Guest Author - Cynthia Parker
It becomes quickly obvious to parents of toddlers that their eating habits are quite different than we might expect. Some days they will eat everything in sight and others you may think they are sick because they are not interested in food at all. One day all they will eat is fruit and the next they turn their noses up at any fruit you present. There are many reasons for this change in attitude towards food and just as many methods for encouraging them to eat healthy.
First, toddlers are growing much more slowly than they did as infants. During infancy, our child likely tripled their birth weight. Now that the rapid growth stage is over, they need less food. At the same time, they are much more active, so they do need food consistency in order to maintain their nutritional need. Many pediatricians suggest that you take a “grazing” approach to active toddlers’ nutritional needs. Offer a variety of items on a special tray or perhaps arranged in an ice cube tray and let the toddler “snack” on thinly sliced fruit, dry cereal, steamed and cooled veggies, an d tiny blocks of cheese or hard-boiled egg wedges. Be creative not only with shapes (using tiny cookie cutters for bite-sized fun) but also with names – apple moons, banana wheels, egg canoes, or carrot swords. For your own peace of mind, remember that while toddlers need about 1,000 – 1,300 calories a day, they may not eat this amount each day. Aim for a nutritionally balanced week instead.
It is always tricky to get your toddler to eat veggies. The peas and sweet potatoes they loved when eating blended baby food may now only gain you tightly pursed lips and a negative head-shake. While it is true that a toddler needs three to five servings of vegetables a day, the serving size for a toddler is only about a tablespoon per year of age. Remembering this should take off some of the pressures of getting your child to eat! However, there are a lot of other ways to get your toddler to eat their vegetables. If you garden, get your toddler involved. If they get excited about watching the vegetables grow – and helping in the process – they will be more excited about picking and eating what they have grown. Ranch dressing is a favorite dipping sauce for every toddler I know. Let them dip! Steamed veggies taste sweeter than those that have been baked or boiled and are more palatable to a toddler. “Hide” vegetables in your favorite recipes. For the longest time, my meatloaf contained a healthy dose of grated carrots. Chop up from broccoli florets and add them to your spaghetti sauce. The veggies don’t have to be recognizable to your toddler to be nutritious – you just have to get them into their tummies. The “bite rule” actually works! I used it many time with my daughters – “Just one bite! Did you like that? Well, maybe it tastes better the second time. Just two bites?” How about veggie art? Give your child’s plate a creative, colorful twist with tomato ears, a carrot nose, a curvy bell pepper mustache, and olive eyes. Cheese curls for hair or some tri-color pasta and you have a fun meal!
Did you know that your toddler’s tummy is only about the size of their little fist? That is why, as parents, we have to make every calorie count! There are quite a few nutritionally dense foods that children can be easily tempted to eat. These include avocadoes, pasta, broccoli, peanut butter, brown rice, potatoes, cheese, poultry, eggs, cheese, squash, fish, sweet potatoes, kidney beans, yogurt and tofu. Served in some of the creative ways mentioned above, these foods are highly nutritional, tasty and appealing.
Most parents want their children to eat meals with their families – yet this can be one of the more difficult challenges. There are a few things you can do to make this easier. First, realize that one of the reasons toddlers seems to have a hard time sitting still at the table is because their feet dangle from regular sized chairs or high-chairs. It is rather uncomfortable and before long, they want down. Have you ever sat in a chair where your feet did not tough the floor? Before long you are fidgety and swinging your legs, unless you have wonderful self-control! As we all know, toddlers have little self-control. Toddler-sized tables and chairs are wonderful for teaching table manners and the need to stay put at the table during dinner time. Another option is a booster seat that sit back in the regular chair so that their little feet rest on the chair seat. Additionally, remember that a toddler’s attention span and tummy are both smaller than your own. They are going to be finished with their meal and bored with the table conversation long before you are. Unless you are engaging them in interesting activities at the table, you may want to consider giving them a shorter table time than the rest of the family. Also, stick to a routine. Meal times and snack times should occur around the same general time frame every day. There will always be an exception to the rule, but for the most part, you should try to be consistent.
Last but not least, do not run a “short order” kitchen. Toddlers are struggling for areas of their lives in which they can maintain control. While they should not be totally discouraged from “doing themselves”, there are obviously situations where parents are in charge regardless. Not only is it not time efficient or economical for you to prepare different meals for the different members of your household, but it also discourages your toddlers (and older children) from trying new foods and from being “part of the family.” When my daughters were growing up, they were required to try one bite of everything on their plate. Anyone can do one bite! Now, if they tried a bite of spinach and did not like it, that did not mean that the next time we had spinach they were exempt. I explained that taste buds grow and mature, just like they do, and one day they could like spinach. Thus, they should try a bite every time we had it. If they absolutely did not like/want enough of the food at any one meal that I was concerned that they were not received good nutrition, they were allowed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Never send your child to bed without supper in order to make your point – it is the wrong point made!
There are many challenges with toddlers and meals should not be a battle ground! As you consider your options, remember first and foremost, that toddlers are not mini-adults! Bon appetite!