Easier and healthier toddler mealtimes

Dec 18, 2021

The mere sight of peas evokes a screaming match from Ann's otherwise well-behaved five-year-old daughter Abbie. "I've tried everything to get her to at least take a bite.”

So what does a parent do with a toddler who refuses to eat fruits or vegetables and claims the only food that isn't "gross" is peanut butter sandwiches? Most experts agree it is not worth rolling out the heavy artillery to get your kids to eat what you think they should. Read on to see how you keep your sanity as you help your little one eat healthy.

Let your child see you eating healthy foods

Jeffrey Hampl, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, believes the solution is for parents to keep "undesired" food out of the house in the first place.
"Practice what you preach and set a good example for healthy eating," he says.

Know that it's OK when your child doesn't like something

Not everyone — adults included — likes spinach. But you need to find a nutritional equivalent that your child will eat. "Parents are in a position to buy and cook healthy foods. If they don't want any, respect that choice, but don't make junk food an alternative option," says Hampl, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at Arizona State University.

It's easier for children to reach nutritional requirements than many parents think. If they won't eat vegetables, fruits have a similar amount of fiber and vitamins. If kids won't drink milk, offer yogurt, cheese or broccoli.

Keep introducing new foods

Place one-or two-bite portions of the new food on your child's plate, alongside more familiar foods, at each meal. Do not comment on whether or not they eat the new food. After several trials, the food will not seem so new and they may decide to try it.

Don't force it

"Parents should not make a child finish what is on their plate. It is not wise to create power struggles over dining. If a child truly doesn't want to eat something, there is no value in making a big fuss about it. If they are not hungry now, but want to eat at an inconvenient time later, then provide them with something quick and nutritious," says Lawrence Balter, child psychologist, Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and editor of Parenthood in America: An Encyclopedia.

If you are worried your children are not getting their required nutrients — for the most part, you don't have to. "'One-food jags' typically last from 10 days to two weeks. Keep track of what your child eats for a few weeks, and you will probably see that the child is not missing out on any nutrients in the long-term," says Hampl.
It is normal for kids to want to eat the same things. One reason could be that it makes them feel reassured.

Rule out any medical problems

Being a picky eater early in life does not mean the child will develop eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia later. "Almost all kids go through a picky eating phase. It's a normal part of development," says Hampl.

But parents should pay attention to some warning signs that a child's eating habits are dangerous. If a child is not physically or socially active or if there is a total lack of eating, parents should worry. Trust your instincts. And make regular checkups with a doctor to make sure your child is growing normally.

Healthy munching time

By the time a child is one or two, he or she is most likely ready to explore the world. Because food preferences are established early on, this is a great time to tap into that sense of "exploration" by presenting your child with a wide range of snack, meal and drink choices. To make sure your child eats a healthy, balanced diet, start by applying the same basic guidelines you use for your own healthy eating to your child's meals and snacks.

Specifically, this means eating a balance of breads, cereal, rice and pasta; vegetables and fruit; dairy products; meat, fish, poultry and vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans and legumes; and healthy forms of fat.

The bread box. Healthier carb options include cooked whole-wheat pasta, soft whole-grain crackers, whole-wheat bagels or bread, and cooked breakfast cereal such as oatmeal or cooked rice.

The vegetable bin. Cooked vegetables tend to be safer for young children than raw vegetables because they are softer. You can prepare canned, frozen, or fresh vegetables. Try to feed your child as many different colors of the rainbow as possible, a concept promoted by the 5-A-Day campaign.

The fruit bowl. Cut fresh fruit (small enough so it’s not a choking hazard). If you are purchasing packaged fruit, try individual servings of applesauce. Remember that whole fruit is a better choice nutritionally than juice.

The dairy case. Dairy products are a good source of calcium and children ages 1 to 3 require 700 mg of calcium per day (that’s 2-3 servings).. Good choices include cheese, yogurt, milk or even cottage cheese. Other non-dairy, kid-friendly sources of calcium include tofu, salmon, or calcium-fortified beverages, such as orange juice.

Protein choices. Good sources of protein for toddlers include lean meat, chicken or turkey, fish, eggs, tofu or cooked beans. If your child seems skittish of beans or lentils, try preparing them in soup or chili. Try to steer clear of foods with added preservatives, salt or chemicals.

All about fat. Up to the age of two, children need plenty of fat in their diet to ensure proper brain development. After the age of two, children need about 30-35 percent of their calories from fat, according to the American Heart Association.

The cookie jar. Occasional sweets are okay, but if your child eats candy, cookies or dessert on a regular basis, this may dull his or her taste for healthier foods.

US dietary guidelines suggest some simple healthy substitutions to help keep your toddler on the right path.
Instead of cereal with added sugars, try cereal with minimal added sugars.
Instead of fruit bars, opt for fresh fruit.
Instead of fried veggies, opt for roasted ones. Instead of high sodium snacks like veggie sticks, opt for fresh veggies.
Instead of high sodium meats, try ground lean ones.
Instead of sugary drinks, try for unsweetened beverages.

Toddler snacks

Snacking can be an integral part of your toddler’s diet. Eating two to three scheduled snacks a day can help even out your toddler’s diet and keep hunger at bay.

Healthy kids' snacks can include:
  • Yogurt
  • Apple slices with cinnamon or peanut butter (ensure it’s spread thinly to avoid any choking hazards)
  • Veggies (cooked can be easier for younger children)
  • Hummus and pita
  • String cheese
  • Fruit smoothie
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • English muffin pizzas with lowfat cheese
  • Mini sandwiches, like ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly
If your little one wants a snack that isn’t completely healthy, teach portion control and pair the unhealthy item with a healthy one. For example, if your child wants ice cream, give her a smaller portion and pair it with fresh fruit. In addition, including the child in food preparation will make her interested in what she is eating — ultimately teaching her to choose healthier foods. Also be sure to pack snacks if you are going to be out all day. This way, you can be sure you’re choosing healthy options.

Adult meals toddlers love

If cooking one meal for yourself and another for your toddler makes you feel like a short-order cook, take heart. There are plenty of healthy meal options that the whole family can enjoy. Just ensure that the food and ingredients are safe for your toddler and not a choking hazard. By getting your child used to eating what you do, you’ll make mealtime a lot easier while also expanding their taste buds beyond typical (and sometimes unhealthy) kid-friendly fare! Keri Glassman, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist in New York City and a mom of two offers up her top meal picks:
  • Grilled salmon with teriyaki sauce. Kids typically like salmon, and if they are new to it, the sweet sauce is a good intro. You can also try chicken or veggie teriyaki, too.
  • Grilled chicken Parmesan. A healthy twist on the richer and more decadent traditional version, but kids who like cheese are sure to dive in. Just grill the chicken and top with your favorite tomato sauce and shredded cheese.
  • Whole-wheat penne with mini turkey meatballs.Whole-wheat pasta is healthier than the white kind, thanks to the fiber it contains. Plus, penne is an easier pasta shape for young children to eat than spaghetti.
  • Healthy sliders. ake mini patties out of ground turkey, pork, or lean beef and put them on small whole-wheat buns (which automatically make food more fun).

Cooking with kids

You don’t have to plant them in front of the TV while you prepare dinner. Why not let them help you cook?
  • Get kid-size equipment so they can become mini chefs.
  • Let them play (make dinner with play dough, bang pots and pans).
  • Ask them help you recycle by pulling off labels and sorting.
If you have questions relating to your child's nutrition, be sure to check with your pediatrician or other medical professional for expert advice.

Learn more about your toddler’s development and milestones.