12 Tips to help get your toddlers to eat healthier
“You provide the what, where, and when, and your child decides the if and how much.” Dr Mark Hyman
It’s noon and that means naptime for Tommy (my 1.5 year old). And though I’d much rather get some work done, I realize there’s nothing for him to eat when he wakes up. On goes my chef hat rummaging through the fridge to scope out the scene. In the sauce pan goes olive oil and garlic to saute some vegetables….made quickly yet still with love. Now comes dinner time and half of it is on the floor while the other half gets a deep tissue massage from these tiny, yet strong little fingers in the middle of the table. I know all too well what it’s like to have days like this, though I have to admit they’re getting fewer and fewer. It’s definitely taken a lot of time and patience and I’m sure there will be ebbs and flows, but being a yogi I like to live in the moment, and in this moment… we’re not doing so bad. It took lots of research followed by some trial and error, but I’ve developed a solid list of some things to consider when trying to get your toddlers to eat better.
Eat with them whenever you can
Research has shown that children who share meals with their family may be 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24% more likely to eat healthy foods, and 12% less likely to be overweight (Hammons & Fiese 2011). This is especially important as kids get older, but there’s really no reason to wait, even if it’s just for one meal a day. I always make it a point to sit down with Tommy and take a few bites of my own food, or maybe just my cup of morning coffee or smoothie. We turn on his music, and create a fun atmosphere. I realize that schedules don’t always allow for this to happen, just make a mental note, and when the weekend comes around, get in the habit of enjoying more meals as a family. It’s great for everyone!
Be careful of too many snacks
It is often suggested that toddlers and growing children should eat every 2-3 hours. This is broken up into 3 meals per day and 2 snacks, (one am and one pm). Though children need to take in extra calories if they’re in the midst of growth spurts, be careful. First off, “snack-type” foods like cheerios, puffs, crackers, even too much fruit can fill them up and by the time the actual meal time comes around (usually when healthier foods like vegetables are served) they’re not too into it. When kids sit down for dinner, we kinda want them to be hungry, otherwise, it’s “let’s see how far I can fling this green bean across the table.”
I’ve learned that giving Tommy his vegetables after he’s been snacking on bananas and cereal puffs, never goes well. That said, a few healthy snacks through the day are completely fine, just be sure to space them out nicely and go for high quality foods.
Get creative, but keep it simple
I love seeing cute pictures of toddler meals on instagram where the eggs look like ducks and the melon is carved out to look like a princess, and though I appreciate their beauty and creativity, I tend to veer away from going overboard. Firstly, because it’s not realistic for most people to continuously come up with a huge spectacle every time they serve a meal, and on social- media it has the potential to alienate well-intentioned parents who simply don’t have the time to create firework displays every night. For some, it’s difficult enough just to get a hot meal on the table, and if we are stressed out as parents, it will no doubt reflect our children’s eating experience. Secondly, it entices children for the wrong reasons. Though I do believe that seeing food in a different way can get them excited... (I mean it’s absolutely adorable to have a block of cheese that looks like a set of dominos) but is that really getting kids excited about the real food itself? Colorful, fresh food should be enough. Yes, your broccoli can look like trees but it doesn’t need sunglasses and a pair of sandals.
Sneaking food in is a fine place to begin
In recent years, sneaky additions are becoming a trend and I think it’s a great thing. Yes, we want kids to genuinely love the foods and not feel tricked but consider this... whether they know it or not, their taste buds are getting nuances of flavors, thereby slowly getting used to how they taste. Plus they’re getting the nutrition. Double wammy!
Add veggies to things like scrambled eggs, meat loaf, and smoothies. Though it may seem like you’re flat out tricking them, (which you are), but don't worry, they’ll get more used to the taste soon enough. About 4-5 times a week, Tommy drinks what he knows as his “shake”, which is a powder with a hint of vanilla in it, (so it tastes great mixed with just water) and a TON of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals coming from whole foods. His shake is one of his favorite things ever. When he’s old enough I’ll tell him what’s in it and after he gets over the initial shock, I'm sure he'll still love his shake.
Don’t give up
It can get so discouraging when a head gets turned up at a kitchen creation you’ve spent time preparing, or even worse it ends up on the floor! (yes, it will still happen). It’s ok if they’re not feeling it this moment, keep offering it anyway and sooner or later, they’ll begin to tolerate it, then actually begin to enjoy it. I’ve noticed that there are naturally ups and downs. One day they’ll love avocado and the next day, it gets hurled at you from 3 inches away, usually ending up in your eye or your own mouth ironically. It’s normal, especially if they’re sick, teething, or just not feeling themselves. Stay patient, it will get better. There are still days when Tommy is annoyingly picky. At that moment I pull him away from the table and say, “ok maybe later.” But I don’t start pulling out alternatives. What’s for dinner is what’s for dinner and as long as what’s served is reasonable, there should be no problem when they're hungry enough. Stay patient. Here is a good rule of thumb from one of my mentors Dr Mark Hyman. “You provide the what, where, and when, and your child decides the if and how much."
