Understanding a Child's Eating Habits

With the junk food surrounding your child, it is important to understand their eating habits. See more parenting pictures.
©2006 Publicaitons International, Ltd.

As your child moves out of the toddler stage and has a more active role in what he eats, you will naturally lose a little of the control you've previously had over your child's diet. While this independence is a natural part of raising a child, it is important that a parent tries to give their child a healthy attitude about food. As obesity becomes an ever-growing problem in children, understanding a child's eating habits and proper nutrition has become more important now than ever. In this article, we will explore you child's growing relationship with the food he eats in the following sections:

  • Teaching a Child Self-Feeding When your child learns how to feed himself, his true dietary independence begins. On this page, we will tell you what you need to know about this important phase in your baby's development. We will show you the signs that you child might be getting read to self-feed, and show you the three steps of learning to self-feed -- the transitional period, the modified adult period, and the toddler period. We will also show you what are the best snacks to give your child during these various stages to encourage them to feed themselves.
  • Instilling Good Eating Habits in a Child Once children are able to feed themselves you will have virtually no control of what they can eat when you're not around. This is why it is important to attempt to instill good eating habits in your child at young age. In this section, we will give you some advice for giving your child a positive and healthy attitude toward food. In particular, we will focus on salt and sugar -- two elements of a healthy diet that can be detrimental if eaten in excess.
  • Obesity and Children One of the most alarming health epidemics in the country today is the rate of obesity in teens and young children. Obesity can lead to type 2 diabetes and many more health complications later in life. There are, however, steps a parent can take -- even when the child in an infant -- that can set patterns that will discourage obesity as your child grows older. We will give you some suggestions to develop these patterns, as well as give you some guidelines for when you should be concerned that your child is becoming obese.
  • How to Deal With a Child Who is a Picky Eater Children can become picky eaters for a variety of reasons. Some children feel that the food they take into their bodies is one of the few areas they alone can control and assert some independence from their parents. Some children may just like to indulge their favorite foods and reject new tastes and textures. Regardless of the reason, in this section, you will find several tips to stop your child from becoming a picky eater. We will also caution you against the inclination to use food as a reward with your child.

Teaching a Child Self-Feeding

The ability to place objects into his mouth is the first sign that your baby is getting ready to feed himself.
The ability to place objects into his mouth is the first sign that your baby is getting ready to feed himself.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Your baby may be ready to help feed herself when she sits with stability in her high chair, can put objects into her mouth, has begun some chewing motions, and perhaps holds breast or bottle in her hands while feeding. You both benefit from her attempts to feed independently. Though the process may be much slower and is definitely messier than when you feed her, the advantages of letting her try are many.

She feels good making her fingers, body, and mouth cooperate as she attempts to satisfy her hunger. Feeding herself stimulates all her senses and provides a wonderful learning experience. She tastes and smells the food. She feels the texture and temperature on her fingers as she reaches, chews, and swallows her food. She enjoys the click the spoon makes on her dish. And she likes the bright colors of many of her food choices.

The Transitional Period

At six months, your baby can put objects into her mouth. She explores her world through her mouth, which makes this time perfect to begin some finger foods. She can also sit with little support. By seven months, she may have some teeth and may begin to make chewing motions with her mouth. She can hold a small bottle by herself and may begin to take liquids from a cup with help.

While she cannot be expected to feed herself all her foods at this stage, she can participate by feeding herself some foods. She can also have finger foods for snacks.

Finger foods appropriate for your child during this transitional period include those that dissolve easily in the mouth, such as the following:

  • Small pieces of toast
  • Small pieces of cooked vegetables, such as peas, squash, soft carrots, or broccoli
  • Self-feeding is a major step for your baby.
  • Small pieces of very soft meat, such as fish without bones, chicken without skin or bones, or hamburger
  • Small pieces of ripe peaches, bananas, pears, or other soft fruit
  • Small pieces of soft cheese, such as Monterey Jack or Colby (unless there is evidence of a milk intolerance or allergy)
  • Cheerios or puffed rice

