This week three parents asked me how to stop their second child from becoming a picky eater. In two of the cases, I am helping deal with said picky eating older child and the third was the mother of a baby with other red flags for developmental issues. Is there anything they could do to prevent the picky eating debacle?
The best suggestion I have is to not introduce the three C’s or what I call toddler crack. Everybody knows these three oh-so-friendly kid foods. One of them is in a container in practically every diaper bag/mommy purse in the country because they are universally adored. They are crackers, cookies and cereal and once kids discover them, they are as addicting as crack.
And why shouldn’t they prefer salty or sweet crunchy foods they can pick up with their own hands verses a non-descript mush mix spooned in by daddy? At two, the toddler has just discovered there is a connection between action and consequences and he wants to see what he controls. Eating looks promising so he wants to feed himself when possible. Utensils can be challenging so finger foods are better. Crackers, cereal and cookies fit the bill perfectly.
Once in the mouth, baby mouths can find the crackers because they are crunchy but as soon as the saliva hits them, they dissolve without much chewing. In the feeding world, these foods are called meltables. They are extremely convenient because the little ones do not have a full component of teeth yet but want eating independence.
The final attribute sealing the addictive quality of toddler crack is the taste. Face it. Chicken and peas cannot compete with highly flavored crackers and cookies. David Kessler has written extensively about how food companies use these ingredients heavily to encourage people to prefer and overeat empty calorie food. (See, The End of Overeating.)
This is how kids get hooked right from the cradle. You are out at the park in the afternoon and two and a half year old Seth is starting to get cranky. It has been several hours since lunch so clearly he is hungry. Carrying around a bean burrito for such occasions is impractical and tough for him to eat so you hand him a container of dry cereal that is perfectly fine after a month laying at the bottom of your diaper bag. Seth calms down immediately because he can pick up the little pieces and feed himself. (“He is building self esteem and self care skills,” you tell yourself.) There is an additional bonus of keeping him occupied for a full five minutes so you can get him in the car/stroller without screaming.
Once home, you make a lovely dinner which he does not want to eat because his tiny toddler tummy is full. Twenty minutes of coercion and three bites later, you give up only to have him tell you he is hungry right before bed. You already put away the salmon and green beans so you hand him, just this once, a few fish crackers which he eats happily. It is straight downhill from here.
It all sounds so innocent but crackers and dry cereal are like crack to babies. Most toddlers love them to the exclusion of anything else given the choice. If you want to raise a child who will eat fruits, vegetables and a variety of healthy foods, DO NOT BUY CRACKERS, LITTLE COOKIES OR DRY CEREAL, period. They have little if any nutritional value.
What to do instead? You have to think ahead a little but pack up cold cooked peas and carrots, bananas, grapes cut in half, ¼ of a sandwich or little pieces of cheese. In the heat of the summer you may have to throw in an ice pack. Eating pieces of fruit and vegetables also require more supervision, as they are not meltables. Small children can choke more easily as developmentally they have not completely mastered eating skills. When planning for snacks, think real food instead of empty calorie treats.
A recent October 2010 study found that 40% of the calories in children’s diets now come from empty calorie foods. The most common was grain desserts or cookies and granola bars. According to several articles reporting on the study, despite the horrifying state of children’s diets in this country, nobody seemed surprised by the findings.