by Marion Nestle
Oct 21 2010

Toddler eating patterns: the latest survey

Nestlé, the world’s largest food company (no relation) has conducted periodic studies of infant feeding practices since 2002, no doubt to encourage sales of its Gerber products.  The surveys—FITS (Feeding Infants and Nutrition) Studies—invariably show that Gerber  baby foods would be better for babies than what they currently are fed.

The latest FITS results, says the Nestlé press release, “are startling.”

  • One-third of toddlers and 50% of preschoolers eat fast food at least once a week.
  • On-quarter of families eat dinner together four or fewer nights each week.
  • Half of 2-year-olds and 60% of 3-year-olds watch more than one hour of television each day.
  • 17% of 2-year-olds and 24% of 3-year-olds watch more than two hours of TV each day.
  • 25% of older infants, toddlers and preschoolers do not eat even one serving of fruit on a given day, and 30% do not eat a single serving of vegetables.
  • French fries are still the most popular vegetable among toddlers and preschoolers.
  • 71% of toddlers and 84% of preschoolers consume more sodium than recommended on a given day.

If these trends are real, could food marketing have anything to do with them?  Nestlé/Gerbers does not speculate.

The survey does report some good news:

  • “Only” 17% of infants age 6-8 months consumed a dessert or sweetened beverage on a given day compared to 36% in 2002.
  • “Only” 14% of infants age 12-14 months drank a sweetened beverage on a given day, down from 29% in 2002.
  • 33% of mothers are breastfeeding 9-11 month old children compared to 21% in 2002

The breastfeeding trend, if true, is good news indeed.  Evidently, the word is also getting out on sweetened beverages.  Progress?  Yes, but plenty more to do.

  • Brooke

    I’m curious to know if 100% juice or diluted juice fell into the “sweetened” beverage category.

  • This is really interesting. I am surprised by the 6-8 month-olds eating dessert statistic. I remember my brother and sister endlessly eating creamed rice or semolina as babies, and I figured it was typical.

  • In my recent newborn essentials class, I was surprised to see a lot of parents who were shocked by the news that breastmilk has health benefits. Really. People don’t know this. Unreal. So I’m glad that stat about breastfeeding is at least growing.

  • I actually find the television-watching to be the most disturbing find of all. Jeesh. Thanks for making me feel like maybe I’m not a bad parent after all!

  • Marty Bigos

    I wonder how much of the “bad” pattern we are seeing is due to economic circumstances of the family. With many single parents working 2 jobs to stay afloat, and not a strong extended family structure, how do we expect children to develop good habits? TV and fast food may be the only options available. Food corporations are exploiting this opportunistic situation, not the cause of it, I believe.

  • Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever given my baby (now one year old) “desert”, but she is a bit of a graham cracker fiend. I wonder if that counts? I did try to give her a cupcake on her birthday, but she didn’t want it.

    The only sweet drink she’s ever had is breastmilk.She’s still getting that several times a day, and will do so until she weans herself or is about two years old.

    At least she’ll eat some veggies. My 3 year old has yet to meet a vegetable she likes. The most vegetable-like substance I can get her to eat is baked sweet potato fries. This is not from lack of trying, trust me. I don’t count regular french fries as a vegetable- she does like those, but they fall into the “treat” category in our house. She gets a “sweetened drink” (juice or lemonade) once a week, on average, and she has fruit everyday. She was also breastfed until she was almost two.

    @Jennifer- if DVDs are counted as TV, I’m guilty of letting my 3 year old watch an hour a day. She gets one show in the morning, after breakfast, while we’re getting everyone ready for work/day care and one in the evening, while I cook dinner. The baby watches, too, unless she crawls away. I pick educational DVDs, but I’m not kidding myself about the benefits. I suspect it would be better if they didn’t watch the shows, but it is also good to have time to cook dinner.

    But… we don’t eat fast food except as a rare treat, and we eat family dinner together pretty much every night.

    So I’m not sure how I’d rate myself on the standard implied in this survey. Maybe a B-.

  • Pete

    Ever see a kid put down a cookie in favor of a broccoli floret? Regular occurrence in my house. Kids like to imitate you, and my two year old sees me eating broccoli all the time. They do as you do, not as you say. Lead!

