Every age and stage has unique challenges. For me, the toddler stage is the hardest during the holidays. Toddlers are opinionated and full of surprises. They’re in an intermediate stage of understanding and establishing boundaries, increasingly aware of their surroundings, and innately want what others have.
Toddlers also begin to associate parties and celebrations with treats. While a birthday party may offer only cupcakes, holidays tend to have a plethora of options. The volume of choices amidst the busyness of the holiday season can be overwhelming for toddlers and parents.
Dos and Don’ts
Do offer age-appropriate portions. Toddler appetites can vary greatly, so start small.
Do serve treats with a meal or snack. Pairing with protein and fat creates a tummy-filling, flavorful plate and takes the spotlight off any single food.
Do offer familiar foods. The presence of a familiar food alleviates pressure and serves as a warm lead for new foods. If the familiar food is fruit or bread, that’s great! Avoiding “hanger” is the primary goal at holidays.
Do engage your toddler about foods. Talk about the color, texture, and flavor of treats. For example: The pumpkin pie is orange. This pie has apples and cinnamon. The ice cream is very cold.”
Do allow feedback. Guide your toddler in describing what he or she likes and doesn’t. Practice phrases like “I don’t like this” and “I don’t want more” in lieu of “ew” and “yucky.”
Don’t force your toddler to eat even when he or she ask for something. Pressure to eat creates a negative association with food and dysregulation with hunger and fullness cues.
Don’t comment on the amount eaten — big or small. Allow your toddler to taste a food, ask for more, or not try something at all. A simple “does your tummy feel good?” encourages him or her to check-in with their body.
Don’t skip snacks. Toddlers rely on a routine of meals and snacks to meet his or her nutritional needs. Snacks also prevent meltdowns from hunger.
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As a dietitian, I’d be remiss to skip public health guidelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no added sugar for kids under two years old and 25 grams or less for kids twp and older.
Meeting this guideline can be difficult, especially for toddlers. My practical recommendation is to minimize added sugar in foods that aren’t “sweets” versus fixating on treats. Choosing lower sugar options of everyday foods is both healthy and leaves room for treats without guilt.
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A flexible strategy is the best approach to managing toddlers and treats. If you’ve struggled in the past or unsure where to start, fear not! I’m sharing easy-to-remember, practical ways to reduce holiday stress. Practice these at home and be confident sharing them with family.
Tips for Success
1. Be Neutral
Young kids think in black-and-white terms. An adult saying something is “bad” or “unhealthy” can create fear and shame because kids take the statement literally.
A neutral approach to treats opens the door for boundaries that respect kids’ curiosity and natural desire for sweet foods. Neutrality also respects the fact that treats are a part of life, and sugar should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
2. Talk to Your Toddler
Toddlers do well with routines. Talk to your toddler about plans and expectations in advance. Be sure to keep the conversation positive and age appropriate.
Here’s an example of how to talk to your toddler: “We’re going to Nana’s house after naptime. Nana is cooking a yummy supper. I’ll make you a plate with foods I think you’ll like. You can eat what you want and leave what you don’t. After supper, we can have a treat like pie or cake. You can help pick!”
3. Set Boundaries
Holidays seem to invite commentary from people who don’t know your family dynamics. Set boundaries and expectations with adults in advance. You may choose to explain your stance on treats. Either way, be confident with your approach to treats and firm with boundaries with family, if needed.
Holidays can be a joyous and tasty time of year! Enjoy the day with your toddler and considering sharing some treats for some sweet, sweet memories.