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Training Module

How feeding nurtures children's body, heart, and mind in thisĀ 2-hour training.

Mealtime: How feeding nurtures children's body, heart and mind.

Mealtime is one of a caregiver's most important jobs. It is how we help children grow healthy and strong. But mealtime is about much more than food.

In this online training, you will learn how meal and snack times give you a chance to help children:

  • Learn healthy eating habits
  • Feel important and loved
  • Feel understood and respected
  • Trust that others will care for him/her
  • Feel good about his/her body

What each individual child really needs

Children are born all different in sizes and weights. Some grow faster and bigger than others. Some eat more than others.

Infants and toddlers can be healthy at many different sizes. An infant's size, whether bigger or smaller than "normal", does not tell us much about whether a child will be big or small as an adult.

Sometimes parents worry about their child's eating habits. Is she eating a balanced diet? Is he eating too much? Is she eating too little? There is not one right amount of food children need to grow. How much food children need to based on many factors such as their height, activity level, and how quickly their bodies burn calories.

The best way to know if a child is growing well is to ask yourself whether he or she enjoys eating and has the energy to play and interact with others. You can also ask parents to talk to their health care provider. He or she will tell parents how their child is doing by using a growth chart. This is a scale that shows how a child is growing according to the age and sex compared to other children the same age in the United States.

Ages and Stages

Birth to 6 months

What the child can do:

Show you when he/she is hungry or full by using their voice, face and actions, like turning away from a bottle when full or crying when hungry.

What you can do:

Respond to the child's signals:

  • Feed the child when they show signs of being hungry
  • Help the child calm down so they can focus on eating
  • Hold the infant during feeding and make eye contact
  • Stop feeding when they show they are full.
  • Try to avoid feeding a child every time they cry. They may not be hungry. They may just need to be comforted.

What the child is learning:

  • To Trust that you will meet their needs
  • That they are a good communicator.
  • That caregivers are listening to them
  • That they are important to you
  • To eat and sleep in predictable patterns
  • To calm themselves with your help
  • That milk or food is for nutrition, not for comfort.
6 months to 12 months

What the child can do:

Sit up. Learn to eat with their fingers.

What you can do:

  • Start using a high chair if available
  • Start using family style meal service
  • Start with semi-solid food from the spoon. Move to thicker and lumpier foods then to soft pieces of food.
  • Offer safe finger foods so they can practice feeding themselves.
  • TV and screen time is prohibited for children under the age of two. Mealtime is a time for interacting and sharing.

What the child is learning:

  • To feed himself
  • To decide how much to eat
  • To know the tastes and textures they like and do not like
  • To focus on eating during mealtime
  • That eating and mealtimes are fun and feel good
12 months to 24 months

What the child can do:

  • Feed themselves many different foods.
  • May begin learning to use an infant safe fork and spoon or other utensils, such as chopsticks.
  • Use actions and words to communicate their thoughts and feelings. This includes showing or telling you what they want and do not want, and when they are hungry or full.

What you can do:

  • Offer 3-4 healthy choices during mealtime
  • Offer 2-3 healthy snacks a day
  • Offer foods that can be picked up, chewed or gummed, and swallowed easily. Be sure to watch children closely and avoid foods that are choking hazards.
  • Offer child-size utensils and provide help when needed, if you want the children to feed themselves.
  • Make meals a time for connecting with the children
  • Point to and say the names of foods or objects on the table
  • Talk about things besides food. Such as what you see outside the classroom window or what the class has done that day.

What the children are learning:

  • To try new foods
  • To do things themselves
  • To ask for help
  • To trust that you will help them when they are struggling
  • New words
  • That they can effectively communicate to you when they are hungry or full
  • That you will listen to and respect them
  • That their feelings matter
24 to 36 months

What the children can do:

  • Choose which foods to eat
  • Use words to express thoughts and feelings
  • Help out during mealtime

What you can do:

  • Try not to prepare separate meals for different children. Instead, offer 2-4 healthy choices during mealtime, including ones that the children like.
  • Offer 2-3 healthy snacks a day
  • Let your children see you making healthy eating choices and enjoying the same food served to the group.
  • Talk to the children
  • Ask questions and listen to what the children have to say. Use words to help them describe their ideas, feelings, and experiences.
  • Encourage polite behavior
  • Offer simple task like putting napkins on tables, placing pre-cut vegetables in the salad, or helping mix batter.

