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Healthy Eating for Toddlers: Tips and Tricks

As with many other areas of toddler life, I think a little one’s eating habits and food preferences can be attributed to a combination of two main things: (1) the hardwiring of the kid and (2) what he or she is offered and how. People may try to tell you that your kid’s preferences for salty French fries or greasy pizza or sugary soft drinks are all your fault. But, it’s just not true. Humans are genetically programmed to prefer salty and sweet and rich, over plain or bitter. That’s just nature. Plus, different people like different stuff, naturally. Still, what we offer our kids, and maybe even more so how we go about doing it, has a huge influence on what they actually eat.

I’ve always been pretty mindful of what I put into my own mouth. Since pregnancy and nursing, I’ve paid even more attention to it. After all, what went into my body went into the peanut growing inside my belly and then into the breast milk that fed the most precious baby I had ever laid eyes on (Yes, of course, I know I’m biased.) Anyway, now that he’s no longer attached directly to what I eat, I’ve been putting the same amount of thought into what goes into my son’s mouth. I look at food as serving two main purposes. It’s (a) fuel for his busy days of exploring and learning and (b) the building blocks for his development. And, call me crazy, but I want high-octane fuel and Grade A blocks for my son. But, how to get him to actually eat the good stuff? That’s the challenge.

Admittedly, like the rest of us parents, I’m still learning. Still, in my experimentation, I’ve found several things that have worked. For now, at least. In case you’re looking for some ideas to get your toddlers to eat healthier, I thought I’d share. Here goes…

