As I sit here and think about what happened tonight at my very own dinner table, I burst out laughing at the thought that I am the person writing this book, a book specifically about how to introduce new foods to picky toddlers; a book that unravels toddler development and essentially explains to parents why almost every toddler is hardwired to be “picky”; a book that urges frantic parents to keep calm, cool, and collected at all times in regard to feeding—despite how much food your tot actually swallows; a book that in essence reminds you that feeding is not perfect—and that it’s OK to have the meals that are, well, less than perfect. All I can say is that I am glad our dinnertime tonight was not broadcast on YouTube for the world of potential readers to view as both my son Jake, now seven, and my daughter Maggie, just four, looked at me in utter disbelief that I made ravioli—with something other than cheese on the inside.
At first mortified at the thought of someone witnessing this scene, I quickly stopped to wonder—what if dinnertime at my house was on YouTube tonight? Could it be a good thing?
Watching me, mother first, pediatric dietitian last, fall into coaxing both of my children to “just take a bite” and try this Martian ravioli. (For the record, it was pesto, and it seemed like a good thing to buy at the time.)
Watching my son Jake spit out his pesto ravioli—properly on a napkin, thank you very much—moaning in sheer despair as his taste buds registered “unfamiliar flavor: get it out!” (I prayed the neighbors were all inside as he carried on like a wounded animal on prime time Discovery. I mean really, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they were portobello-stuffed…)
Laughing all the while as my daughter Maggie, surprisingly very willing to try new foods, takes a bite, scrapes it off her tongue, and declares, “These are disgusting!”
And could it really be a good thing, considering the preacher of family dinners is missing a very important someone at the dinner table (scandalous!) on this particular night, that someone being Dad?
So far, this YouTube possibility seems like a bad idea—maybe even awful.
BUT WHAT IF I ASKED IF YOU NOTICED…
…How the coaxing was short-lived, as I pulled my professional self together and tried desperately to remain neutral for the rest of dinner by eloquently redirecting conversation about what went on during the day.
…How Jake went about the meal and declared he was going to eat only his broccoli, meatballs, and garlic bread on his plate—but not those ravioli. Fine by me, I thought quietly in my head, resisting my desire to applaud his decision.
…How Maggie, following in her older brother’s footsteps, chose to eat the part of her meal she liked as well: one and a half small meatballs, equal to a ping pong ball, giving her just about all the protein she needed for the whole day, with three small trees of broccoli (check one serving of veggie), and the squishy inside of three thinly sliced pieces of garlic bread (check carbohydrate). All washed down with about a quarter cup of 1% organic milk.
AND YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE SEEN…
The three of us shuffling out to the car and racing toward hockey practice, where we find Jake’s coach, Dad, anxiously waiting to lace up his skates in locker room number three.
Though it was a bit hectic, I hope you can see the small successes of that particular meal—because we all know the outcome could have been a lot worse. For me, my goals were met. I felt good about what my kids ate, how much they ate, how they were sitting down to eat, and most importantly, how we got to spend that twenty minutes (OK, maybe fifteen) sitting at the table—together.
Even though I am a registered dietitian, just like you I am constantly in search of the perfect balance between the dos and the don’ts of feeding a family—especially the ever-challenging toddler. Give Peas a Chance will give you the tools to feel good about what and how much your toddler is eating and allow you to enjoy mealtimes together—minus the stress.
WHY WRITE A BOOK SPECIFICALLY ABOUT TODDLER NUTRITION?
As a registered dietitian (RD) and a specialist in pediatric nutrition, I take care of infants and children throughout all stages of the life cycle. Toddlers, who will be defined for the purposes of this book as ages one to three years, are some of the most vivacious yet demanding creatures on Earth. One minute they’re your friend; in a nanosecond, they’re your enemy—often for what appears to be no good reason at all. It has taken me twelve years of working in this field and having two children to understand that feeding a toddler is ten percent about actual food and nutrition and ninety percent about parenting. Through my work and home life, I have come to fully understand that feeding a toddler and parenting go hand in hand, and I am excited to share some of the secrets I have learned about toddlers that will make feeding during this life stage more enjoyable—for everyone.
Having been fortunate enough to work with hundreds of families at some of the preeminent pediatric hospitals in the nation, I have developed a tremendous understanding of what makes children grow—even under the direst of circumstances. At the beginning of my career, I worked with undernourished, critically ill children where I saw firsthand what a task it was for them to eat. I was committed to making it easier for sick children to gain or sustain their body weight. I counted endless calories and grams of protein and trained myself to write prescriptions for how much food was enough. Once my career path changed and I began to work with young children who were not critically ill, a specific population of “troubled eaters” quickly surfaced with each consultation. Most were toddlers who were simply driving their parents mad with each and every bite of food (or lack thereof!). I soon realized that the one- to three-year-olds I saw for “feeding difficulties” typically fell into one of the following four categories.
Toddlers who were offered food, milk, or juice whenever they asked for it because
a) their parents had been told that their tot’s weight was faltering a bit from the growth curve;
b) parental perception of how much food their toddler should be eating versus how much the toddler actually ate.
Well-intended parents were often more exhausted from trying to get their toddler to eat than from the toddler himself. In many cases, parents were confessing to me that they were leaving random snacks around the house (e.g., Goldfish crackers on the coffee table, the remainder of breakfast on the table right up until lunchtime) and toting snacks just about everywhere in case the toddler got hungry. After taking countless diet histories from families and listening to endless feeding schedules, it became evident that the grazers were able to eat just enough food every one to two hours to squelch their hunger cues and keep their blood sugar in check, but never really had the chance to develop physical hunger to eat enough food at mealtimes. So, when breakfast, lunch, or dinner rolled around, there was zero motivation to come sit down and eat, and if the toddler did make an attempt to eat (usually after a battle of wills), only a few bites of food were consumed. The result? Parents felt that their toddlers “ate nothing!”