Avoid foods that may cause choking. Do not offer the following during the first year:

  • Any dried fruits, such as apricots, raisins, dates, pineapple, or coconut
  • Any nuts, such as walnuts or peanuts
  • Popcorn, potato chips, corn chips, or crackers that do not dissolve well
  • Hard candy of any kind
  • Uncooked vegetables, such as carrots or celery
  • Hot dogs and other foods that might be of windpipe size

Bath time is an excellent time to teach your baby to drink from a cup. She will enjoy the challenge, and you will not need to contend with a mess on the floor or her clothes. Use a plastic shot glass or plastic nipple cover as the first cup; the smaller diameter of the opening makes it easier for her to manage with her small mouth. You can offer breast milk, formula, or juice from a cup.

If you bottle-feed, your baby may enjoy helping you hold her bottle. Let her participate by pulling the nipple in and out of her mouth and adjusting the angle of the bottle. Avoid putting her to bed with her bottle, though; as she falls asleep, less saliva bathes her teeth, and she swallows less often. Some milk may pool in her mouth and support the growth of bacteria, which leads to tooth decay. She could even choke.

Modified Adult Period

By the time your baby is eight months old, she can sit without support and reach for a cup and spoon. She may be able to lift a cup by herself. When she is full, she lets you know by turning away from her food or playing with it.

Since she cannot feed herself well yet from a spoon, you can help her by teaching her how to grasp it in her hand and move her hand toward her dish. A good way to begin is to let her hold a spoon while you feed her with another spoon. Every several bites, help her load her spoon and bring it to her mouth. Use foods that stick well to the spoon, such as cereal, mashed potatoes, or thick mashed banana. Lots of praise and acceptance of spills encourage her to learn.

Use a small cup at mealtimes with a small amount of milk or water (to save you work if the contents spill). Or use a cup with a no-spill lid. She will probably need help at first just learning to hold on to the cup without spilling and, of course, she needs your approval.

By nine months, she can chew easily and can bite off a chunk of food from a larger piece. Her pincer grasp (ability to pick up objects with thumb and forefinger) is well developed. Foods appropriate at this age include strips of soft cheese or toast, strips of bread with cheese melted on top, peeled cucumber cut into small pieces, cooked green beans and broccoli spears, wedges of fresh pears or peaches, or slices of banana. She will do well with peas and blueberries, too. She still needs lots of chances to use a spoon and cup.

By ten months, your baby may do well with a cup and may enjoy feeding herself much of her meal. By 11 months, she is able to drink several swallows from her cup at a time. She enjoys squashing foods in her fingers, appreciating the feel and texture. By 12 months, she may be quite proficient with her utensils and may prefer to feed herself most of her meal.

Vegetables stalks are a good, nutritious food that is easy for your child to handle. Vegetables stalks are a good, nutritious food that is easy for your child to handle.
Vegetables stalks are a good, nutritious food that is easy for your child to handle.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

At this age she may also enjoy the new skill of deliberately spitting. These last few months of the baby's first year offer parents special challenges in feeding. Creativity in planning nutritious meals your baby can feed herself helps your baby to become independent at the table. Make it easy on yourself by giving your baby no more food than she can quickly and easily eat or drink.

She can always have more put on her plate or in her cup if she finishes. Putting small amounts of food and beverage within reach of your baby helps reduce some of the messiness of this stage. Tipping over bowls and cups and watching your reaction are great fun, and spitting is sure to grab your attention. Remember: Sometimes ignoring a behavior you do not like ends the behavior more quickly than expressing surprise or displeasure.

The Toddler Period

Your toddler can manage cup and spoon with ease. She can chew well and take foods she has difficulty chewing out of her mouth with her fingers. She may be a messy eater who may express some strong food preferences. She also has a diminished appetite at this stage, corresponding with her slower rate of growth.

Mealtimes call for creativity and patience on your part. Your toddler needs foods she can easily eat by herself. Since her appetite is not large, take advantage of snack times as well as mealtimes to provide her with nutritious foods.

