I have been in Vietnam for nearly four years, and my biggest challenge as a health and education consultant centres on food. There seems to be many misconceptions in Vietnam around solid food, milk, nutritional needs, and forceful feeding of toddlers, so I would like to dispel some persistent myths.
First, let’s talk about solid food. Babies are generally ready to start eating solid food at five or six months. You can tell a baby is ready when they reach for food, can sit up well on their own, and generally weigh around twice their birth weight. It’s important to start easy, with rice cereal, and slowly add in pureed meats, vegetables, and fruits. Between seven and 11 months, babies can be introduced to finger food – small bites of fruit, vegetables, pasta, and soft meat. After they turn one, they can generally eat the same food as an adult, starting with one-quarter of an adult portion and increasing as the child grows and asks for more.
Second, let’s talk about milk, especially powdered formula milk. Many parents believe formula is high in nutrients their children are lacking: the truth is that these nutrients can easily be found in food, and this misinformation is simply good marketing. Formula is not recommended after 12 months of age. Continuing past this age can lead to all kinds of problems, both physically and behaviourally. Children can become overly dependent on milk, which can lead to a delay in eating normal food. The sugar in this milk is very filling, which reduces a child’s interest in eating other food that they need to grow. Excessive formula milk can lead to tooth decay, hyperactivity, acid reflux, stomach aches, poor appetite, an imbalance of gut bacteria, and a higher risk of later obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Third, I would like to mention nutritional needs. Each day, nutritionists recommend that toddlers get 3 oz of grains, 2 oz of protein, 1 cup of fruit, 1 cup of vegetables, and 2 cups (16 oz) of dairy. Experts also advise giving children milk with their food, not as a separate occasion, so that children have time to feel hungry. Ideally, children are eating three meals and two snacks a day, evenly spaced by two or three hours.
Lastly, children generally start to show an interest in feeding themselves around 14 months, and can usually master the spoon by 18 months. Yes, children might make a mess, but it’s part of the learning process! Ellyn Satter, an early childhood food expert, explains that children should be in charge of how much and whether or not they eat, and that caregivers need to be in charge of the what, where, and when of eating. Parents and teachers need to ensure they are providing healthy food, at consistent times, in a safe and comfortable environment.