Keep your kitchen organized
You may be asking, what the hell does this have to do with feeding my child? Well as it turns out...a LOT. This is one of the biggest tips I share with my adult nutrition clients. If you want to eat more meals at home (which you should), you need to make your life easier by staying organized in your kitchen. And if YOU’RE eating healthy, it sets your whole family up for success. Even if you have a small kitchen, all you need is a small work space, a good knife, cutting board, and a few bowls nearby, not tucked away in a storage facility. The second I find out my wok is buried underneath a bunch of coats in a closet the sooner I say, “let’s just order Chinese.” The second thing I’ll mention here is prep work. Tommy goes to daycare three times per week, so a day or two before, I’ll start getting things together for his lunches. Hint- A lot of what I send are leftovers from dinner, or foods I cut up and cooked prior to that day.
Pay attention to when your child is most hungry
This obviously varies depending on the child. For example, I’ve been observing that Tommy is most hungry in the mornings, so those are the times I tend to try new things, or add more veggies in. I will often skip the “breakfast-type food” and opt for maybe some lentil soup, veggies, or leftovers from last night’s dinner that he may not have been too crazy about. I’ve found that it’s like it’s a brand new meal and we forget that the tantrum the night before never happened.
Make it taste good
Though I’m not about dumping butter and salt on everything just so people will like it, I’m also not about leaving it off all together. Salt (good sea salt) actually makes food taste like itself, and contains beneficial minerals, and good fats like olive oil, grass fed butter (if you do dairy) or coconut oil are essential to absorb many vitamins (A,D,E,K). They’re also powerful anti-inflammatories and are great for the heart and brain.
Herbs and spices are also healthy and exceptionally good for the developing palate. Tommy’s favorites are curry (check out this Indian corn chowder), fresh chopped basil sprinkled on veggies, and cumin, the star of most chili dishes. Even a dusting of good parmesan cheese or cashew cheese on top of broccoli is not such a horrible thing, and wait wait, GARLIC! A delicious, nutritional powerhouse. Hopefully they’re not giving smooches behind the elementary school just yet, so they can handle the aftermath.
Help them create a healthy relationship with food
Never force a child to eat, on the flip side, don’t offer food as a reward or as a distraction. Lord knows I’ve been tempted to do this sooooo many times, but it’s just not worth it. This can set up an unhealthy relationship with food right from the get-go. Snacks at the playground are fine, just be careful of too many snacks in the stroller, or while playing or reading since it creates too much distraction. Before too long, they will start to associate those activities with eating even if they’re not hungry and it can create bad habits as they enter adolescence and adulthood. Food is energy and information and showing children how to enjoy it mindfully is one of the best things we can do for them.
Set a good example
Kids take in everything that’s going on around them. This means they’re totally paying attention to what you’re doing more than you think. Eat well yourself and be excited about it! Because I happen to be a food nerd, breaking out into song over homemade vegetable soup or some gorgeously caramelized acorn squash sort of comes natural to me. Funny, but I notice when I do this, it gets acknowledged. Tommy is entertained and I get to live out my broadway dreams right there in the kitchen. Win win! Now grab a healthy food you love, and enjoy it with your child. Age permitting, maybe even tell a story about a food you grew up on. (just not frittos).
Expose them to everything
(psssssst even if you don’t like it). From your prenatal days as early as your second trimester, your baby was already tasting. When i was pregnant, i tried to eat everything possible, though in the first trimester it was pretty difficult. It’s still not too late to get them hooked on the good stuff. Different flavors, spices, & textures are never a bad thing. The advice I always give my adult clients is, pay attention to what you’re NOT eating and slowly the food that is less healthy will naturally phase itself out. This formula isn’t too much different for kids. Introducing a new food each week is great place to start.
Get them involved in the process
Once they become a bit older, one of the best things we can do for our children is to show them the connection between food and the planet in general. Kids also want to feel included! It builds self esteem, and one day they will learn to create actual meals out of something that perhaps they picked from a tree, or the ground. I let Tommy watch me whenever I’m cooking and explain to him what I’m doing. Mommy’s chopping some peppers. Do you want to hold one? What does that feel like? What color is it? Is it red? Watch what we do next….into the pan and sizzle sizzle. The look on his face is so cute as he takes in what’s happening. Pretty soon he’ll be helping do the dishes and clean up. Another great thing to look forward to. ;)
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