Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Healthy Food Methods with Toddlers and Preschoolers: Avoiding Food Waste While Honoring Satiety Signals

I've never wanted to develop a "clean your plate" mentality with my preschooler and my toddler. My family lives - so blessedly - with enough that leftovers on my toddler's and preschooler's plates aren't always cause for argument. Since I myself struggle with recognizing satiety - the feeling of fullness - but young children naturally do better knowing "when's enough" - I'd hate to push my girls to clean their plates daily and eventually override satiety signals in their brains in favor of making sure that everything on their plate is eaten. I'm afraid that eventually they'd associate fullness with an empty plate, not a sated stomach.

I am blessed with daughters who thus far have proven to be fairly unfinicky in their tastes. My four-year-old occasionally decides - and proclaims with great seriousness - that she doesn't like something. Right now her fixation is on ginger (don't ask me why! - I love ginger), and sometimes mushrooms trip her "don't like" trigger. Overall, though, she's a good sport with trying new stuff, and her 17-month-old sister seems to be the same.

That said, while I don't want to issue "clean your plate" orders to my preschooler or toddler all the time, I still hope to avoid wasting food. While every day I find myself ironing out kinks in the meal serving process, my experiences to this point have lead me to a few methods that I use in my approach to mealtimes and snacktimes.

  1. I try to serve satiety "bang for my buck", especially at mealtime. I know that biologically, sugar and grains can spike insulin and only leave the body seeking more food a short time later. Also, fructose - the natural sugar found in fruits - entirely bypasses the insulin pathway and is metabolized directly by the liver similarly to how alcohol is metabolized, except fructose doesn't have the side effect of making one drunk. So while the fiber in fruit may temporarily offer a feeling of stomach-fullness, it won't trigger the insulin-dependent pathways that make the brain realize that it's had something to eat.

    What does make the body feel full effectively? Simple - protein and fat. So if I want my girls to feel full after the few bites that their attention spans allow during meals, I prioritize giving them proteins (eggs, meats and poultry, whole milk yoghurt, whole fat cottage cheese, etc.) and fats (whole fat cheese, Kerrygold butter on all kinds of veggies, coconut oil, avocados, coconut milk smoothies, etc.).  Bonus: fiber does aid in satiety, so fruit and veggies can help in this aspect (especially lower-carb and slower-carb choices that won't spike insulin, like berries, sweet potatoes, or Brussels sprouts). However, fruits and veggies don't always bring a whole lot of calories to the table - so I tend to see them as supplementary to quality fats and proteins.

  2. I try not to serve my girls too much of something at first - but especially if it's a new food (or new seasoning/sauce) - instead giving them enough for a few bites. If it turns out that either of them wants more, I'm happy to dish it out as appropriate.

  3. I have a general practice of not offering additional food(s) until what is in front of my child is consumed. That is, if my 4-year-old is sitting with a plateful of just-served dinner in front of her and announces that she doesn't like one of the options on her plate, I shrug my shoulders and say, "That's fine, you don't have to eat it." At this point she sometimes asks for something else that she knows is in the house (like yoghurt) - and I usually say, "No, I've fixed a nice dinner for you, and I'm not fixing you anything else until you've eaten some of what's in front of you." Then my husband and I continue to dig in.

    If she's really hungry, she usually obliges by taking a few bites. If she's not that hungry in the first place, then she might ultimately leave most of what's on her plate. (If it's a new food or flavor that she didn't like, I'll file that away in my head when I debate whether it's worth making in the future.)

    I also practice this on the drive home from preschool pickup when my 4-year-old is requesting a snack. "Did you eat all of your lunch?" The answer is almost always no. So, she has to eat the rest or at least part of what was leftover in her lunchbox before I'm going through the effort to fix new snacks.
Now, it bears mentioning at this point that both of my girls have consistently been at the top of the charts height and weight wise since birth - I'm tall-ish and my husband is tall - so it's just how they grow. Therefore, I am hardly worried if either of them decides not to eat a large meal at some point, because given their appetites they are sure to make it up in the near future. Because of their fairly accommodating palates, the three methods above have worked for me best in terms of making sure they get enough of a nutritious variety of foods - while not wasting too much in the process. I'm sure that I still have lots to learn on this in the years to come as my daughters' preferences evolve!

How do you try and manage your small children's quirks and appetites to keep mealtimes and snacktimes sane and little tummies full? What secrets can you share on encouraging your little ones to try new, healthier foods?


  1. Great post! Feeding toddlers is tricky business. I use a lot of the same approaches with my 2.5 year old. If she has at least tasted something and decides she doesn't like it, I try not to make a fuss. I just tell her she doesn't have to eat it. I try not to make a big deal about new foods, just give her a little to try. I also try to serve a new food alongside a known, well-liked food. Another trick that works for us if the new food is resisted is condiments. Sometimes she will resist less if I offer to let her dip it in ketchup/sour cream dip/hummus/salad dressing. She will sometimes choose strange combinations but at least she's eating.
    We're also big snackers so I try to make sure I offer proteins at snacktime and not just fruit or other carbs. Apples and sunbutter or cheese and veggies and dip are big favorites. At least that way if she isn't hungry at a meal I know she's eaten something worthwhile at another time.

  2. My daughter isn't finicky at all, but I definitely want to teach her to "listen to her tummy". If she's full, she's full. I too give her meat, veggies first. We're not really primal, so if she finishes those things she can have the bread, or noodles that we may be having with our meal.

    It's really important to me that she learn the things that are really healthy for her body, and eat those first... (and it ain't the noodles and bread lol).

    I struggle with giving her small portions. I always seem to think she's going to want/need more than she does, but that's my fault not hers, so I just continue to encourage her to listen to her tummy, and stop eating when it tells her she's full.

  3. this is something I've struggled with - very helpful post, thanks!

  4. I have been trying some new things with my 5yr old. Kebabs, having him grow and prepare the food with me, pick out some items to buy at the store (then reminding him that he chose it, so he can eat it or go hungry). Things like that. Ownership over the decision process seems to help in those rough patches.
    Great post!

  5. I didn't know that fruit bypasses the insulin pathway. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I also didn't know that fruit was digested similarly to alcohol. I learn something new everyday :)

  7. Nice information, this is really useful for me. There is nothing to argue about. Keep posting stuff like this i really like it. Thanks and God Bless.


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