Updated on 05.23.07

Three Frugal Tips For Raising And Managing A Toddler

Trent Hamm

My wife and I have a son that’s nearing nineteen months of age. For those of you not intimately familiar with raising a child, this means he’s walking well, running a little bit, and has a vocabulary of about 75 to 100 real words with about that many more words he’s apparently made up himself. He eats the same table foods that we do (for the most part), but he also has very little grasp on what’s appropriate behavior and what is not. Everything is about playing and exploring and figuring out the world, all the time, and this means that meals are playing and baths are playing and attempting to be quiet and still during a church service is not going to happen.

Along the way, we’ve picked up a lot of techniques for not only allowing him to express himself and explore his world, but also save money in the process.

Odds and ends around the house make the best toys for him, not purchased toys. Most of the toys he’s received as gifts are largely forgotten in favor of playing with many of the types of objects we play with. He’d rather play with pots and pans on the kitchen floor or talk into an old cell phone or stack up canned vegetables than anything else. The only toys of his own that he plays with much at all are two small stuffed animals, his crayons (he loves drawing), his MagnaDoodle (which he plays with when emulating my laptop), and his books (he reads a lot, again, emulating us). The rest of the toys he has could probably go to the dumpster and he wouldn’t notice. The lesson here is don’t spend a bunch of money on new toys for a toddler, because most of them will be ignored while he emulates you and is creative with other things.

He has a select few “favorite” books that we read over and over and over and the rest scarcely get read. 90% of the time, if a book is read to him, it is Brown Bear, Brown Bear (which teaches color), From Head to Toe (which teaches body parts), or Go, Dog. Go! (which teaches colors, low numbers, and object relationships). He used to be really into My Many Colored Days, and there are a couple of new ones that he’s starting to like a lot. The real truth is don’t buy a lot of books for a toddler – just buy a few sturdy board books that teach basic concepts.

He’s learning dietary lessons from us, so we lead with the good stuff – and the relatively cheap stuff. Fruits and vegetables are inexpensive, especially in the quantity that he eats, so we make sure he stocks up on them. By doing this, he’s really learned to like most vegetables, especially carrots and green beans, instead of rejecting them. We usually feed him in courses, with the vegetables first, followed by something with protein (meat, eggs, cheese, etc.), then some fruit, but most of the volume is in the veggies and fruit. Really – we just get whatever’s on sale in the season. We almost always eat the same exact things as he does, though often his are more steamed or prepared a bit differently. In other words, don’t sweat what to feed your child – keep your own diet simple and eat the same things as him/her and lead with the healthiest portions of the meal.

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  1. Prasanth says:

    You just described exactly what I follow bringing up my 2 kids. The elder one is 5 years old and the younger one turns 2 in June. Kids learn a lot observing their parents and siblings. We have thought our elder son to put away his toys and clean their “play room” at the end of every day. Observing his big brother, the yonger guy has also started helping in cleaning the room recently. We hardly watch any T.V but read a lot – now both the kids are into reading and love to go to the library and pick up books they like. I agree with you about toys – their favourite playthings are what we play around with – no use spending money in buying expensive toys which are forgotten in a few days.

  2. Ted Valentine says:

    I have 3 and found what you say about books to be quite true. They have their favorites, and you will get tired of them, but that is their comfort. Children love routine.

    My wife usually incorporates a library day a couple times a month when the local library has story time. This introduces them to new books and gets a rotation going for variety. Plus its — free!

  3. Mama Money says:

    I have a 2 1/2 year old myself, and I, too, have found that it doesn’t take much to entertain him. I’ve found it useful to take presents he’s been given and some of his other toys, and hide them in his closet. When he gets tired of the few toys that he does have, I bring one or two out of the closet. Rotate them often enough and you won’t need to buy anything new!

  4. Hey this is great advice, thanks. Our daughter is only 8 months, but it’s good to think ahead. Also, I tend to be a neurotic over-planner for things related to her, so my instinct is to over schedule, over buy, etc., all in the name of “early childhood development.”

    One question for you: at what age did you switch from bottled foods (stage 1, 2) to “real” foods?

  5. Suzanne says:

    I raised my daughter without lots of expensive toys, and she turned out well! When I was young, we used the outdoors and our imagination instead of purchased toys our family couldn’t afford.

    Veggies are almost 50% protein, and when eaten raw, the protein is more available. A good book to read (with scientific information on how food affects your health) is The China Study.

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Miserly: about 14 months or so. It was a gradual process.

  7. Ted Valentine says:

    You want another little trick we do with the “too many toys” problem? Some may think this is wrong, but I don’t care. They’re our children.