Secret #1: Toddlers need very small amounts of food to grow and thrive. After the first year of life, their growth rapidly slows down and their calorie needs decrease. From birth to one year of age, an infant will essentially triple his or her birth weight. A toddler’s rate of growth is much slower. A two-year-old may gain only four pounds by the time he or she is three, which is only about 15 percent of his or her body weight.
2. Excess Empty-Calorie Consumers
It has become increasingly clear that in today’s very hectic lifestyle, parents are frustrated with their toddler’s ability to eat foods from the family table. So many families neglect cooking meals for a lot of reasons: lack of interest, time, and patience, particularly with young toddlers in the home; when effort is put into cooking and the toddler doesn’t eat, the line seems to be drawn—in concrete. So many parents come into the office starting the conversation with the same sentence: “He just won’t eat what we eat.” When probed, the story would go something like this: “He only ate a few bites of baked chicken and maybe a few spoonfuls of carrots, so I made him a hot dog.” As time went on, I came to understand that parents feel compelled to feed their toddler “something” at every meal, so they resort to feeding junk or snack-type foods if the toddler doesn’t appear to eat enough table food, or what I like to refer to in this book as proper food.
Secret #2: Toddler development is unique when it comes to feeding and food choices. Let’s think about the first six months of an infant’s life: she is essentially on a liquid diet; she eats, sleeps, and poops; developmentally, she is working on trust and is relatively immobile. For the most part, she can be contained in a high chair and is willing to consume what she is given. When she reaches toddlerhood, she is learning to talk and walk, which means she is able to say no with authority and can hop down from the table at any given moment (if allowed), not to mention working tirelessly at learning to feed herself. This new person can’t help but offer her opinion when she has the chance and takes every opportunity to express how she feels—simply because she can. This is quite a change from the relative ease of feeding a snuggly baby around the clock every three to four hours in response to a simple cry. Couple this with the transition from jarred baby food in perfectly portioned containers labeled with calories, and it is crystal clear that parents feel disarmed when it comes to quantifying how much table food is, in fact, enough.
3. Excessive Drinkers
Toddlers who come into my office with a nine-ounce sippy cup in tow are some of the most frequent flyers I see for what doctors refer to as “poor weight gain.” These toddlers were either taking in large quantities of milk with very little table food, causing some to develop outright anemia, or had stopped taking milk altogether and had begun consuming large amounts of juice with a limited variety of foods. In either circumstance, weight gain was less than ideal, and appetites were minimal. In addition, the toddlers who were drinking excess juice were experiencing diarrhea, which was another frustration for parents during potty training and definitely did not help with weight gain.
Secret #3: Toddlers should not be drinking more than thirty-two ounces of liquid per day. Liquids fill up a toddler’s little tummy as it is about the size of a tennis ball to a baseball. Ideally, a toddler will take sixteen to twenty-four ounces of milk per day, with the remaining eight ounces as a combination of water and 100% fruit juice.
4. Fat-Free Consumers
As the headlines remind us of how unhealthy American eating habits have become, many families have embraced the dietary guidelines from the American Dietetic Association, the American Heart Association, and the National Cancer Institute, which all recommend a low-fat or non-fat diet. Unfortunately these guidelines, which can be healthy for many school-age kids, adolescents, and adults, present a problem for the young toddler who is eating what his parents eat at the family table. I see a surprising number of families who, in an effort to follow a healthy diet, actually are unintentionally depriving their toddlers of the fat in food their growing bodies and brains desperately need.
Secret #4: A fundamental association between dietary patterns and human health has been overlooked since the dawn of the low-fat diet: the essential need for dietary fat. Despite the increasing epidemic of obese children we are reminded about in the media daily, our toddlers need to have up to 40 percent of their calories from fat in order to support both body and brain growth. More importantly, fat plays a critical role in how food tastes, and promotes a sense of fullness after eating—one of our biggest defenses against the war on obesity.
The confusion surrounding feeding toddlers became more obvious with each family I met. Evidently, something that seemed so basic and innate in raising a child had become a daunting task for many parents. Time and time again, I found myself giving the same advice and reassurance to families if their toddlers fell into one of the above categories. Give Peas a Chance will help you gain an understanding of how a toddler grows, how much food a toddler needs to grow, and how to approach feeding a toddler. This book will help you take stock and identify where you might be in your own battle. Even if you are simply seeking reassurance that your toddler is on track and properly nourished, you will have the opportunity to connect the dots between your toddler’s nutritional needs and how his development influences his behavior with food.
Countless parents of growing toddlers were always especially relieved to learn that certain behaviors surrounding toddler feeding (pushing food away, spitting food out, refusing to eat something with gusto) were actually normal, and ultimately just part of the process in becoming an independent and capable eater.
Just like so many parents I have met with over the years, you too will feel the “Ah-ha” moment when you learn how much food a toddler really needs in a day to grow and thrive, while developing a concrete understanding of what nutrients matter most and why. In addition, you will discover day-to-day prevention and management strategies for common toddler digestive issues such as diarrhea, constipation, and reflux.
Most importantly, Give Peas a Chance will help you keep your sanity. I often wonder if the Shirelles were singing, “Mamma said there’ll be days like this” after a long day of trying to feed a toddler. Not only will Give Peas a Chance provide tips for surviving this challenging time period, but it will also give parents permission to relax a little—and even enjoy being at the table next to their toddlers.