Try offering vegetable strips as snacks. To make zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower more interesting, try a yogurt dip with dill seasoning. Fortify milk shakes with wheat germ and fruit. You might also try adding a small amount of grated carrot, apple, or zucchini to pancakes.

Always offer nutritious foods. Then you can relax and avoid the food battles that result from forcing foods on a resistant toddler.

Once your child is able to feed himself you will lose a lot of control of what your child eats. The best way to feel confident about what your child is eating is to make sure they know how to make good food choices. We'll learn how to instill good eating habits in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Instilling Good Eating Habits in a Child

Your nightly meals will be your child's first example of a healthy attitude towards food.
Your nightly meals will be your child's first example of a healthy attitude towards food.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Your attitudes about nutrition and the foods you eat directly affect the development of your child's food attitudes and habits. You are your child's first model of how to eat and what to eat. Take time to consider your use of salt and the amount of fat and sugar you consume. Think about which of your dietary habits you want to pass on to your child. Are there modifications you would make? Right now is a good time to make changes in your diet, if change is necessary, so your eating habits are in harmony with what you want for your baby.

Informing yourself about what constitutes a good diet for your baby and growing child is a good place to start. You will learn that, in excess, salt is not a healthy additive to your baby's diet or your own. You will learn, too, that Americans consume far more sugar than they need, which may contribute in part to obesity and tooth decay.

Although fat should not be restricted for children younger than two years of age, older children, like adult Americans, consume too much dietary fat, which is a risk factor for heart disease, obesity, and some types of cancer. As you grow to understand more about your child's nutritional needs and his normal growth and development, you will see why food battles occur in some families. You will also learn to recognize when it is normal for your child to be picky or to dawdle over his meal.

Salt

The American diet contains, on the average, ten times more sodium (one of the chemicals in salt) than is required for good health. You get sodium naturally in the foods you eat and, as a result, generally do not need to add salt to your diet. High sodium intake has been directly correlated with the development of hypertension (high blood pressure). Hypertension can lead to heart disease and stroke.

Some people seem to be genetically more at risk for developing hypertension. A family history of high blood pressure should alert you to be prudent with the use of salt in your diet and your baby's diet.

When should you first be concerned about salt in your baby's diet? Research indicates you should avoid overuse of salt right from birth. Breast-feeding or choosing a formula most like breast milk ensures your baby gets just the right amount of sodium.

Once your baby begins to eat solid foods, feed him foods to which no salt has been added. Processed foods, such as hot dogs, bacon, soup, canned vegetables, canned meats, catsup, pickles, and puddings, as well as salty-tasting foods, are usually high in sodium and should be restricted. Take care not to add salt to the baby food you make at home, even though it may taste bland to you.

Research shows that a baby who has high levels of sodium in his diet from birth and who continues this pattern throughout his life has an increased risk of developing high blood pressure as an adult. Your baby's food tastes are established in infancy; if he grows accustomed to salty foods and enjoys them, it will be more difficult for him to give up salt later. Remember, too, that if your baby sees you salt your food or eat potato chips, he will want to do the same. Reducing salt in your baby's diet means reducing salt in the family diet.

Sugar

Sugar is not an unhealthful food. You need some sugar in your diet and get a form of sugar every time you eat fresh fruits. Refined sugar in limited amounts is all right, too, except when it contributes too many of the calories your baby eats each day. A diet too high in sugar is a diet that probably lacks other nutrients.

Sugar comes in many forms and not all of them are harmful to your diet. Sugar comes in many forms and not all of them are harmful to your diet.
Sugar comes in many forms and not all of them are harmful to your diet.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Sugar comes in many forms. Fruit sugar naturally sweetens the fruit you eat. Corn syrup is used to sweeten soda pop and some fruit juices. Honey is simply another form of sugar -- it is no more healthful than granulated sugar. (In fact, because of the threat of botulism, do not give honey to a child younger than one year of age.) Molasses, besides sugar, contains very small amounts of other nutrients, including iron. Milk contains a sugar called lactose.