    When people send gifts for a birthday or Christmas, my wife pre-opens them. (Don’t be shocked because people send inappropriate things all the time! And then try getting the bad toy back from the kid who’s already opened it. They want that thing more than ever now!). She will stash them away either for us to give them at the next birthday or Christmas or even to give away to a friend’s child.

    That way we never have to buy toys for our children or friends children.

  8. Todd says:

    Our little guy is nine months old tomorrow. He’s been eating stage 3 foods (chicken and rice, etc.) for several weeks. We’ve been slowly introducing table foods to see what he thinks. He likes peas, green beans, and carrots. Bananas. He LOVES cottage cheese.

    And Gerber veggie puffs are the appetizer at every meal. It gives him something to do while we’re getting the rest of it ready, and it lets him work on his hand-eye coordination. (Parental note: the sweet potato puffs are actually pretty good–they smell and taste like wafer ice cream cones.)

    It depends on a lot on your particular baby, of course, and when her teeth come in. At nine months, our son has 8 teeth through. He got his first two somewhere around 4-5 months.

  9. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Todd: that’s completely right. At twelve months, our son only had two teeth – they popped like crazy around month thirteen, though, and that’s when we started transitioning to more solid things (yes, like bananas, which he loves).

  10. Rick says:

    I can’t wait to have my own kids. This all sounds like so much fun.

  11. I dont have kids, but I can see how both of you are becoming good role models for kid.

  12. HappyRock says:

    I totally agree with the toys thing. We try and ask for money for college as presents, instead of toys. We also hide the toys he does get and bring them out slowly.

    Another thing that has worked well for us is trading. Trade some toys and books with family, neighbors, and friends. It is a great way to refresh and let other people try your items.

    Or 20 month old has just started getting into longer books(Cat in the Hat, Curious George, etc), so our collection is incomplete. We will be grabbing arms loads of books from family members next time we visit! Cheap, free, and they come with recommendations.

  13. Bil says:

    You forgot:

    buy all their clothes at yard sales, or swap for them among family/friends

    They are growing too fast to wear out clothing before it’s outgrown

  14. PF says:

    I have a rule when it comes to buying gifts for my nephews and nieces: books only. Their parents, our siblings, are very grateful for this. Just a heads up for those of you out there without kids who buy for kids. The toys might be fun for you to buy, but honestly, the books make a better, lasting gift.

  15. InspectorFox says:

    I have a nineteen month son. I agree with you that he does not play with most of the toys in stock. He loves to play with a red PT Cruiser car most of the time. He does not speak 75 words but much lesser and I am wondering if I need to do something for this. He will sit down and see few books like Good Night Moon, Number Shapes and asks me to read it out to him which I usually do :)

  16. Lisa says:

    A toddler toy I am most proud of is something I made of recycled materials. Kids go through a stage of wanting to MOVE things – whether it be soil from a potted plant, CDs, or folded laundry. This can be combined with the stage of wanting to stick stuff in holes. In my kitchen I had a large plastic container that sherbert ice cream had come in. It was round with a completely removable lid (think: oversized cottage cheese container). I cut one slot in the lid (about 3 inches long and maybe a half inch wide). I combined this with about 30 babyfood-jar lids and my daughter played nearly everyday with this…. putting the lids through the slot. I got the idea from her emulating me putting coins in a piggy bank (alas coins are too dirty, a choking hazard, and too small for her toddler motor skills). I stored this in a kitchen cabinet with the pots and pans and she typically played with it while I was putting groceries or clean dishes away.

  17. kim says:

    For excellent info on table foods, check out a copy of the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding from your library. There is a chapter that does an excellent job of describing how to feed babies table foods. I used very few jar foods for my youngest. The book describes the cues to watch for to know when your baby is ready to move on to more challenging foods. Remember, we have all been groomed to believe that jars of baby food are necessity items. In reality they are simply convience foods. Try calling them McBabyFood and you’ll see things in an entirely different light!

  18. mg says:

    We have a toddler that’s now 23 months, almost two. My tip is to use ebay to buy a used collection of items, because (a) it’s much cheaper, and (b) you’re doing the environment a favour rather than buying everything newly manufactured again.

    We did this for two things. For books, I found someone selling a collection of 60 toddler books. Got them for a knock down price. They’re all in good condition. They are about 10 or so that we don’t like (or our toddler doesn’t), but that’s fine. Since we did that, we’ve never had to buy any more books.

    Our boy became interested in matchbox cars. So I found a collection of 30 being sold for a great price, all in good condition. Got them in the post, and our boy loved to see that suddenly he had a whole bunch of them. He uses them in creative play, and we’ve never had to buy any more.

    That’s my tip: for toddlers and children, some things are a passing phase, so why not acquire a collection from others, and then if you can, pass it on.

