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Food for Toddlers

Yesterday the Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp. launched a new line of toddler foods that promise to offer better nutrition than competing products and "No Junk" -- meaning no artificial flavors or colors, MSG, trans fats, added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or excessive salt -- in their recipes.

Photo courtesy of Beech-Nut
With names such as Wakey Flakes, Tummy Meals, and Seven-Grain Nibbles and packages featuring low-key graphics instead of the jump-off-the-shelf colors and cartoon characters featured by other toddler-food brands, the new Let's Grow! products are meant to appeal to moms who want to turn the volume down a bit while giving their kids something decent to eat.

A quick check of the products' Nutrition Facts panels shows that they are indeed devoid of "junk." And a chart comparing their price to that of comparable products from Gerber and Earth's Best shows them to be pretty similar, costing about the same, ounce-per-ounce.

So why am I not ready to rave?

I'm just thinking back to when my own kids were toddlers, just over a decade ago. I don't remember buying them any special "toddler" foods, outside of the occasional Zwieback toast. We usually gave them toddler-size portions of what we were eating (for better or worse), cut into bite-size pieces.

I checked my hunch with Frank Greer, professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on nutrition. He agreed with my instinct: "What does a toddler really need? A well-balanced diet like everybody else." That means plenty of fruits and vegetables, dairy, whole grains, and some meat or other protein. (Here are the federal government's 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which apply to people ages 2 and up, and here's a page full of links to information about feeding infants and toddlers compiled by the USDA. The government's My Pyramid program for incorporating dietary guidelines into daily life doesn't cover toddlers' needs. Jackie Haven, spokesperson for the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, says the agency "finds that doctors need to advise at that point, based on children's individual needs. It's hard to give general, global advice for children under 2." But, she adds, a new My Pyramid for Preschoolers will be launched on October 26.) Instead of Beech-Nut's "Fruit Nibbles," Greer suggests, how about some cut-up carrot or apple? "You don't need to spend any extra money" on the likes of these packaged products, he says.

"In general, fresh is best," he adds.

On the other hand, Greer admits, "I can't argue against the convenience" products such as the new Beech-Nut line and other packaged products offer.

That gave me pause. Because, as a work-at-home mom, I've always had the luxury of cooking meals for my family. Of course I've occasionally resorted to packaged foods, but not usually because I didn't have time to make something fresh.

So, here's the question, moms and dads: Do you find it hard to find time to plan, shop for, and prepare nutritious meals using fresh ingredients? How often do you turn to packaged foods to keep your kids fed? Do you check the nutrition facts, or do you go for the cutest character on the package?

(BTW: The New York Times yesterday ran in its Well column an interview with TV chef Rachael Ray about encouraging kids to appreciate healthful foods by inviting them into the kitchen to help prepare it themselves. It's an approach I heartily endorse -- with one caveat. if you've got kids who like to cook, you need to be careful about how you stock your pantry and fridge. My kids made themselves brunch this weekend: thick-cut bacon -- which I'd actually bought to use in a spinach salad -- scrambled eggs, and whole-wheat toast, with a few strips of sliced red pepper on the side. Delicious, yes, but suddenly that bacon seemed like not the best thing to have sitting around. Thank goodness for those red peppers!)

Alert: The FDA has issued a warning to consumers about tainted baby formula made in China. Read more here.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 16, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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We are a household comprised of two working adults and one toddler. The majority of the time our son eats whatever we are eating, but there are evenings that we get home late, dinner is taking longer to prepare than expected and our 1.5 year old is standing beside his high chair crying, "Eat, eat, eat." In those instances, we do feed him a prepackaged meal, like Gerber Graduates.

I'm pleased that Beech Nut is introducing this line. I already have working mother least when I'm giving my son a prepackaged meal I'll won't feel like I'm feeding him junk.

