Infants and toddlers should eat specific foods that support and strengthen their digestive systems. Their stomachs and spleens are weak and need extra care.
When to feed your children is just as important as what to feed them. You should think about your child’s digestive health looking at daily and yearly, or seasonal, cycles. Paying attention to mealtimes each day, and what children eat over the course of the year, will help you improve digestion for your little ones and the whole family!
Just a quick reminder: children are not mini adults.
They have weaker digestive systems that may easily become blocked through poor diet, overeating, or eating too quickly. Early symptoms that your child has food stagnation include:
- abdominal pain
- bad breath
- pungent gas
- waking up during the night
- refusing to eat because they feel abdominal distress
Rest assured! You have great power in what you feed your child and when!
This article focuses on when to feed your child and why. Having a daily and yearly schedule will ensure greater health and well-being!
Feeding infants on a schedule
Dr. Bob Flaws, an expert and author on pediatric Chinese medicine, is one of many Chinese medicine doctors who stress the importance of feeding infants on a schedule.
Dr. Flaws specifically recommends 2-4 ounces every four hours (ideally breast milk). While he acknowledges that each infant has its own metabolic rate, this schedule allows for excellent nutritional levels and prevents excessive weight gain.
Experts in China and Japan do not believe that rapid weight gain is healthy or beneficial for infants. Dr. Flaws also notes that many advocates of the macrobiotic diet in Japan point to western foods, a desire for rapid weight gain, and feeding on demand for rising obesity and its associated illnesses.
Feeding on a schedule allows the infant to work through discomfort when hungry and hones the body’s ability to completely process and digest food prior to the next feeding. These habits build a willingness to make healthy food choices and follow healthy eating patterns in the future.
Dr. Flaws and other Chinese medicine doctors also report that feeding on a schedule decreases colic, earaches, coughs, and colds in infants. The schedule prevents food from stagnating in the digestive system, setting little ones up for a strong health history, versus one of illness.
As shown in both western and Asian research, breastfeeding is ideal. Later articles will cover what mothers can do to ensure rich lactation and what to feed if they cannot breastfeed.
Daily cycles and feeding children
Parents often ask about how to improve digestion in toddlers. Chinese medicine principles can help!
In Chinese medicine, our bodies follow a daily clock with each organ system playing an important role during a specific time each day.
Following the rhythm of the clock serves as an excellent guide by which to create a daily schedule for your family. This guide teaches you how to improve digestion in toddlers and older children, as well as you, their parents!
Breakfast 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM
If you look at the clock below, you will see that 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM each morning is the time for the Stomach. The body has been at rest in the night and needs fuel to recharge and nourish the blood and qi.
Following this feeding schedule, the entire family should ideally eat breakfast during this time frame. Often work and school schedules may interfere but eating as close as possible to this time window will maximize the ability of the stomach to begin the digestive process.
Preparing oatmeal, millet, pumpkin, Chinese yams, or other foods can be completed in 20 minutes. Or you could use a slow cooker to prepare the food overnight to have it warm and ready at breakfast.
Children’s stomachs are weak and sensitive. Sticking to this schedule gives the stomach the best opportunity possible to successfully digest the food and send it to the spleen for the process of separating turbid (waste) and clear (nutrients) materials.
The goal is to prevent food stagnation which can lead to:
- weak nutrient absorption
- emotional control problems
- other health issues
Lunch 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
According to the Chinese medicine body clock, the hours of 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM are all about the heart and circulation. The body needs nutrients to recharge and enhance the flow of blood and qi through the heart.
Lunch should be the largest meal of the day. Cooked grains such as rice congee, steamed or wok-fried greens and vegetables, and small amounts of proteins provide the nourishment needed at this time of day (if you’ve introduced them into your child’s diet – see our article on introducing solid foods).
If using pouches of pureed vegetables or meats, make sure to warm in hot water before giving to your child. Ideally you should prepare fresh, whole foods once your child is older and able to chew thoroughly.
A relaxed lunch environment allows children to chew thoroughly, further aiding digestion.
Too often children eat foods that hurt their digestive systems. Examples include:
- dried foods
- processed foods
- cold yogurt
These foods do not warm their digestive systems or nourish their bodies. These kinds of foods can also lead to food stagnation because they are cold, contain large amounts of sugar and/or salt, and have been overly processed.
You might need to work with your daycare provider if you work outside of the home. There are lots of containers to keep food warm so your child can have a proper meal at lunch time.
Dinner 5:00 – 7:00 PM
Eating together in a calm environment is important for dinner time and a key part of supporting your child’s digestive health. The kidney is the dominant organ system at this time, and it is processing all of the food, air, and activities of the day, preparing to eliminate and settle for the evening.
A relaxed dinner calms the body’s energy, fills it with positive feelings and energy (endorphins in the west), and prepares the mind to rest.
A light meal of warm, nourishing foods is ideal for all family members, including children. Rich broths with vegetables and a small quantity of soft noodles supports the digestive system for the evening (mung bean or millet noodles are a great choice).
What about snacks?
Ideally, children should adjust their bodies to eat on the schedule described above, eating enough food at mealtimes to satiate their hunger.
If children seem to be digesting their food without any symptoms of food stagnation, such as hiccups, colic, constipation, emotional problems, etc., you could introduce snack time mid-way between feeding times. Remember, the goal is healthy digestion for children!
