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Bad Toddler Eating Habits to Break: Distracting Your Child With Food

Apologies for the stern headline, we had to get you to click somehow, right? We really think that judging should be left for dog shows, so that's not our intention here. We also totally believe in the importance filling up your village with experts from different fields, which can only help to make for happier, healthier mamas and kiddos.

So we're bringing you a series on toddler eating from local holistic nutrition expert, Natasha Uspensky to help inform you of some potentially harmful habits that we are ALL doing with our kids. Honestly, I would love to not have a carseat full of goldfish, I can only imagine that there are other mamas out there in the same boat. So read on and feel free to send us your feedback!

-<3 Leah & Jenny

As parents, we hold the power to set our children up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits and a happy relationship with food and their bodies. The eating habits we enforce now, from the very beginning of their relationships with food, can determine how they will eat for the rest of their lives. But sadly, in this country (and pretty much only in this country), parents are set up for failure almost from the get-go with bad eating habits that have become the cultural norm when it comes to feeding babies, toddlers, and kids.

In my holistic nutrition practice, all of my weight loss clients have one (or more) of these three bad habits in common: snacking, emotional eating, and eating on the run. So much of the struggle with losing weight and keeping it off comes down to breaking these three bad eating habits, but when you’ve been eating that way all your life, or when you come from a household where those habits were the norm, it is much, much harder to move past them. Growing up with bad eating habits can set you up for a frustrating years long battle with weight, dieting, stress eating, body hatred, hypoglycemia, and in more extreme cases, even type 2 diabetes!

Thankfully, it’s not too late to break these bad eating habits, even if your child is no longer a toddler! But it takes commitment, and a bit of going against the grain. These bad habits are so deeply ingrained in our parenting culture that it can feel weird to be the one parent who’s kid isn’t attached to a cup of Goldfish or Cheerios. But I promise you, it is so, so worth it. You will save yourself and your child so many power struggles, tantrums, and frustrations around mealtimes. And down the road, you can feel proud that your kids have healthy eating habits and are set up for a lifetime of healthy weight, strong bodies, and efficient metabolisms.

I also share how these bad habits are impacting your child now, how they will impact them later in life, and what healthy habits to replace them with!

Bad Habit #1: Using food to calm/distract/entertain your toddler

Why this is a bad habit: When we use food as a pacifying tool to calm, distract, or entertain our toddlers and kids, we are teaching them two very dangerous lessons: your feelings don’t matter, and eating is a way to feel better. Now I know there are some dire circumstances (i.e.: screaming on an airplane, bored while stuck in line at the DMV, etc.) when a cracker is the only thing that will keep everyone sane and prevent a total meltdown, and that’s fine. But food should never be your go-to when your child is upset, bored, frustrated, or cranky. The only time you should give your child food (other than the aforementioned extenuating circumstances and special occasions like birthday parties) is when they are hungry.

Long-term impact: When we learn from a young age that food is a distraction from uncomfortable feelings, we are set up for a lifetime of struggles with emotional eating. We’ve all surely had bouts of eating our feelings: burying our face in a pint of ice cream after a breakup, stress eating pretzels after a long day, grabbing snacks at work when we’re bored. The occasional bout of emotional eating is normal. But when it becomes a regular, even daily occurrence — when it becomes your go-to for dealing with stress, boredom, fatigue, or sadness — that’s when you get into big trouble. When you’re eating from an emotional place, you are more likely to eat crap, eat too much, and ultimately, feel even worse about yourself. It’s a terrible cycle that is at the root of most struggles with weight.

What to do instead:

  • Anticipate your child’s needs and stick to their schedule. Most often, crankiness occurs because the eating/sleeping schedule was disrupted. If you know you’re going to be out during mealtime, pack a lunch for your little. Avoid delaying nap time whenever possible. Keep your child’s routine and individual needs in mind when you plan your day. An occasional disruption is fine, but if you’re constantly prioritizing your own schedule over your child’s needs, you are going to have a fussy, anxious kid on your hands.

  • Acknowledge their feelings. Too often, we shove food in our children’s faces without acknowledging the very real feeling that they’re having. Narrate what’s happening and what feelings they are dealing with. Often times, feeling acknowledged is all they need to feel soothed. (For more on this, check out Janet Lansbury’s blog)

  • Give your undivided attention. Food should never be a substitute for your attention. Most times, focusing on your toddler, talking to them or playing with them for a few moments can be enough to “refuel” them for a time.

  • A special toy that you save for when the going gets rough. For us, it’s a little purse filled with “grown up” objects: a wallet, toy phone, a squirt bottle, a silicone chew bracelet. Going through her little “purse” keeps M occupied for quite a bit, and is a savior for travel, longer car rides, or when we’re out and about running errands for a longer stretch of time.

  • Water. This is another one I turn to a lot. A sip of water, and sucking on a straw cup, can be very soothing to a cranky kid. I love our Pura Kiki Stainless Steel Water Bottle and so does little M!

  • A lovey or comfort object. Sometimes, just snuggling their comfort object, like a favorite lovey or stuffed animal, can be enough to soothe a toddler when they’re getting cranky. If your toddler doesn’t have a comfort object yet, now is the time to get one! They are wonderful for sleep, time away from mom, travel, and transitions.

Natasha Uspensky is a mama, holistic nutritionist, wellness expert, and founder of The Organic Beauty Blog. She believes in a holistic approach to wellness; that true health and happiness come from achieving a sense of balance in all areas of life — from food, movement and environment, to relationships, community and career. Through her private practice, writing, and online programs, she works with women all over the world to heal their health, and start living the lives they crave, in a body they love. She is the founder of NU Health & Wellness, and has been featured in Marie Claire, Redbook, Livestrong, All-Parenting, Giada Weekly, and Mind Body Green. Check out her Gorgeous Mama programs, designed especially for moms in any stage of their motherhood journey, to create a strong, healthy body, and a joyful, balanced lifestyle!

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