Do you think packaged meals are a good choice for children? Think again. A Centers for Disease Control study of commercial foods released this month reports that more than seven in ten packaged meals for toddlers and young children have too much sodium and more than a third of cereal bars and breakfast pastries contain too much sugar. The good news is that this is not true for infants’ foods (up to one year of age; most foods intended for them are made from simple ingredients and are appropriately low in sodium and added sugars.
A diet filled with extra salt and added sugar in these early years can program their taste buds to want more of those kinds of foods, which can lead to bad eating habits for the rest of their lives. Giving children pre-packaged meals and snacks goes against most parents’ goal for their children’s food: serve a nutritious, balanced diet that helps them develop into strong individuals, both physically and emotionally.
What should you feed your toddler? Once children hit the toddler stage, their food tastes start to change. They are exploring more foods with different textures. They are learning to feed themselves and are more aware of what others are eating. This is the time to set a good example of how foods should look and taste. Teach them to try new things and give them variety. Think small servings for toddlers. A large plate of food can be overwhelming for them. Make meals ahead of time and freeze them in toddler-sized portions so you can serve them a quick snack or meal.
Toddlers need a diet high in good fats (primarily plant-based) to help boost brain development, build their immunity to diseases, and help their bodies absorb nutrients, among other things. Giving growing children the appropriate amount of omega-3 fats has a direct impact on their overall health. These types of fats are not typically found in packaged foods, which also lack nutritious whole grains.
When looking for fruit and vegetable options, packaged food labels often proclaim, “Made with real fruits and vegetables.” This usually means these ingredients are included but have been highly processed. If you want to give your little ones real vegetables and fruits, just buy them fresh or frozen—without added ingredients.
The best beverage choices for thirsty toddlers are water and milk. Skip the fruit juices, which are usually high is sugar and artificial ingredients. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables helps keep children hydrated, too.
Filling up on too many salty and sugary snacks throughout the day can also adversely affect what your toddler eats at mealtime. On the other hand, balanced, vitamin-packed snacks can help to supply nutrients that may be missing at mealtime. Toddlers will snack on what is available, so offer fruits and vegetables instead of packaged crackers. If your child goes to a childcare facility, ask about the snacks they serve, or encourage your childcare provider to use the Twist and Sprout program to ensure your child is getting the most tasty and nutritious meals and snack possible.
Parents’ busy schedules sometimes make it difficult to prepare homemade food. If a time crunch has you reaching for pre-packaged convenience foods occasionally, pay attention to the nutrition labels. Avoid foods with added sodium and sugar and eliminate as many processed foods from toddlers’ diets as possible. It will help their growth and development now, and set the stage for them to make good food choices in the future.