  19. Martin says:

    Minor wee point. Apparently eating fruit at the end of a meal is not ideal because it sits on top of your previous food and takes a while to digest giving off gas. Might be an urban myth, I’m too lazy to check. I hedge my bets and tend to eat fruit as a “starter” or a snack.

    While we’re on fruit, fruit helps alcohol be absorbed into the blood stream much more quickly, which is why cocktails can get you drunk very quickly. Something to watch out for – or take advantage of…

  20. Shaine says:

    I worked as a Head Start teacher. At 12 months, we would start teaching them to serve themselves their own food and put away their toys.

    Of course, they made a mess with the food, but it served to develop fine motor skills and they like doing things for themselves. As for putting toys away, if they have just a few, they don’t make as big a mess and remember where to put them back. We would have them periodically put toys away while singing a “clean up song” (just make one up). Then they could proceed to play again.

    Transitions are important. You’ve got to sing or have something that marks the end of one activity before moving on to the next. This way they know what to expect and can act accordingly.

    We had songs for tooth brushing, cleaning up, washing our hands, eating, and whatever change in activity.

  21. MVP says:

    I like this post, and I don’t have children yet, but I simply must reply to Ted Valentine’s comment. Jeez, buddy, re-gifting your kids’ gifts is just sooo…gosh, I can’t even think of a word for it. I read the comment to my husband though, and he called it “heinous”. I can totally understand pre-checking the appropriateness of a gift if you have a giver who routinely gives questionable gifts. But what do you do when the giver asks your child(ren) if they liked the gift they gave?! And don’t you teach your kids to write thank-you notes? You must not, if they never even receive the gift…

  22. Andamom says:

    Oh Trent — You post these topics on days when I barely get a chance to post on my site — let alone read here! Oh oh oh…I have so many thoughts.

    1) On reading –
    -At the baby shower, ask for a book for the baby’s library.
    -Pick up used books at yard sales or ask for hand me downs.
    -Take a trip to the library — this offers a wide range and free selection to choose from + you’ll meet other parents in the community!

    2) Odd and ends are right! Toddlers don’t need plastic crap. My son is infatuated with the mylar balloon that someone gave him. He also likes pots and pans, paper, all of our electronic gadgets (from phones to remotes to the computer), his socks (he likes to tote them around the house like prized possessions), etc. And, he is 12 months old — so to every object that he touches (rightly or wrongly), we will name. Sorry Fisher Price and Leap Frog…

    3) Always lead by example — with food, actions, and positivity. For food, junior needs a balanced diet (less milk than when s/he was a baby) and plenty of vitamins and minerals found in all natural foods. Eating healthy also means trying new things, finding colorful options, and taking the time to plan to eat right. Baby food doesn’t need to come from a jar — it came be prepared — and toddler food can be chopped into little pieces.

  23. Wow, I think your son has great parents. I like the fact that you are starting him on healthy habits now. Some of us are just trying to get those established by ourselves. My parents taught me a lot of stuff, but they didn’t teach it to me on purpose. I wonder how different I would have been if….

  24. Lisa says:

    Just to add an additional two cents. I recommend that new parents read Baby Bargains (isbn 1889392251). I liked the advice. For example: buy cotton clothes instead of polyester (polyester is very common in kids stuff) since it lasts longer and doesn’t pill up; what to look for in high quality clothes (eg: reinforced snaps); if you go with jars of baby food, get the good organic stuff (they list companies) because you won’t be doing jarred for very long so the additional price may only come to ~$60. I can honestly say I learned stuff from the book.

    garage sale, garage sale, garage sale, garage sale.I will never buy a new childrens book because every garage sale (with kids stuff) has 10 cent books. I have actually gifted several garage sale books because they were Brand New. 90%, maybe more, of my daughter’s cloths are from garage sales (not counting underwear and socks). Even snow suits and snow boots I got off ebay (nice LLBean stuff).

    Finally, we skipped sippy cups and just used regular cups. The only exception was for long trips in the car.

  25. SJ says:

    I disagree with the books part. We have lots of books. And my son (now 2) loves reading – yes, he has favorites now and then, but he will also pull out one we haven’t read in a few months and remember parts of it! So while I agree with buying them cheaply (garage sale/paperbackswap, etc), I do think it is well worth it to have a good number/variety.

  26. Z says:

    Would like to get off the “jar food”
    Find my self ” mouth feeding ” mashing…things that are to hard for my son to eat..that I’m eating at the time that he wants to try.He eats Gerber jar food…wheats,soft potatoes,bananas,cheese ,yogurt
    Soft fruits “jar fruits” Help I feel as if I could
    be doing something different…
    Mom of 15 months

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