Probably the best way to get the sugar you need is from fruits, vegetables, and other fresh foods. An occasional cookie or piece of pie, cake, or candy is not bad unless it replaces the foods your family needs or diminishes their appetite for nutritious foods.

Babies prefer sweet foods. Your baby's first food is breast milk or formula. If you taste these milks, you will discover both are very sweet. Since your baby gets all the sugar he needs from his milk and later from the good foods he eats, you should avoid giving him too many cookies or sweet desserts. Eating cookies and sweets before meals quickly raises the blood sugar level, which is likely to ruin your baby's appetite.

Frequent bathing of the teeth in sugar promotes tooth decay. Since sugar is in milk and other foods, the additional sugar found in soda pop, gum, sticky dried fruits, and other sweet snack foods increases the likelihood of tooth decay. Restrict sugar consumption and give your child low-sugar snacks, such as fresh vegetables, toast strips, and cheese chunks.

In our next section, we will look at a very dangerous health concern facing America's children -- the growing obesity epidemic.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Obesity and Children

If you do not overfeed your child as an infant they most likely will not develop the tendency later in life.
If you do not overfeed your child as an infant they most likely will not develop the tendency later in life.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Overeating and overweight often begin during infancy. Obesity results when more calories are consumed than are needed for growth, when the choice of foods is poor, and when the activity level does not require the caloric intake to be as high as it is. Obesity tends to run in families. Children with one obese parent have a 40 percent risk of becoming obese, while children with two obese parents have an 80 percent risk of becoming obese.

You can start right after your baby's birth to prevent overfeeding and obesity. If you bottle-feed your baby, let him decide when he is finished with each bottle instead of encouraging him to empty it. Starting solid foods too soon, before your baby is four to six months of age, can lead to excessive weight gain. As your child grows older, let him eat to satisfy his natural appetite. Your baby's doctor can tell you if your baby's weight gain is too much for his height.

If overweight or obesity does become a problem, you can take measures to slow the rate of your baby's weight gain. He should not actually lose weight; rather, you should help him get his weight in proportion to his height while still ensuring he gets the nutrients and calories he needs for growth and development. Once again, your baby's doctor can tell you how to do this.

You can help by taking the following steps:

  • Be sensitive to cues that he is full. He may pucker his face, pull back from the table or bottle, turn his head away, dawdle, spit out his food, or begin to play with it. These are all signs he is finished eating.
  • Milk is your child's most important food. Water is generally necessary only as an additional fluid (for example, on very hot days). Juice is not a substitute for milk.
  • Limit or eliminate high-calorie and high-fat foods. Fresh fruit makes a tasty substitute for a cookie. Avoid sauces and gravies, which provide a lot of calories and limited nourishment. Broil or steam foods rather than frying them. Limit the use of butter, margarine, and mayonnaise.
  • Give your child fresh fruit instead of canned fruit or fruit juice. Fresh fruit has fewer calories. If fresh fruit is not available, offer fruit packed in water or fruit juice. Limit fruit juice to four ounces daily.
  • Provide your baby with lots of opportunities to exercise. As you play with your baby, give him a chance to move his body as he interacts with you. As he grows older, give him space to run and opportunities to walk. He is more likely to exercise if you are involved with him.
  • If you prepare your own baby food, make it less dense in calories: Do not add sugar, margarine, or butter. Take all fat off meat before cooking.
  • Remember that babies cry and fuss for reasons other than hunger. If your baby has just been fed, try other methods of soothing him before again offering the breast or bottle. Try walking or rocking him. Maybe he just needs to suck. Let him suck on your finger, his finger, or a pacifier. Perhaps he is bored and needs a new position or toy or change of room.
  • Offer nonfood rewards for achievement or good behavior. It is tempting to give candy or a cookie for an accomplishment or an ice cream cone for good behavior, but the overweight child needs other rewards. Your verbal expressions of pleasure and hugs are wonderful rewards. For special accomplishments, a book or toy might be in order. You will probably need to enlist the support of other important adults, such as grandparents and babysitters, in this approach.

