Toddler nutrition: Good foods and bad foods?

I am wondering if it would help my toddler learn to eat nutritious foods by categorizing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and not allowing him to eat the ‘bad’ foods. He is still too young to understand the food pyramid. I think this may be simpler and easier for him to understand.

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

In the long run, you will probably do more harm than good by using this approach. Once you label a food as “bad,” if your child ever eats it, he may feel bad about himself, having done something in conflict with your expectations and approval. This sets up a relationship between the child and food that can, eventually, lead to eating disorders. I know that it seems like a very indirect connection, but there are scientific studies that point out how restricting foods (such as by labeling them ‘bad’) actually decreases a child’s ability to self-regulate. Research recently published the November, 2000, issue of The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, suggests that a child’s ability to exercise control over what they eat is decreased by any factors that draw a child’s attention to a food while simultaneously restricting access to it.

In the study, 195, five-year-old girls were fed lunch and then given free access to a variety of palatable snack foods. Prior to the study, both the girls and their parents were interviewed to assess the level of parental restriction on foods. After the snacking session, half of the girls said they ate “too much”, 44 percent reported they felt bad about some of the foods they chose and a full third of them said they would feel bad if their parents found out about what they had eaten. Researchers also found a direct correlation between the level of parental restriction to food and the girls’ consumption of restricted food, even when they were not hungry!

It seems that parental restricting of food not only increased intake of the food, it also increased negative self-evaluation when the child’s behavior conflicted with the parental expectations. These behaviors, combined with other circumstances are often associated with the development of eating disorders.

Therefore, it makes sense to avoid categorizing foods, or eating behaviors, as good or bad. That doesn’t mean you have to buy the “bad” food to have around. Instead, I suggest you model healthy eating habits, including the enjoyment of what you may consider bad foods, in their proper place. For example, you may consider hot dogs as bad food, yet having one at the local Fourth of July community picnic should be a guilt free, enjoyable experience. By allowing yourself and your children to experience these small pleasures will help to teach the appropriate place of foods. On a day-to-day basis, buying, serving and eating healthy foods will be the best way to teach your toddler about appropriate and healthy eating.

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