Understanding toddlers' needs for food and nutrition helps to turn meal time battles into whānau time.
Kai and mealtimes with tamariki can cause whānau a lot of frustration. But removing the stress and reframing kai and mealtimes as “whānau time” can support tamariki to eat more and try different types of kai. This is important for their health and wellbeing.
A young child’s tummy is not very big – it’s about as big as their fist – and they have likes and dislikes when it comes to kai, just like adults. Research suggests that whānau insisting tamariki eat everything on their plates only reinforces kai battles, so keeping kai time “light” and positive can be really impactful.
As well as this, providing small portions of a variety of healthy kai throughout the day can be more successful than trying to feed them 3 big meals.
Tamariki mealtimes may be different
Providing small portions throughout the day generally encourages tamariki to eat more and a wider variety of kai. A good time for dinner for tired tamariki can be 4pm, with perhaps a light supper before bedtime. This means tamariki won't be going to bed hungry and the evenings can shift into a pleasant winding down and connecting time.
Another idea that works for some whānau is to have the day’s kai for their tamaiti available to them in the fridge. Most of this kai can be healthy with maybe a biscuit or some chippies that tamariki help themselves to. This helps tamariki learn to make choices about what to eat and when, and whānau know how much their tamaiti has eaten.
Make mealtime as stress free as possible
Pressuring tamariki to eat something they don’t want, don't like, or are unfamiliar with will only make mealtimes challenging. Tamariki need time to explore their food and many will want to use their hands, squishing, prodding, and stirring. It’s all part of the experience!
Tamariki with sensory sensitivity may need a space to eat that is quiet and free of distractions.
For tamariki with a physical disability, a specially adapted chair will make it easier for them to sit at the table and ensure they’re included. Special cutlery, a non-slip bowl, or a table mat with pictures to help guide them are also useful tools.
A chair with a foot stool or “bar” can also help to support tamariki while they’re eating so they can sit comfortably at the table.
Going beyond being “picky”
Mealtimes and kai challenges can be common. If whānau are concerned about the eating habits of their child, they should talk with their doctor or their doctor’s practice nurse. It may be useful to keep a kai diary over a week or two to identify patterns and start this conversation.
For tamariki who have difficulty swallowing kai, the doctor may recommend kai that has been pureed or minced, or offering smoothies, before gradually moving on to more solid kai when they’re ready.
Like many milestones, success means doing what works for the individual child rather than worrying about what other tamariki of the same age are doing.
Mealtime is the perfect whānau time
Mealtimes are the ideal opportunity to share stories, to learn about whānau values, and to participate in kōrero. But remember, tamariki are still learning about mealtime routines, behaviours and kai. Each mealtime is a only ever a practice, and practice is progress!