What the children are learning:

  • To make healthy food choices as they grow
  • That they know their own bodies
  • To eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full
  • New words
  • That mealtime is fun
  • That their ideas matter
  • Good behavior at the table
  • That they are an important member of the classroom
  • That they are capable
  • That helping others feels good

Reading Children's Signals

Infant and toddler children know when they are hungry or full. They have many signals for letting us know what their bodies need by using their voices, faces, and actions. Reading the children's signals means watching and listening to the children, and trying to understand what their behavior means. Responding to children's signals let them know that:

  • They can trust themselves when they are hungry and full
  • They are good communicators and their needs will be met.

Infants have their own signals. For example, when 3-month old Jenna is hungry, she nuzzles her caregiver's shirt. When 3 month-old Damon is hungry, he sucks on his fingers and makes funny noises.

Sometimes the same signal can have more than one meaning. For example, 9 month-old Ricky pushes the spoon away when he is full. Bianca, also 9 months, pushes the spoon away when she wants to feed herself.

Toddlers have signals, too. When 18 month-old Thomas is hungry, he takes his caregiver's hand, walks her to the shelf, and points to the bananas. Lisa, 24 months, simply says, "Want bana!"

Things to avoid

Forcing a child to eat. The fact is that forcing children to east usually leads to the child eating less. Forcing also teaches children to rely on others to tell them how much to eat and what they are feeling. This does not lead to healthy eating habits or good self-esteem.

When it comes to eating, it can be helpful to see it as you and your children each have their own jobs. Your job is to provide children with healthy food choices and pleasant meal and snack time. It is the children's job to decide which of these healthy foods to eat and how much to eat. When you approach feeding this way, your children learn to listen to their bodies and make healthy choices. It also leads to fewer power struggles between caregivers and children around food.

Avoid nagging or making deals with children. "Just two more bites, just two more bites!" "If you eat your vegetables, you will get a sticker." Strategies like these don't work in the long run. Children who learn to make deals about eating quickly learn to make deals and ask for rewards for doing other things, like picking up toys or washing their hands. And soon they won't do anything unless there is a reward for it!

Working with picky eaters

Picky eating is when children refuse foods often or only want the same food over and over. Many caregivers worry that their picky eaters are not getting enough nutrition to grow. In most cases, they are. In fact, 50% of caregivers think their children are picky eaters. But 95% of healthy preschoolers meet all their nutrient needs.

Some causes of picky eating and what you can try:

Some children are sensitive to the taste or smell of food and the way it feels in their mouth, they are bothered by the texture. In this case you can offer several healthy food choices, among foods the particular child does not like at each meal. Gently but frequently offer new kinds of foods. Children need to be offered a food as many as 10-15 times before they will eat it. Suggest that parents to speak to their health care provider about any nutritional concerns you and the parent may have.

Some children are simply less likely to try new things based on their temperament, their individual way of approaching the world. Put new foods next to foods the child likes. Encourage them to touch, smell, lick and taste the new foods. Try offering healthy dips such as yogurt, hummus or low fat salad dressings to encourage children to eat vegetables.

Some children can seem "picky" because they only want to eat food they can feed themselves. Offer safe "finger foods" that your children can feed themselves. Offer your children a spoon to hold while you are assisting at mealtime. This lets them feel in control.

Some children are very active. They may seem picky because they don't like sitting for long. Set your child's meal out before they sit down.

Keep mealtime short, only 10 minutes or so. Let your children get up when they indicate that they are finished eating. Put healthy foods, such as a bowl of strawberries or bananas, where the children can reach them so when they get hungry the can easily get to good foods.

Some children have medical issues that make it difficult to swallow certain foods. Ask parents to have the child evaluated by their health care provider. Sometimes children need special help with feeding.

What does Food Mean to You?

