Rules help young children learn about all kinds of things, even food. And rules help your toddler understand what you expect of him. Just as you want your toddler to understand how to treat other people or how to act safely around cars, you can use rules to help him understand what you expect of him at mealtime. Limits also help prevent problems later. But too many rules and high standards could backfire and turn meals into power struggles.
Aim for the sweet spot: enough rules to set up good habits for the future but not so many rules that mealtimes are unpleasant. The key is to establish expectations that foster good habits in an age-appropriate way your child can meet.
Smart Food Rules for Toddlers
“No soda.” Water, milk, and toddler milk beverages are the healthiest choices for toddlers. When children are restricted from certain unhealthy foods, like soda pop, at age 2, they’re less likely to choose them for themselves by age 4, one study of 8,850 kids has found. Toddlers who were allowed to drink soda, the researchers found, were 25 percent more likely to continue choosing it for themselves when they were preschoolers.
The kids who were better at what the researchers call self-regulating—bypassing their natural tendencies in order to pursue long-term goals—and whose parents had food rules favoring healthy choices also made better food choices. So, for example, they could skip the sweet taste of soda because they’d learned they felt better and were less hungry drinking something else. But having the parental rules in place to guide them was key. The children who were able to self-regulate but did not have parental rules in place had unhealthy eating habits similar to those who were not able to self-regulate.
“We sit down when we eat.” Toddlers like to be on the run, but it’s a choking hazard. Eating only while seated, including for snacks, is safer. Your child also learns to eat with others, and you avoid setting the stage for the later bad habit of mindless eating (such as while watching TV).
Eating Rules to Avoid
“Clean your plate.” Many old rules that parents grew up with are outdated. Forcing a child to join the clean plate club or eat everything served is now considered a bad idea. Your toddler won’t learn to listen to his body’s hunger and fullness cues and will be more likely to overeat.
“You can’t leave the table until you try a bite.” Avoid pressuring your child to eat a certain food. Your job is to present an assortment of healthy choices; it’s up to your toddler whether he decides to try them (or not). You might have to offer a food many times before he takes that first bite; just be low-key and don’t over-worry about nutrition. A toddler’s diet tends to balance out over several days if you offer many different good-for-you options.
“No dessert until you eat your peas.Avoid making dessert the prize for finishing a meal. There’s nothing wrong with serving an occasional sweet treat but keep the emphasis on the word “treat.” Sweets shouldn’t be a lure to get your child to eat vegetables and other good foods.