Re: prepackaged foods for the toddler set in general. I only buy unsweetened apple sauce and fruits that are canned in their own juices. I try to avoid corn syrup and artificial sweeteners and also go the organic route w/ milk, yogurt and eggs. There really aren't very many choices. Veggies are a little easier as we tend to eat fresh. I can steam or bake vegetables in a pinch.

Posted by: Ireneie in MD | September 16, 2008 9:02 AM | Report abuse

My husband and I both work full time and our 2 year old twins go to daycare. We either cook or eat leftovers almost all the time. We both cook, although I do more than he does. I also pack lunches for the four of us on workdays. Together we decide who cooks what on which days and make up a shopping list. The planning cuts down on waste and on prep time. For example, if I make one meal that requires rice, I make a bigger batch so later in the week I can use leftovers for fried rice. When I make chicken, I roast two at a time and then the leftovers go into other meals that week (or the freezer for later weeks). Leftovers of big batches of things like soups or stews go into the freezer for quick leftovers meals. We do this because we are both good cooks and find that packaged or takeout food doesn't measure up. The kids mostly eat from what we eat (at least portions of the meal). One kid is a picky eater who leaves the meat and vegetables on his plate, so I make sure he gets other sources of protein, fiber, and vitamins in other foods though the day--dairy, fruit, and whole grain foods he does eat.
I do read labels. I've always made a lot of things from scratch (for taste reasons and because cooking has been a hobby since I was a kid), but I do even more now as a way to avoid additives and transfats.

Posted by: TwinsMom | September 16, 2008 9:05 AM | Report abuse

My 20 month old twin toddlers LOVE fresh fruit so I always have grapes, nectarines, plums, grapes, etc on hand. Their eyes light up when they are offered fruit as if it were cake! Things may change as they march through toddlerhood but I hope not.

Every time I go shopping I look at those convenience products and consider them. So far, I haven't purchased any. I've found my husband and I eat better now that the boys are eating table food. They eat what we eat and I don't want them to have junk as a regular habit. Again, we'll see if this trend continues once they are old enough to be victims of mass marketing themselves.

Posted by: Cindy | September 16, 2008 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Our son resists anything that isn't sweet or hard as a rock or crunchy (gives everything the squeeze or smush test). He also has a strong aversion to carrots, which are in a lot (read: most) of savory baby foods (can someone tell my why jarred lasagna has to have carrots in it? Hello!). He eats a lot of prepackaged foods but he also goes to bed before 7pm, and we don't get a chance to cook usually until after he goes to bed (Husband and I both work). Occasionally I can get him to eat leftovers of what we had the night before, but usually it ends up being freeze-dried fruit, cheese, fresh banana, whole grain goldfish, etc. We've discovered a few new "likes" recently, though, so maybe this phase is going to be over soon.

I can't say I feel guilty about feeding him stuff from boxes or jars yet, since he is 1 and still learning. As he gets older I think that trend will change. (I'm not the chef in the house so that helps in the guilt department, I guess). I make an effort to give him fresh fruits whenever possible, but we are having trouble in the veggie department right now - having only 8 teeth makes it hard to find veggies he can eat (that he likes). We'll keep trying, though!

Also, those Gerber Graduates meals in the tray? They taste awful! Like school cafeteria food awful. We tried two of them and I called it quits. Maybe it is the lack of preservatives and the fact that they are "shelf stable", but Ick!

And he loves those yogurt melts by Gerber. I think the texture is terrible (think marshmallow bits from Lucky Charms without the milk to soften them), but he loves them. They've got dairy and are made with fruit juice not straight sugar, but still. He loves his crunchies. The puffs that Gerber makes though. Those are worthless. They're essentially candy made from grains - hardly any nutritional value at all - and they had to add that stuff to the ingredient list. I save them as treats on occasion, but my MIL loves to give them to him - went through 3/4 a jar in less than 2 days! I said next time give him Cheerios! At least they have more nutrition!