Your own childhood experiences with food can make a difference in how you feed your children. For example:

One father had a strict rule that his 2-year old must finish everything on her plate. He explained, "When I was young, a lot of times there wasn't enough for us to eat. I guess I just hate to see food wasted when I know what it's like to be hungry."

Be aware of your own body image is also important. For example:

Marie was overweight as a child. She was often teased in schools. She now finds herself controlling how much her 18-month old son eats. She explains, "I don't ever want him to be made fun of. It's easy to put weight on, but hard to take it off!"

Our images of what girls and boys should look like also make a difference. We may prefer "petite" girls and "big" boys.

Thinking about our own experiences, beliefs and feelings about food is important. It helps us make the choice to do things the same way or differently than our parents did with us.

  • What were mealtimes like when you were growing up?
  • How did your parents make you feel about your body?
  • How do you feel about your eating habits now?
  • How do you feel about your body now?
  • How do these feelings affect how and what you feed your children?

Your culture, the customs, traditions and beliefs you grew up with play a big part in how you approach mealtime. For example, parents in some cultures want their children to be independent from early on. They encourage their infants and toddlers to explore their food and feed themselves. Parents in other cultures believe children should rely on their parents and caregivers to feed them during the early years and don't encourage self-feeding.

The foods you feed your children are also a very important way you share family's cultures. Family traditions make children feel safe and loved. Special meals remind us of good times with family and friends. Sometimes these foods are not the most nutritious. You can still celebrate family traditions while making good nutrition a goal. For example, baking specific items rather than frying. Making small changes to family recipes keep traditions alive for children, and teach them about healthy choices. 

Think about how your own culture affects how you approach feeding your children.

  • What rules did your family have about eating or mealtimes?
  • What are two or three things you want your children to learn about eating?
  • What foods have special meaning in your family or culture?
  • How can you change recipes to make them more nutritious if necessary?
Healthy Eating Strategies for Children in Early Education
  1. Remember: Meals are about more than food. They are a time to connect with your children and support overall development. Talk with your children during meals and sit with them. This helps build strong relationships.
  2. Create routines around lunch and snack times. Routines make children feel loved and secure. They also help children look forward to each meal. You might say a blessing if that's part of your program. Or, share something about the morning's activities before lunch.
  3. Establish regular snack and lunch times beginning in the mobile infant programs. Give children the words needed to understand the connection between hunger and eating. When children shows that they are hungry, you might say, "You're hungry, aren't you? Well then it's time to eat!" This helps children learn to link their feelings of hunger with the act of eating at regular times across the day.  
  4. Offer 3 to 4 healthy food choices at each meal. Research shows that children will choose a healthy diet when they are offered a selection of healthy foods.
  5. Don't force infants or toddlers to eat. This often results in children refusing food or eating less.
  6. Offer children a healthy snack between meals if you think they are hungry. This way if they don't eat much at one meal, they don't have to wait too long to eat again.
  7. Limit juice to no more than 4 ounces a day. Juice has a lot of sugar. And drinking too much juice can fill children up and make the, less hungry at mealtimes. Consider adding water to the juice. Offer fresh fruit instead of juice.
  8. Be flexible about letting younger children get up from the table when they are done. Infants and toddlers can't sit for long. Plan for snack time and lunchtime to last about 15 to 20 minutes each.
  9. Don't give up on new foods! Patience is key. You may have to offer children new food 10 to 15 times before they will eat it. Encourage children to touch the new food, lick and taste it. Let the children see you eat it. Children learn by watching and imitating you.
  10. Turn off TVs, computers, and other screens during snack and lunch times. Mealtime is a time to connect with your children. The television can distract children from eating. It also takes time away from social development.
  11. If you are concerned about a particular child's weight or activity level, ask the parent to talk to the child's health care provider.
Go Play!

Healthy eating and physical activity go hand-in-hand. So make movement a part of everyday activities. Take walks around the playground and facility; encourage children to climb on the playground equipment. Dance with your children to their favorite music. Prohibit screen time in the early education classroom. Children who spend the most time in front of a screen are also the most likely to overeat and be overweight.

Adapted from information collected by Zero to Three and the American Academy of Pediatrics.


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