How to get your toddler to eat healthy food
Picky eaters. I’ve been there.
There have been nights where I did everything right. Despite the teething baby and the cranky toddler both needing attention, I’d manage to get a healthy meal onto the table for dinner.
My toddler would take one look at dinner and refuse to touch it.
And then demanded crackers.
Which she got (not my finest parenting moment).
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So how do you get your toddler to eat healthy food?
One of the more difficult parts of raising healthy kids is feeding them nutritious food. Of course, they want more cake and candy, they don’t want their broccoli, and they have no idea why a balanced meal is so vital. But don’t give up; there are lots of easy ways to encourage them to eat healthier.
Get the Toddler Involved in the Cooking Process
If you are having trouble getting your toddler to eat healthy meals or snacks, why not let them participate in the prep or cooking process? Kids are very hands-on, so when they see what goes into preparing meals, they often want to eat what they helped make. You can even get their help picking recipes and take them to the store with you. When you get home, do meal prep together and let them stir or do safe things in the kitchen.
How involved they are will depend on their ages and skill levels. No matter how much help they provided, you are bound to have kids more interested in their food when they know they helped.
I had my daughter measuring and mixing ingredients as soon as she was able to stand at the counter (we used this stool to make sure she was safe). Another task she loved was drying the salad in the salad spinner.
An extension of this is also making sure your kid know where their food comes from. Next time you’re at the grocery store with your toddler let them pick out a new fruit to try (my daughter picked dragon fruit last time).
Start a small garden and let your kids have free range of it. We don’t have a yard, but we’re lucky enough to have a big deck, and we have a VegTrug and a container garden.
Last year we had strawberries, tomatoes, peas, and beans along with our herbs. My daughter would go out there for an afternoon snack and would happily eat the cherry tomatoes and beans directly from the plants. This year I’m going to have her more involved in tending and watering our plants. In the spring try going berry picking with your kids and in the fall take them to an orchard.
Stop The Food Battles
As hard as it may be; stop trying to force your kids to eat their food. Reading Ellyn Satter’s book How to get your kids to eat: but not too much was a turning point for me. Ellyn lays out the Division of Responsibility when it comes to feeding your kids. Her golden rule for parenting with food is this:
Parents are responsible for what is presented and the manner in which it is presented.
Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat
I can not recommend her book enough as it goes into details on how to cope with picky eaters. By implementing her golden rule, we have eliminated most of the food battles in our house. My kids now know that we eat at the table and that there will be at least one familiar food at every meal.
I make sure that throughout the day I’m offering mostly fruits, veggies and unprocessed food. We have our treats as well but in moderation. My daughter also knows that if she says she doesn’t like something that I won’t force her to eat it. She’s not allowed to say a food is yucky – a simple no thank you is all that is required. I do try to preempt an outright refusal by getting her involved in making the meal if I think she’s not going to like it.
Most importantly, by following Ellyn’s golden rule, I’ve allowed myself to relax about meal times.
Try to Make a Game Out of Eating Healthy
While at home, you can turn your healthy eating into a game for the younger kids or when one of your kids is a little more stubborn about eating certain foods. This game can also turn into a learning experience. If one of your kids is learning basic math in school, get out some slices of fruit and practice adding and subtracting with it. Your child has now learned basic math and is also eating the fruit when they’re done with the lesson. A major win-win!
With a toddler or preschooler talk about the food, you’re currently eating. Ask them if their grapes are juicy or crunchy? Is their orange sweet or salty? Make it fun, have them prove you wrong if you claim your pepper is mushy or your banana is crunchy.
Karen Le Billon has done a great job of coming up with fun food games to play with your kids. I was first introduced to her through her first book French Kids Eat Everything where she chronicles moving from Vancouver to France and the food transformation her daughters had to go through. Her second book Getting To Yum is intended to guide parents in teaching their kids to enjoy eating all kinds of foods. She covers taste training but also has a ton of games based on tasting food. I often pull out this book at snack time, and my daughter and I will play a food game while enjoying our afternoon tea.
Allow the Occasional Treat and Offer Healthy Snacks
Following a healthy diet doesn’t mean your kids can’t ever have a treat. By completely denying all forbidden food, your kids are more likely to become over-sensitized to them and want to overeat when they do get one of their favourite things. However, if you offer the occasional bowl of ice cream or piece of pie after dinner, they are more inclined to eat healthily, so they get their treat. For your school-aged kids chose a day of the week where they know they’ll be getting a treat from their snack.
Snack choices are so important especially for your toddler who loves to graze. I always try to offer a fruit or vegetable option before I bring out the crackers. If you have a school-aged kid send them to school with healthy food you know, they will enjoy. Lunchtime at school is not the time to try out an unfamiliar vegetable on your child. As you’re not there to encourage them the chances are that lunch is ending up in the compost.
I have a stack of books about healthy eating for kids as I’m a bit of a nerd and I like research. These are some of the ones I would highly recommend if you are looking for more information about healthy eating for your toddler.
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