Posted by: Anon | September 16, 2008 9:28 AM | Report abuse

I have to admit that after I went back to work, I started to buy the packaged toddler foods (the little bowl-like containers of chicken and rice stews, organic pasta pick-ups, etc.) because making, packing and labeling a lunch for our 1-year-old each weeknight seemed daunting in addition to everything else that needs to be done. I usually alternate the packaged stuff with our meal leftovers. He's picky and doesn't have molars for good chewing yet, so to be able to count on decent nutrition that is already set to go the next day has made things a lot easier.

Posted by: MT | September 16, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Our nanny came over with her new baby and a gallon of "Nursery Water."

Posted by: zuzi | September 16, 2008 10:35 AM | Report abuse

What do you have against bacon? It's not like the kids are eating a pound a day.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 16, 2008 10:43 AM | Report abuse

when a coworker had her first baby a few years ago she was stressing a bit about packaged food when her baby went to solid food. i suggested she give the child whatever she was eating. she gave me the weirdest look and said she couldn't give her baby adult food. i told her she sure could, just chew it up a bit and give it to the kid. LOL her response? was ewww gross!! LOL i then asked her, what did she think people did to feed their children before gerber? i still giggle over that one

Posted by: NALL92 | September 16, 2008 10:45 AM | Report abuse

thanks for the info. I am going to try this! :)

Posted by: k24360 | September 16, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the great comments, Checkup readers!
They've brought to mind a funny but kind of embarrassing memory from when my daughter was tiny -- and teething. I was having a slice of pizza at a little place in the mall that we used to stop in after work sometimes. She was sitting in a high chair with her little bowl of dry Cheerios in front of her, and howling (which she almost never did in restaurants). The manager, a woman, stopped by our table and said to me, "For Pete's sake, give that kid a crust!" It hadn't occurred to me to do so, but I gave my daughter a piece of crust to chew on, and she was happy as a clam.

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | September 16, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Jennifer -- it's the planning that gets me. We have a whole variety of tastes/preferences in the house (DH = meat, exciting flavors, variety, no slow-cook or leftovers; boy and girl are Jack and Mrs. Spratt and are in the "I hate spice" phase). I don't run around cooking four meals a night, but I do like to serve a variety of healthy foods, with at least one thing that everyone will like -- typical meal might have marinated London broil (DH, me, boy); grilled potato (boy), onion, and sweet potato (me); and grilled pineapple (girl, DH, me). Plus I like to throw in one or two different, interesting flavors a week (pad thai, green chile, etc.), to keep things from getting too boring for DH, while also sprinkling in the stuff I like but he doesn't (salad, stews). Then, of course, I have to figure out what night to cook what, based on using up leftovers, what foods will last longest in the fridge, which nights I'll have the most time to cook, etc. Oh, yeah -- and I WOH full-time, too.

Most weeks, none of this is a problem, especially since I've always enjoyed cooking. But sometimes I just can't. Some days I don't have the time; others, I don't have the mental energy to deal with it. That's when I turn to the standbys that require no thought or effort and that everyone will eat. Those tend to involve more prepackaged stuff or general crap -- things like Annie's mac and cheese, hot dogs/brats, franks and beans, lunchables, Trader Joe's frozen M&C, etc.

So, yeah, I'm happy to see manufacturers making better versions of prepackaged food. I wouldn't consider them a staple by any means -- maybe once or twice a month -- but it would be nice to know that, even when I don't have time/energy to figure out what to feed us, at least the food I'm putting on the table isn't total crap.

Posted by: Laura | September 16, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Kids should just eat whatever the adults are eating. There are a ton of cookbooks available that provide recipes or tips to prepare meals that are pleasing to both kids and adults. I find what my toddler likes and exploit it. Not to judge but I haven't eaten pre-packaged food since I was a starving college grad so I wouldn't expect my daughter to want pre-packaged food. To each their own...

Posted by: mediajunky | September 16, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Fresh is best, no doubt about it, but on the other hand, with a second child there are countless times when I need to, within 30 seconds, grab potential snacks for a trip that "might" go long and if I didn't have milk boxes in the fridge and a ziplock bag of goldfish or cheerios then I could really easily hit a "Terrible twos" tantrum while stuck in traffic.

