselves. There is no need to feed poor food to a toddler simply because “that’s all she likes.” And there is every reason to start now to accustom your child to a diverse diet of healthy foods.

Good nutrition starts early. Don’t miss your chance to get your child off to a healthy start.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.