  1. Make sure he is hungry. I can thank my doctor for this one. When I was trying to wean my son off my boob and pique his interest in other foods, I was nursing him about every two hours. My doctor suggested to spread him out to 3.5 or 4 hours and to offer him other foods before my breast. My son went from hardly interested in anything, to hungry enough to try it all! Even now, months later, if I feed him less than 3 hours apart, he’s not into eating much of anything except his favorites (mostly dairy).
  1. Fruits and veggies first. This is kind of a no brainer. I mean, think about it. As an adult, if I have both pizza and salad in front of me and I go for the pizza first, I end up not having room for the salad. The same applies to kids. Offer what you want them to eat while they’re super hungry, and before you offer the things that they prefer and that will leave no room for the healthier foods.
  1. Keep all favorites out of sight until nothing else is going down. This goes along with the last one. My son’s favorite food (well, maybe I should say “ingestible thing” because it’s a beverage) is milk. If he even sees the white stuff in his peripheral vision when I open the fridge to pull out something else, it’s all over. It’s the only thing he wants. I make sure to hide it while I’m offering him the things I want him to eat first. (Not that milk is unhealthy, but as I’ve said before, my son would eat only dairy if he could. And, one cannot live on milk, cheese, and yogurt alone…unless he never wants to poop again. Enough said.)
  1. Let him feed himself. I said this months ago when I wrote about my son’s aversion to all baby food. My Jacob will eat a whole cubed kiwi off a fork–that he holds and uses himself. Yet, he will press his lips together and shake his head if I’m the one bringing it to his mouth. At this age, my son is all about independence, learning new skills, and especially being praised. Feeding himself taps into all of these, so it works.
  1. Plan for messy…at least sometimes. I must admit that I am just not that mama—you know, the one who is totally relaxed when her kids get disgustingly dirty. I can’t stand messes. They stress me out. Still, I remind myself that they are an important part of the learning process. It’s one way toddlers explore and discover. When I’m feeling a little less high strung than usual (sometimes this requires a glass of wine), I just let my son go with his messy self. I give him his own spoon and plastic bowl of yogurt or oatmeal. He smashes it, dumps it on himself, puts his hand in the bowl, and sometimes even makes some into his mouth. And, he’s learning…and eating healthy stuff…so I’m okay with it (or at least telling myself I should be.)
  1. Make it a game. I don’t fully understand this one…but my son is slightly obsessed with feeding me. He giggles when I take a bite that he puts in my mouth, and he’ll eat whatever I eat when we play this game. One for me, one for you; those are the rules. Try it with yours and let me know…
  1. Make food into shapes. I mentioned in a previous post that my key to de-constipating my son is making balls of crushed dates and nuts (scroll to the bottom of the post for recipe). He just likes balls right now. Soccer balls, baseballs, Nerf balls, and yes, date/nut balls. Hey, whatever works, right?
  1. Colorful is cool. One of my son’s new favorites is watermelon. (I have to share with you that he calls it “may-yay.” I’m such a proud mama with all his new words lately.) He just likes to look at it. He watches intently as I cut into the bright green shell and reveal its bright pink goodness. He points at whole watermelons at the grocery store, and at cubed pieces in a glass container in our fridge. I think he just likes color: not only is he eating canteloupe, zucchini, bright yellow spaghetti squash, blueberries, strawberries, and watermelon, he’s kicking for them. He’s pointing at them. He likes to hold them and see them. Eating the rainbow of foods is just a bonus.
  1. Healthier is okay when healthiest is not working. We all know that whole, unprocessed, natural foods with no additives are what we’re supposed to be eating. But, in a world where far yummier things exist, those ideal foods are just not going to be eaten 100% of the time. Sure, they’re packed with sodium, but my son loves veggie burgers, turkey sausages, uncured, organic all-beef hot dogs, and many other healthier-than-fast-food-but-not-as-healthy-as-fresh-picked-from-the-farm foods. And, I’m totally okay with that. I know parents who say that the only thing their kids will eat is McDonald’s or frozen chicken nuggets and French fries. While I can empathize to some extent, I just wonder if they’ve tried something in between Mc-ee-dees/Tyson and plain Brussels sprouts. Here are some compromises that have worked for us:
  • Whole grain versions of bread, crackers, bagels, tortillas, English muffins, pasta, rice, cereal, etc.
  • Healthy, prepared foods: there are healthier (natural/organic) versions of everything, including nuggets and fries—look in the health food isle of your grocery store or at your local health-food store
  • Adding a little butter or sprinkling a little salt on the things that won’t go down plain. Yes, I know that saturated fat and sodium aren’t great staples, but a little bit can go a long way when they make the vitamin-rich broccoli appealing.
  1. Change it up. I don’t know if this is just my Jacob or all toddlers…but my son gets tired of the same things. One day, he’ll love, love, love oatmeal, and the next day, he’s pushing away the spoon and saying “all done” before he takes his first bite. (He says this phrase just perfectly now…I’m beaming at the words even when he’s pushing away the food I’ve just prepared.)
  1. Eat whatever you want him to eat in front of him. I have gotten my son to try all sorts of odd, healthy things this way. One of Jacob’s favorite (newish) lines these days is “moh-uh-dat” (more of that), which he says while pointing to whatever I’m feeding myself. He has tried and liked black olives, hummus, and several spicy, curried Indian and Thai take-out dishes this way.
  1. Be persistent. For me, this sort of goes along with the last one. In spite of my husband’s revulsion to their smell, I eat hard-boiled eggs daily. After about ten or so times of asking me for a bite and gagging, one day, my son took a bite of my egg and said “moh” (more). He eats an egg (which he now calls “yay-guh”) almost every day now.
  1. Don’t offer it  (or have it around as an option) if you don’t want him to eat it. To me this is another “no-duh” sort of statement with toddlers. I’ve heard parents say, “once I introduced donuts and pizza, my kids never went back to cereal or sandwiches.” No offense, but…seriously?? I’m not saying never feed your children fast food, because I know whether it’s you on a rough night or grandma and grandpa buttering them up, it’s going to happen sooner or later. But, don’t keep doing it. The majority of kids won’t starve themselves. If I offered Jacob greasy, fried things all the time, he would definitely take them. I just don’t have much of them around. Again…um. Duh.
  1. Don’t eat it in front of him (or let him see it) if you don’t want him to eat it. With my son at least, if he sees almost anything, he wants to put it in his mouth. The problem is that keeping unhealthy things out of his sight is way easier said than done. And, unfortunately, the hard-boiled egg story I just told also applies to mommy’s favorite salt and vinegar potato chips. After several “whuzzat”s (what’s that?), followed by opening his mouth and gagging to the flavor of them on his tongue, my son acquired a taste for their tangy exquisiteness. No kidding. (Thankfully, I have found a healthier alternative: Pop Chips. Just as delicious, but with less fat and fewer calories.) To fully disclose, I should also mention that Jacob became a huge fan of hot fudge (I have a good recipe and make it too often at home) and McDonald’s ice cream this way. (This tip applies to mama’s time of the month and is evidence of her dietary weaknesses…what can I say? If you are stronger than me, please ignore tip #14.)
  1. Prepare foods in advance. Too many times, I’ve been caught empty-handed with a fussy toddler screaming for food. When I can, I make oatmeal and rice; chop fruits, veggies, and cheese; and fill plastic (BPA-free!) bowls of dried cereal, freeze-dried fruit, and whole grain crackers on Sundays before the craziness of the workweek sets in. This way, if I need to grab something quick, I’m armed.
  1. Have something quick on hand even when you haven’t prepared anything. Unfortunately, my little guy is losing interest in Cheerios (which used to be one of my favorite, simplest things to give him.) My new go-to’s, when he’s screaming in hunger and I don’t have anything prepared, are string cheese and Pirate’s Booty. Again, they are not the healthiest things in the world, but they are not the worst. Plus, they buy me time while I prepare the healthy stuff.

And probably my #1 lesson/tip/trick:

  1. Realize that sometimes even the best-intentioned efforts fail. Just like everything else during this wonderful period of toddlerhood, attempts to get my son to eat healthy don’t always work. When he’s teething, really tired or cranky, or for reasons unknown to me, there are times that a meal is just plain (whole, organic, white) milk. And, I’m okay with that. It’s the big picture, not one meal, that makes for that fuel and those building blocks I mentioned earlier.

Let me know if you have any other suggestions! I could always use more, especially during those times when tip #17 is the only one I can apply. Cheers to happy and healthy toddlers!