For example, if your child finishes breakfast at 7:00 AM, and you will serve lunch at 11:00 AM, snack time should be at 9:00 AM.
Serving the right foods for snack time is just as critical as which foods you serve at meals. They should be whole foods (pureed if the child is young) and warm.
You're trying to heal not harm your child's digestive system!
Remember, the following foods create a greater likelihood of your child being addicted to sugar and salt flavors, and do nothing to provide essential nutrients for your child’s growth.
- processed foods
- dried foods
Seasonal cycles and feeding children
Just as our bodies have different needs throughout the day, so too do they over the course of the year. Children are even more sensitive to the changing seasons than adults. We need to take extra care with what they eat each season to make sure they have what is appropriate for their growth and development.
Keeping your children healthy with Chinese medicine is made easier when following these seasonal guidelines. Yang Hua and Guo Wen, Chinese medicine nutritional experts, recommend the following practices and recipes across the four seasons.
Ancient Chinese medicine scholars and modern researchers observed that the body usually absorbs nutrients better when the temperature is cold due to a slowing down of the metabolic rate.
What this means for your child is that you can add more meats to the family diet in the winter (if you already introduced meats).
Beneficial foods in the winter include:
- Chinese yams
- pork with carrots
- chicken with baby cabbage
Sunshine is more scarce in the winter months, bringing with it nutritional concerns. For older children you might want to give them cod liver oil, as Chinese medicine and western research both support its used to help children get enough Vitamin D.
Older children also benefit from red and yellow-colored vegetables during the winter as they are rich in Vitamin A. Foods rich in zinc, such as meat, seafood, and eggs also help nourish children’s bodies and prepare them for growth in the spring.
If children are struggling with cough with phlegm, the following recipe can really help!
- 1 daikon radish (average size about 6-8” long)
- 3 tsp honey
White daikon radish juice with honey help reduce or eliminate phlegm, which can lead to coughs, ear infections, runny noses, and more
- Liquidize the radish in a food processor or blender
- Mix 5 tsp radish juice with 3 tsp honey
- Administer to your child 1-2 times per day and continue for 3 days
As always, consult with your healthcare provider immediately if your child has a high fever, or if the cough persists beyond three days.
The latest research shows that children grow most rapidly in the spring. Solid foods for your infant and toddler should be easy to digest foods that support this growth and keep the digestive tract functioning smoothly.
The goal is to prevent food stagnation which can lead to:
An additional benefit is boosting your child’s immune system to fight colds and flu, easily contracted due to spring’s rapidly changing temperatures.
An especially wonderful and highly nutritious option is Eight Treasure Congee.
- 12 cups water
- 1 cup rice
- 5 cups water
- ½ cup red adzuki beans (pre-soaked 24 hours)
- 10 each lotus seeds
- 5 each jujube (Chinese dates)
- ¼ cup either walnuts, peanuts, or pine nuts (if part of your child’s diet)
- ½ inch cube rock sugar
- Add 12 cups water to large soup pot and bring to a boil
- Add 1 cup rice and stir for five minutes
- Reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 hours
- Add 5 cups water to a medium saucepan
- Bring to a boil and add red adzuki beans, lotus seeds, and jujubes then stir
- Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes
- Pour ingredients into strainer and allow to cool
- Remove seeds from jujubes and chop finely
- Mash or chop beans and lotus seeds finely
- Add to congee
One of the greatest concerns in summer for your child’s fragile systems is dehydration. Water works best to hydrate as it mirrors the body’s cells.
Older children should eat plenty of roughage, such as green mung beans mixed with rice congee. Mung beans are cooling and moistening.
Water chestnut quenches thirst and strengthens the appetite when eaten as a dessert. If your child has a heat rash, boiled water chestnuts with rock sugar are a great option. Serve children the cooled water broth until the symptoms recede.
Sweets, especially cold treats like yogurt, ice cream and popsicles, increase heat and can hurt children’s digestion.
If children do eat sweets, it’s important that they only do so after eating a meal. That will reduce the harmful effects of the cold and sugar. Limiting or eliminating processed sugars is your best option.
Natural sugars from fruits, such as watermelon, can provide nutrients. These foods should still be treated as a sugar though. Protect your child’s digestion by offering them these treats after they finish their other foods, not on their own as a snack or before a meal.
While watermelon and other melons are still plentiful in late summer, do not serve them to your child after the beginning of August. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, “Autumn melons hurt the bowel.”
August marks the beginning of autumn on the lunar calendar, and your goal should be to help your children release summer heat. Children are already heavily yang in nature, marked by high energy and a rapid metabolism. This makes cooling after the summer even more important.
Foods that help release summer heat and begin cooling the body down to stay healthy in the fall include:
- fish soup
- golden needle mushrooms in chicken soup
- scallion whites and ginger soup (to stop a cough)
- stewed lily bulbs and honey.
Children thrive best when you help them eat according to a daily and seasonal schedule. Following the Chinese medicine body clock helps you make decisions about the best times to feed your child. Paying attention to the seasons and what foods will keep your children healthy is also important.
Hopefully you can prepare foods from fresh ingredients. Cooking with your children as they get older strengthens your relationship with each other and builds healthy habits to last a lifetime.
Following these guidelines is an important step to supporting your child's digestive health! Feel free to contact us with questions and to sign up for our email list to receive recipes and other programming updates.