A word of caution: Let your baby's doctor decide if your baby is overweight or obese. The doctor can follow your baby's growth on growth charts and can tell you if you need to be concerned. Do not decide your baby is overweight because of the way he looks or because someone tells you he looks fat.

Most babies have a cherubic appearance. They do not look like lean mini-adults. Your baby or toddler will have a rounded abdomen. He may appear to have no neck and may have a double chin and dimpled skin. Despite his appearance, he may be just right for his height. Since good nutrition is so important to the development of your child's brain and his general growth in the first two years, restricting calories and nutrition unwisely may have a poor effect on his development. Children do change in appearance over the years, and the baby you thought was so round may become a lean toddler or preschooler.

While eating too much of the wrong foods can be a health hazard, a child who refuses to eat can be a real frustration. In the next section, we will learn how to deal with a child who is a fussy eater.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

How to Deal With a Child Who is a Picky Eater

Keeping the portions small will stop your child from feeling overwhelmed and rejecting the meal.
Keeping the portions small will stop your child from feeling overwhelmed and rejecting the meal.
©2006 Publications International, LTd.

Babies and toddlers have days when they are more hungry than on other days. During the toddler years, appetite diminishes in relationship to a slowed rate of growth, and strong food preferences are normal. Illness affects appetite, as does teething. And adding new foods and textures to your baby's or toddler's diet may slow him down or cause him to lose interest in his food. You can expect times when your baby dawdles during his meals or gets very picky about what he eats.

Here are some tips to help you cope:

  • Make sure the portions are not too big. Too much food may appear overwhelming and thus diminish appetite.
  • Avoid force-feeding and making food an issue.
  • Make sure the food you serve is in a form he can eat easily. (For instance, if your baby has no teeth, his foods need to be soft.)
  • Be sure there is an adequate interval between meals and snacks.
  • Serve liquids at the end of the meal to avoid having him fill up on these.
  • Avoid high-sugar foods and between-meal snacks, which may blunt his appetite. This includes juice before meals.
  • Serve a variety of foods.
  • Serve food in a colorful and creative way. Eye appeal stimulates the appetite.
  • Make mealtime pleasant. The atmosphere at the table has an enormous effect on appetite, as well as proper digestion.

Food as a Reward

You probably already know that using food as a reward is not a good idea. In practice, though, it is difficult to avoid. But when a parent says, "Eat your broccoli first and then you can have dessert," he implies that broccoli must be endured so the child can have the dessert as a reward. And when you offer a cracker or cookie whenever your child fusses you reward fussing.

It is wonderful to celebrate your child's new skills or abilities. Sometimes food is an appropriate and convenient way to celebrate or reward. What happens, though, when food is the usual or the only way of rewarding an accomplishment or behavior? Patterns of reward and celebration are often set in childhood, and you need to decide if using food as a reward is what you want to teach. Try varying the rewards. A hug, a compliment, an invitation to play a game or help you with a task, and time set aside for a story or book are some good alternatives.

When your baby fusses, cookies and food often work to quiet him temporarily. But you should examine the cause of the fussiness. As your baby grows older, his fussiness may be the result of fatigue, new teeth, overstimulation, or boredom. Try some other cures for fussiness if it does not seem likely he is hungry. The cure is sure to be longer lasting if it is directly aimed at eliminating the cause of fussiness.

Food becomes punishment if a baby or child is forced to eat it. You can probably remember foods you were forced to eat as a child, and you probably cringe at the sight of those foods to this day. Force-feeding and then rewarding for eating certain foods is never a good idea. You are setting yourself up for food battles.

Just as with any stage of your child's development, the attitudes and behavior the parents have toward eating can drastically influence the child's behavior. As your child will be completely dependent on you for their food in the first few years of life, naturally many of their opinions about food will be filtered through you. As you have seen in this article, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure that your child will have healthy eating habits.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

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About the consultant:

Alvin Eden, M.D.: serves as a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the Weil Medical College of Cornell University in New York, New York. He is Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn. Dr. Eden is also the author of a number of child care book, including Positive Parenting and Growing Up Thin.