Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, is a best-selling author and the mom of three behind the Instagram account, @healthy.mom.healthy.kids. Her mission is to help parents feed their babies and kids with confidence. To that end, she recently launched an online course called, Safe & Simple Baby-Led Feeding which guides caregivers through the whole process of starting babies on solid foods, raising adventurous eaters, and reducing the risk of food allergies. In this interview, Malina shares insights with us about re-shaping the nutritional habits and behaviors of our little ones.
Nutrition is actually a second career for me. I spent my first post-college decade working professionally in the performing arts as a singer, actor, and dancer (AEA, SAG-AFTRA) and spent a lot of time on tour. Throughout, I felt pressure from the industry to be slender and learned (the hard way!) that denying the body nutrients to stay slim is not the way to go.
Thankfully, the energy required to perform in 8 shows a week meant that I either had to learn to regularly fuel my body properly or stop performing. Through my own research and experimentation, I taught myself how to live a healthy lifestyle - whether at home or on the road with a show, and found that on an optimal diet, my singing improved, I looked and felt better, and I had significantly more energy, sleep, and clarity of thought.
As a result, I fell so in love with the science of nutrition and its potential to help others that after a decade of performing, I went to graduate school and became a registered dietitian.
My three daughters were all born within about 3 ½ years of each other, and it was during their infancy that I discovered my passion for pediatric nutrition. It was an intense time, learning to care for and feed their little bodies and exposing them to a variety of foods that they would actually eat (not easy!) while also learning to carve out space for my own self-care and nutrition so that I could be the mother they needed me to be.
After struggling with the gamut during my own motherhood journey – i.e., difficulties breastfeeding, a premature baby who wasn’t gaining weight, 3 c-sections in quick succession, food battles at mealtimes, picky eating behaviors, fear of a diminishing breastmilk supply, childhood food allergies that were difficult to diagnose, infant reflux, etc., it became clear that my heart was set on helping fellow parents navigate similar food and feeding challenges with their little ones.
Thankfully, we now have more research than ever before about the best time to start solids for most babies. There are risks associated with starting too early (before 4 months) and/or too late (after 7 months) which include an increased risk of type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, food/texture aversions, and delayed oral motor function. As a result, major health organizations including the AAP, AND, WHO, and the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) recommend starting solids at around 6 months of age once babies are showing the developmental signs of readiness for solid foods.
From a physiological standpoint, most babies don’t need solids before about 6 months, however, according to the new DGAs, 32% of infants are still given solid foods before 4 months.
This is not the fault of new moms and dads, who already have so much on their plates! Deciding when to start a baby on solid foods only adds to the overwhelm, especially when parents are navigating conflicting online information, changing guidelines, and differing opinions from friends and family members, as well as pressure to start earlier or later than they feel is right. This is partly why I created my online course for parents (Safe and Simple Baby-Led Feeding: Start Solids Without Stress) - to create a resource that breaks down the latest research on infant feeding into an easy-to-follow, stress-free, joyful guide that makes feeding fun, safe, and simple.
It’s important to address picky eating behaviors early on in a child’s life both for the sake of the child’s health and feelings about food and feeding, but also for the benefit of the parents. Bouts of pickiness & fluctuations in appetite are developmentally very common in toddlerhood, which makes sense when you consider that growth slows during this stage and appetite tends to follow. This is also about the time when kids start expressing opinions and looking for areas of their lives over which they have some control – like food!
However, giving in to a child’s requests for a different food than what is being served can lead to parental burn-out and make picky eating behaviors worse by creating an expectation that requests will be catered to. When parents understand early on how to respond to food refusal in the moment, picky eating either tends to fade with time and patience or parents and their healthcare providers together can uncover a potential underlying driver behind the behaviors that may require extra help from a specialist. Either way, early intervention helps prevent potential long-term nutrition- and behavior-related challenges from setting in and getting worse.
During these challenging phases, my goal in private practice and through my online course (Solve Picky Eating) is to help arm parents with the tools they need early on to reduce mealtime stress for the whole family, recognize when outside help is needed, and create a trusting, positive feeding dynamic with their kids that can last a lifetime.
Pre-cooked and pre-packaged meals for convenience can help prevent meal prep burn-out and make it so much easier for parents to feed their kids when exhausted, on the go, strapped for time, and traveling, but many are bland and only offer foods from a single food group – neither of which helps move the needle toward more adventurous eating. Look for options that contain no sodium and no added sugars and that offer a range of nutrients from multiple food groups, along with plenty of flavors.