This concept that kids should eat what adults are eating is pretty lame. There are countless foods that my wife and I eat that my kids go on strike over- let's use chili as example, I love changing the baby after chili! Or Indian food. Or my older son who refused to eat anything with a sauce and no, silly, you can't just take the "sauce" off of soup or chili. My reality has been that when I didn't make something that I knew the kids would eat, they wouldn't eat- one time the older one wouldn't eat dinner for 5 straight days. You heard me, the old wive's tale that "they'll eat when they get hungry" is total bull. They will not eat if they don't want to eat what you made. Since then we make sure that there's corn or carrots or cucumbers or celery or beets or some kind of kids food on the table.

The idea that because you don't want pre-packaged food so your daughter won't is ridiculous. I'm a vegetarian, you think my kids care about farming practices? heck no.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 16, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

When my daughter was small, I fed her baby food from a jar - for about a week. Then I tasted the stuff and threw it out - it was disgusting. From that point on, I would break up or mash a bit of everything that was on my plate, and she ate what I ate - seasonings, spices, and all.
I work full-time, I do most of the cooking, and I cook mostly from scratch, I like highly seasoned food, and I eat a generally healthy diet, with an indulgence in junk/fast food once or twice a month.
When she started school, her main complaint was that there was no seasoning in the cafeteria food - it was always either too bland or too sweet. She started carrying a miniature bottle of Tabasco with her to school.

Posted by: lepidopteryx | September 16, 2008 1:25 PM | Report abuse

We don't keep processed/prepackaged foods in the house for the most part (although we don't limit the kids at parties, etc.). I've found it to be just as easy to throw fresh food on a plate (raw fruit, veggies, nuts, beans are super easy). In a pinch we do canned beans and sometimes bottled dressing (though they like straight balsamic vinegar), but otherwise we avoid cans and packages. The kids go through picky stages, but we always have 5-7 choices on the plate, so they can find something (we try to do the thing where we have something of every color of the rainbow on the table). I will buy some things precut to save time. We go through several pounds of produce and about 12 avocados a week. Our three kids (1, 3 and 6) eat a huge variety of fruit and veggies at every meal and, despite our crazy schedules (hubby works 90-110 hours a week and I run a business from home), we prioritize diet BIG TIME. :)

Posted by: Picky mom | September 17, 2008 3:20 AM | Report abuse

I don't think prepackaged always saves that much time. By the time you find the directions of the print-rich box, in your preferred language, and keep referring back to it, you could have sauteed a few chicken breasts while some potatoes are roasting in the oven. Maybe if I made prepackaged stuff more often it would go faster. So the other side of the coin is - maybe if people cooked from scratch more often, it would go faster. Which is a better skill to learn?

Seriously, though, the more you cook the better you get, and the quicker it becomes. I love that I can now whip up from scratch whole wheat pancakes without opening up my cookbook. It really only takes a few minutes more than fixing cereal for 3 small children. Now when they are older and get can their own cereal . . .

And, kids CAN eat adult food, but they only will if they are exposed to it from an early age, AND don't have kiddie alternatives to fall back on. Mine will eat Indian food - usually. If someone is in a picky mood, there is always the rice to eat so they don't starve.

I'm so pleased that mine all hate mac and cheese - because I've never given it to them. When they've had at elsewhere, they won't eat it. My mother never made it when I was a kid, and so I hate it to, not having tasting it until I was in college.

Posted by: Heather | September 18, 2008 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I think our one boy tried (and refused) one jar of baby food and the other has had none. No baby/toddler food. They eat what we eat. Or, just as important, we eat what they eat.

Our experience was that we quickly were forced to eat more healthy food, buy very few prepared foods and keep just about no junk food in the house.

Posted by: Josey23 | September 18, 2008 4:21 PM | Report abuse

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