Preventative care is always better than repair, especially when it comes to your child’s teeth. Getting your child on the right path with food choice from day one will help prevent tooth decay, extensive dental work and premature tooth loss. While it may seem a daunting task, setting healthy habits really only comes down to a few important principles.
Dr Rebecca Eggers, owner and principal specialist from Norwest Paediatric Dentistry, shares her top 5 tips on making the right food choices for healthy teeth and tums.
First things first: remember who’s in charge
Feeding your child is an important part of parenting. This means you’re in charge of the food. Not your child. But that doesn’t mean you need to force them to eat. According to the Ellyn Satter philosophy, as the parent, you’re responsible for what, when and where to feed your child.
But your child is responsible for how much and whether to eat the foods you offer. Essentially, your job is to:
- Decide on mealtimes, and provide scheduled meals and snacks
- Choose and serve a variety of healthy food
And your child’s job is to:
- Eat what they want from the menu you serve
- Eat however much they want
- Learn to eat the food you eat
But how do you deal with the toddler’s erratic eating moods?
It can be hard to feed toddlers. Most of them are sceptical when it comes to trying new foods (especially if they’re of the healthy variety!).
And, just to keep you on your toes, they might decide overnight that they hate something even though they loved it the day before. Or they throw a crazy tantrum when you refuse to let them eat what they want – like a breakfast consisting entirely of chocolate chip cookies.
That’s why many parents feel the pressure to cater to their toddler’s quirky eating demands. With the logic: “What’s the harm, as long as they eat, right?”
Not quite! Some foods really do more harm than good to your child’s teeth. But if you nip bad habits in the bud early, your little one will be on the right path to adopting healthy eating habits well into the future.
Getting into the groove with teeth-friendly eating habits
It might be challenging, but it’s not impossible for your toddler to be a good eater. With time, consistency and (lots of) patience, you can help your child build good eating habits. Here are some things you can do to ensure your child grows up with healthy teeth:
- Set a regular time for meals and snacks
Just like everything else in their lives, toddlers need structure with food. Make sure you provide meals and snacks at scheduled times, so your child knows when to expect to eat. While you don’t need to go full sergeant major if your kiddie cadets aren’t seated at the table exactly at 0800 hours, a roughly regular routine will go a long way.
Also, start including your toddler at family meals – have everyone in the family eat together at the same time and eating the same food. (That’s right – no special meals for the littlies). This will allow your child to watch you and learn by example. And gradually, your child will begin to eat almost everything you eat.
But what if you have a little fussy eater? One who’s refusing to eat or dragging the mealtime out? You need to set a time limit on meals. Put the food away after 15 minutes, and don’t offer any more food until the next meal.
As tempting as it is, you shouldn’t allow your kid to sit and pick at a meal for a whole hour (in hopes that they will actually finish it). Why? Because we need to give their chompers a long enough break before their next meal.
- Reduce grazing
Bad news for snackers – too much grazing in between scheduled mealtimes and snack-times is one of the biggest risk factors of decay. Eating small amounts of sweet food continuously throughout is worse than eating a larger serving of sweets in one sitting. Why? Because snacking means continuous sugar exposure to teeth. And teeth (and tummies) need time to rest and repair.
Try not to let your child eat or drink anything sweet – including fruits and milk – between meals. And ideally, every meal should be at least two hours apart. For toddlers, this means five meals a day: breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Let your child know that it is okay to be a little hungry in between the scheduled mealtimes.
- Stop bedtime milk at 14 months
Giving your child a bottle of milk at bedtime increases the risk of getting holes in their teeth. This is because milk contains lactose, which is a type of sugar that mouth bacteria feed on.
And after the bedtime feed, the milk stays inside the mouth through the night – increasing the risk of dental decay.
While the bed-time bottle may be comforting, it’s in your child’s best interest to stop offering night-time milk once they turn 14 months old.
- Serve a wide variety of food
It is important that you continue to offer your child everything in the meal you’re having, even if they don’t try everything on their plate. Try not to limit their choices and serve only what you think they like to eat, like pasta or bread. It can feel disheartening to see that poor sad pile of broccoli untouched night after night. But keep offering it. They may not pick it now, but will soon learn to eat what you eat if you don’t give up!
In fact, children may need to be offered a particular food anywhere between 10-15 times before they decide to try so much as a nibble of it. The key takeaway? Keep offering a wide selection of vegetables and meat alongside your child’s favourite parts of the meal.
- Take the ‘specialness’ out of sweet food
We all know high-fat, high-sugar and relatively low-nutrient foods such as sweets, chips and soft drink are bad for our teeth. But they’re so, so delicious.
However, restricting these foods can make them more high value in your child’s mind. Which can lead to a stronger desire for these foods. Quite the opposite effect than what we’re after.
Instead, try allowing sweet food: in limited servings. You might decide everyone gets only one scoop of ice-cream (no more no less!) at dinner time. Or, that they can have two pieces of chocolate during the weekend.
Do you use sweet treats as reward? Or take them away as punishment? While it might be an effective behaviour control, it’s also a sure-fire way to make these sugary morsels a special treat in your toddler’s eyes. So avoid it whenever possible.
It is also worth pointing out that when we give sweet food can make a lot of difference for teeth. For example, eating sweet dessert at night when you’re closer to toothbrushing time is better than munching on chocolates during recess at school, as the sugar does not have as much time to linger on the teeth. Serving dessert with a meal can help take its ‘specialness’ away.
Be considerate while consistent
At the end of the day, your toddler is still a toddler. They will still be a picky, cautious and messy eater. That’s okay.
Let them pick and choose from what you’ve served, even if it’s just one or two things off their plate.Don’t force them to eat something before they can have a ‘treat’. And don’t keep your tot at the table when they’re clearly done, hoping they will eat more.
As long as you keep promoting the above habits, and remember that you’re in charge of the feeding, you’re off to a good start!
Eating habits that require further support
It’s important to differentiate between picky eaters and ‘problem feeders’ – which is a more serious eating issue. The suggestions in this article may not apply to children who are neurodivergent, have Sensory Processing Disorders or additional needs.
If you think your child is more than just a picky eater, it’s best to speak with your paediatrician to seek further support.
Need a little further help?
The team at Norwest Paediatric Dentistry are experts at sharing fun and practical tips with both children and parents – for lifelong oral health beyond the dental chair. To find out more about their preventive dentistry and other services, visit Norwest Paediatric Dentistry. Currently, the team is available for kids in pain, emergencies and trauma.