Feeding your child can be one of the most gratifying and maddening experiences of parenthood. From those first tender nursing sessions to standoffs over broccoli, to squeezing in meals between soccer games, the journey is rife with ups, downs and detours. To help you navigate, we’ve come up with a road map. We’ve isolated some hot spots and stress inducers, along with some helpful directions to guide you through, stage by stage.
Six to nine months
Astounded by your baby’s voracious appetite? Many babes double their birth weight in the first four to five months of life, then triple it by year one.
Typical problem: “Introducing solids is messy! Is my baby getting the nutrients she needs?”
Reality bites: It’s normal for more cereal to be dripping from your little one’s chin than travelling to her tummy. “Right now,” says Toronto dietitian Lisa Weinberg, “the nutrients from solids are secondary to the experience she’s gaining.” Rest assured that baby has breastmilk or formula as a nutritional crutch during these first months.
While baby learns to eat, parents learn to read body language. A turned head or tightly closed mouth means I don’t want it. Weinberg says it’s “essential that parents respect these cues and make this first feeding experience a really positive one. Never force a baby to eat.”
After that first rapid year of growth (and hearty appetite), many toddlers slow down the pace at this point, taking parents unawares. Your toddler is likely to quadruple his birth weight by year two, growing an average of 12 cm (5 in.). But compared with year one, he’s slowing down.
Typical problem: “Jack’s eating like a bird! He used to eat twice as much!”
Reality bites: Truth is, Jack doesn’t need to eat as much. Compound this with his newfound ability to say no, plus his non-stop desire to run, jump and climb, and you’ve got a frustrated parent.
“Take a good look at your toddler. If he is growing, gaining weight and is healthy and active, then he’s eating enough!” says Weinberg. “Let him listen to his body and allow him to be the judge of when he is hungry or full. Take that away from him, and you may be steering him toward obesity.”
Expect some food fads now, but anticipate that they’ll fade as quickly as they ignite. Your 18-month-old may only have eyes for bananas for three days, then pronounce them “yucky” on day four. Keep this in mind before you stock up on any food your toddler adores, which prevents you and your young diner from getting in a food rut. Take advantage of your toddler’s lack of food prejudices. Now’s the time to introduce avocado, broccoli and other foods he may reject in years to come.
By age two, most kids fall into a predictable pattern of growth, sprouting up about 5 to 6 cm (about 2 in.) a year and gaining from 1 to 1.5 kg (2 to 3 lb). Preschooler eyes are open wide, taking in the food world around them. Big impressions are made both by daycare-mates who shout “no!” to foods and by TV ads shilling sugary treats.
Typical problem: “I can count the number of foods he eats on one hand. He’s so picky!”
Reality bites: Ride the picky wave. “It’s normal for a preschooler to have strong likes and dislikes,” says registered dietitian Caroline Valeriote of Kitchener, Ont. “Get ready for this to happen and try not to get upset.” Tell yourself, “OK, we’ll try it again next time.” And don’t throw in the towel too early — junior says “yuck!” to carrots and they’re struck from the menu for years. Kids need many exposures to new foods. Studies show little eaters may need to be served a food up to 15 times before they’ll accept it.
“Don’t fall into the trap of making a different meal for them,” warns Vancouver registered dietitian Barbara Crocker. “Serve one meal for the whole family that has four or five different tastes, including one or two that your child already likes.” For instance, if tonight’s dinner includes fish and broccoli, make sure there is also something familiar and liked, such as whole wheat bread and a salad. And try to keep the big picture in view, aiming for healthy nutrient intake over a typical week (versus meal by meal).
Junior should be growing at that same steady pace kick-started at age two — 1 to 1.5 kg (2 to 3 lb) and 5 to 6 cm (2 in.) a year. School might influence your little eater quite dramatically now, not only in terms of what he wants to eat, but when! After-school snacks, packed lunches and mini-meals-on-the-go will keep your family busy.
Typical problem: “My son has finally discovered the joys of junk food — now it’s all he wants!”
Reality bites: Talk about it. Peer pressure and media influence create a double whammy for school-aged kids. Weinberg says her children, Spencer, six, and Lauren, eight, already understand the word “marketing.” They also talk about “junk and how junky food can create a junky body.”
Most dietitians agree that you can’t fight junk by banning it. When foods become taboo, kids want them more. However, you can flex your strength in the grocery aisles. Avoid stocking your cupboards with a regular supply of cakes, candies and chips, and offer them just once in a while, as a “sometimes” food. But watch out for double standards: If Mommy has a secret stash of chocolate she dips into daily, why can’t her son too? Healthy eating should be a family affair. “Get the kids involved in menu planning,” says Vancouver registered dietitian Kay Wong. “Shop together and talk about foods you can prepare together.”
With puberty, the growth curve changes dramatically. Girls typically start to develop earlier than boys, stepping into adolescence at about 10½ years and growing 7 to 12 cm (3 to 5 in.) per year. Boys enter puberty around 11½ years. Throughout puberty, boys and girls are apt to add 25 cm (10 in.) to their stature and their appetites will follow suit.
Typical problem: “If it’s fizzy, caffeinated or loaded with sugar, that’s her drink. Milk is out. I’m worried about calcium.”
Reality bites: Stock the fridge with milk and calcium-fortified drinks like soy or orange juice. Faced with a fridge devoid of pop but full of cold, calcium-enriched drinks, chances are your child will still raid it. Try banana-flavoured milk or strawberry soy drinks. Smoothies are an easy sell with preteens who can make their own variations, adding calcium-rich yogurt, milk, silken tofu or milk powder to their own recipes.
Talk to your preteen about caffeine and find out if he’s experiencing sleep problems or feeling jittery. Energy drinks, frozen cappuccinos and sugary frappuccinos might be depriving your preteen of the sleep he needs during this rapid period of growth. Girls might be slowing down slightly after that spurt with the onset of puberty, but boys are now right in the midst of peak growth rates. Take advantage of your teen’s hunger by stocking up on whole-grain carbs, fresh vegetables and fruits, good sources of protein and plenty of calcium.
Typical problem: “She says she’s a vegetarian, but doesn’t eat vegetables!”
Reality bites: “Parents can learn from their kids,” says Edmonton dietitian Ruth West, mom of three daughters, two of whom became vegetarians as teenagers. Thanks to the daughters’ switch, West’s whole family benefited from a healthier diet, including more soy products, beans, whole grains and veggies. Raising a vegetarian teenager may not come easily to non-vegetarians. It can mean extra time spent making meals and learning the basics of a good vegetarian diet. But there can be a silver lining — such as watching your former picky eater downing seaweed and flaxseeds!
When your baby takes her first gulp of breastmilk or formula, she starts the lifelong process of nourishing her body with the basics: carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. As she grows, so will her nutrient needs. Luckily, Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating makes nutrition simple by encouraging a varied diet, based on four food groups.
Food Group Servings
Grain products 5-12 servings/day
Vegetables and fruit 5-10 servings/day
Meat or alternatives 2-3 servings/day
Dairy 4-9 years: 2-3 servings/day
10-16 years: 3-4 servings/day