  • Subvert

    Understand the pressure points of the consumer base; plan an attack; and get ’em while there young – then their hooked for life! Isn’t this a proven model from the alcohol & cigarette industries?

    Emulate and aspire to one day be as successful as the masters…

  • Unfortunately, these results don’t really come as a surprise.

    For example, one 2009 study (see below) found that 1 out of 5 children (age 4) were obese.

    Researchers went on to estimate the following:

    Overall, more than half a million 4-year-olds are obese…

    Yet another example of the poor state of our children’s eating habits comes from Jamie Oliver’s recent reality TV program:

    The YouTube description states the following:

    Watch as kids in an elementary school class in Huntington, West Virginia have trouble identifying fresh fruits and vegetables. Huntington has been called the unhealthiest city in America where nearly half of the adults are considered obese.

    Hopefully, this survey and the information above will serve as a long overdue wake up call. Our kids deserve the most nutritious food possible. We owe it to our youngsters to give them healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables that will not make them fat or sick. There are no excuses for letting kids eat their way to obesity which will ultimately sap their health and vitality.


  • Jocelyn

    French fries are a vegetable? Come on! Lets get real. That is like saying zucchini cake is a vegetable. Actually, there is probably more nutrition in zucchini cake than there is in french fries. I have one work for those who seem to think there is not enough time to work long hours and prepare healthy meals for their children…SLOWCOOKER. Not only can I make healthy meals that are ready the second we get home (and I’m not talking about meals made with canned soup) but they are also very toddler appropriate. How about putting some effort into your responsibility people! You CHOSE to have a child now CHOOSE to take care of it responsibly!

  • Jocelyn

    Word, not work.

  • Pete

    Every single time I go out to eat with my 2 year old, without fail since he was about a year old, the wait staff asks if “we want chicken fingers and french fries for the kid”. A few times I got all uppity about it like, “why on earth would I want to feed that to my kid? Why would you even ask?”… but it’s not really the waiters fault. Its societal. And many times they BRING IT ANYWAY! Why are people so conditioned to think kids like nothing but fried crap?

    BTW – My boy Cygnus loves his veggies, and simply adores fruit, nuts and cheese. He likes his meat too and everything we give him is organic. That said, we do give him organic cookies, lollipops, cake, etc… on a limited basis, but the point is to give him the choice so it doesn’t feel forced upon him. He chooses broccoli over cookies, he chooses bananas over lollipops all the time. The kid goes to the fridge now and pulls out his own fruit (and raw broccoli much to my chagrin – that’s MY broccoli!). Occasionally he’ll ask for a cookie, but most of the time its bananas and apples. Its really been a challenge trying to raise him with good eating habits, so excuse me if I gleam when I actually start seeing the fruits of our labor.

  • King Krak, I Smell the Stench

    I challenge the notion that French Fries are a vegetable. I think they’re a soft plastic.

  • Renee

    @ Pete: I think it’s great that your 2-yr old makes healthy choices. My daughter did when she was 2 as well.

    However, a child’s choice of food is influenced more and more by their peers and school environment as they get older (also by corporate marketing, although I’ve been lucky in this way since my daughter has never watched a commercial tv program). This is why it is so important that we create a society where healthy choices are the ones most available, and why “public health” is important. Parents certainly need to be responsible, but it would be great if they didn’t have to battle the corporations to raise healthy kids.

    Kids do follow what we do, but as they get older it’s not their parents they follow 🙂

  • Anthro


    It was a typo – get a grip.


  • Unfortunately this study hits the nail on the head and hints at a much larger problem. As a dietitian working in a low-income community in Oakland, CA parents often bring their children with a bag of chips, piece of candy or fast food sandwich in tow. The families I counsel are overwhelmed, overworked and often don’t have the time or money to sit down and cook a wholesome meal for their families. As food advocates we need to advocate for a more just food system and better economic opportunities for American families.

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  • Heather

    I don’t believe it’s marketing that causes this. Junk food is everywhere and is much easier, and in some cases cheaper, than healthy food. Cooking can be daunting, especially for those who never learned how. Even preparing a piece of fruit is more complicated than opening a bag of cookies.

    Personally, I think kids watching tv while dinner is being prepared is preferable to kids watching no tv and not getting a decent meal.