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August 1, 1999
Feeding Your Toddler
Easy to swallow guidelines nourish even bi-cultural kids
by Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

As the mother of two toddlers, I've grown accustomed to mealtimes that are more harried than harmonious. Other parents assure me that this is normal. But adding to the confusion at my house is the fact that my little girls are half-French, and I'm doing my best to feed them bi-culturally. Some quintessential toddler foods--bananas, pasta, peas--cross international borders, but in our attempt to mind feeding guidelines for toddlers and do right by both cultures, we've come across some perplexing and often conflicting advice.

There are pediatric recommendations from France that sound downright amusing to our American ears. Who ever contemplated serving a 2-year-old "mini sweetbread (brain) sandwiches"? Other guidelines scream French, like "It is indispensable to offer cheese at every meal, making sure that you vary the kinds of cheese often," or "For a change at snack time, occasionally indulge your child with a chocolate bar and some bread." But there are also dietary "dos and don'ts" that stand in opposition to the guidelines we've received from American experts.

Take for example the French plea to limit toddlers to one snack each afternoon, if giving them a snack at all. A sample menu for a child of the same age put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics includes both a morning and an afternoon snack. And as countless American mothers can attest, a visit to a park on any given morning becomes a toddler snack smorgasbord. Or what about our cultural habit of cutting the crust off bread for kiddie sandwiches? My French in-laws marvel at our carelessness in allowing children to eat this mie de pain, or soft center, deeming it a choking hazard. French toddlers gnaw determinedly on dense, often-flaky baguette crust that most American parents would deny their children for exactly the same reason.

Dr. Maria Scranton, General Pediatric Faculty at Austin (TX) Pediatric Residency Program and a mother of two boys ages 5 and 2, confirms that "cultural differences make it difficult to dictate feeding practices." She reminds me that choking is a major cause of death in children, and urges parents to steer clear of hot dogs, raw carrots, hard candies, and grapes. (My French parenting book suggests offering children raw grated carrots and other small, uncooked vegetables as a prelude to salad eating.) "If I could ban one thing, regardless of a child's cultural background," insists Dr. Scranton, "it would be peanuts on airplanes. As a doctor I'm concerned about a child choking on an airplane without medical help available, and about peanuts' allergenic nature. As a mother, I hate the fact that I have to say "no" to those shiny packages everyone is receiving and my 2-year-old so badly wants," but she does it anyway, Dr. Scranton says.

Cultural differences aside, Dr. Scranton says the best feeding advice she can offer parents is not what to serve, but how to structure mealtimes. "Feed children in an appropriate, seated environment," she says, adding, "Kids should never be allowed to eat and run or jump around at the same time. This practice simply encourages choking."

Feeding guidelines for toddlers

  • It is normal for a toddler to eat a lot on one day and a little the next. Offer a variety of healthy foods and be flexible about how much you require your toddler to eat at one sitting.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks every 2-3 hours.
  • Be aware of your child's developing chewing skills and gradually introduce foods that are difficult to chew.
  • Remember that gagging is not something to panic about; it's learning how not to choke. Avoid foods that encourage choking.
  • Plan for a certain amount of messiness.
  • Peanut allergy is on the rise: consider withholding peanut butter and all peanut products until after the age of 3.
  • Serve food in small pieces that are easy to pick up.
  • Introduce skim or 1% milk after the first year.
  • Limit juice intake to around 4oz daily. Juice adds calories without significant nutritional value and extensive juice drinking will decrease your child's appetite for nutritious whole foods.
  • A good snack contains two of the five food groups.
  • Don't allow toys or television at the table or during snack time.
  • Sit with your child at the table and keep the meal social. It is good for the entire household to sit together for at least one meal a day.

Foods that encourage choking

  • Nuts
  • Whole hot dogs
  • Peanut butter
  • Popcorn
  • Grapes
  • Hard candy
  • Cherries
  • Olives
  • Carrots and other hard, raw vegetables