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Toddler

Baby Steps to Healthy Weight: Mealtime Structure

Jill Castle, MS, RDN
January 3, 2019 . 2 min read

As your baby moves from a liquid diet of breast milk or formula, it’s important to start developing a feeding structure right away. Research has shown that a structured approach to feeding can help maintain good nutrition, proper growth, and appetite regulation.

A feeding structure, or the predictable timing and location of meals and snacks, allows children the opportunity to eat throughout the day. With tiny tummies that only hold about a fistful of food, young children need several opportunities to eat each day in order to get the more than 40 nutrients they require, as well as the calories they need for growth and development.

Initially, very small babies feed on demand and tend to fall into a pattern of eating that matches their hunger and fullness (appetite), growth stage, and the environmental cues around them. The beauty of early feeding is that your baby has an internal sense of appetite regulation—your baby will signal hunger with crying or fussiness and simply disengage from the breast or bottle when the hunger is satisfied. This is a natural pattern.

Your goal is to preserve this excellent self-regulation, which will help your baby, toddler, preschooler, and even older child eat the right amounts of food. This is where structured feeding comes in.

Simple tips for feeding structure

Infants and young toddlers need to eat 5-6 times per day; this is generally divided into three meals and 2-3 snacks, with 2-3 hours between eating sessions.

Older toddlers and preschoolers need to eat about five times a day, including three meals and two snacks, with about three hours between eating.

Keep the timing of meals and snacks approximately the same every day, although you can be flexible. The predictability of meals and snacks will help build your child’s sense of security and trust with food and meals.

Have a primary location for meals and snacks, preferably the kitchen. An occasional lunch in the park or snack in the car is fine, but you want one location to be the meal habit.

As your toddler gets older, you can “close the kitchen” between meals and snacks to avoid constant feeding, a risk factor for excess weight gain. Grazing should not be the rule, but it is acceptable at parties when toddlers get busy with playing.

Offer most food groups (dairy, meats, fruits, vegetables, grains, and fats) at each meal and don’t offer the same food over and over again. Mixing it up exposes your child to a wide variety of nutrients.

Sources:

  • Castle and Jacobsen
  • Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
  • 2013.
    Samour and King
  • Pediatric Nutrition, 4th edition
  • 2010.
    Rhee, K
  • Childhood overweight and the relationship between parent behaviors, parenting styles, and family functioning
  • The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
  • 2008
  • 615: 11-37.

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