Compared to adults, kids do seem to eat pretty weird.￼ The classic "Food Guide Pyramid," developed by the United States Department of Agriculture, is intended to guide Americans in general. We tend to forget that it is not intended as a specific guide for children. (There is a food pyramid for children though). Children are growing; adults aren't. The concern is that children have markedly different requirements than adults, and lumping them together doesn't work.
Fortunately, children have a built-in drive to eat the way Mother Nature wants them to, rather than the way we tell them. It is interesting, and it may be comforting to parents to understand the two ways Mother Nature meets the special nutritional requirements of children: "Calories for growth", and "eating safely".
The Basic "Calories for Growth" Problem
Children need lots more calories per pound than adults, and their stomachs are a lot smaller. There's a problem. A typical three-year-old may need about forty calories per pound, while an adult woman requires only fifteen per per pound. How is Mother Nature to get all those calories into a child's tiny stomach?
First Calorie Solution:
Pile On The Calories
Children preferentially pile on the calories during the growing years. A child's body is 93% carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. That is fats and carbohydrates, folks. And that is what they need to grow, unlike adults. Kids need constant fuel and growth materials, in the form of macaroni and cheese, crackers, and pasta. They might eat meat if you load it, or coat it, with fats and carbs. (Hot-dogs, McNuggets). You still offer fruits and veggies, but they are characteristically not favorites.
Lots of fresh fruits and veggies is great for an adult who is no longer growing. It is especially good if they want to lose weight. However if children filled up on fruits and veggies they might never get enough calories to grow.
It makes you wonder where the proteins, vitamins and minerals fit into all of this. They compose that remaining small 7% of the body that we worry about 90% of the time. Mother Nature is incredibly scrupulous with these nutrients. Compared to calories, you don't need many of these. Take iron as an example. A full-grown 160 pound man requires less than a fifth of an ounce of iron in his entire body.
Our bodies have developed intricate storage systems to grab onto iron and other trace nutrients when they finally do show up in the diet. In the case of iron, the body builds a complex molecule, ferritin, to store this nutrient. Ferritin is ten thousand times the size of the atom of iron it stores. This incredible expenditure is made so that kids won't have to waste valuable "stomach room" eating all the green veggies you think they need.
Your body holds onto iron and other nutrients like crazy, and doles them out as needed, sometimes saving them for months. There are similar storage mechanisms for the other nutrients that children seldom need to eat.
Nutrient stores do run low, and children seem to sense it. We have all seen a child sense their need for iron or some other trace nutrient. They suddenly gobble down something they never liked -a whole bowl of green beans, or two bananas. Glory hallelujah! So you go out and load up the grocery cart with bananas and green beans. Of course, the next day they hate them. They got the nutrient they needed, now bring back macaroni. Liken it to a car that needs gas all the time, but an oil change only every 3000 miles.
The Other Calorie Solution:
Snack All Day
Three meals a day in that tiny stomach just wouldn't do it. That is an adult eating pattern, for people who work all day. Children would never get enough calories like that. They are supposed to graze. So Mother Nature gets these kids to eat macaroni and cheese, pasta, crackers every couple of hours. Don't expect them to sit there and eat like adults. They naturally will take two or three bites of dinner then want to leave. It may be dinner to you, but it is a snack to them. Live with it. Choose a good snacks for later and between meals. They may be snacks to you, but they are mini-meals to them.
The Other Big Feeding Concern
Mother Nature faces a second feeding problem that has nothing at all to do with nutrition and growth. It is fascinating that it has to do with your child's new found super-mobility.
By eighteen months old you have got a child who can not only walk, but climb, explore, and open things. If this kid wanted to, he could go out and forage for his own food. It is certain that many, many generations ago there were children who went out and did find their own food... berries, and the odd leaf or two. These experimenting children occasionally ate things that weren't too good for them to say the least. To say the most, they didn't pass on those gastronomically adventurous toddler instincts to later generations.
The Solution to Foraging
So the really successful toddlers were the ones that Mother Nature tells never to eat anything new. NEVER eat anything you haven't seen a gazillion times. Just eat what you ate yesterday. That sounds like a plan. In fact, pretty much eat the same thing every day. It's good for you.
It is interesting to see how this is related to super-mobility. An eight-month old who really is unable to forage, will try most anything. . Remember that greenish yellow pureed food? They seemed to love stuff that actually tastes pretty awful. They ate variety. There is no need to put that safety factor in there. However the more mobile they get, the less likely they will be to eat new things. That's Mother Nature at work. It's a safety precaution.
So when do children begin to try new foods? When they are old enough to understand the statement "Hey, are you crazy, don't eat that, it'll make ya sick!" Those parents that tell you that their kids eat everything... broccoli, salads, fresh fruits. They grow up well, as they, too, sense their own needs. However you better keep your eye on them when they are near the begonias.
Enjoy your kids at mealtime. Serve them varieties of good food, and let them choose what they want. Don't put out junk. Teach them that you respect a few mannerly moments at the table more than them eating everything on their plates. Enjoy your meal time.