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Getting Toddlers To Eat: Fun With Family Dinner!

Tempt any toddler to eat what you put in front of him with these delish tips.

Rope in a sous chef. "There are so many things little ones can do to help in the kitchen," says Laurie David, author of The Family Dinner: Great Ways To Connect With Your Kids, One Meal At A Time. "They can rip up lettuce for a salad, for example, or pour premeasured ingredients from a cup to a bowl. Have them don an apron and wash their hands, and put them to work! They’ll take such pride in knowing they helped—and be more likely to eat the food."

Give them choices. "I’ll ask my children if they would rather have carrot sticks, celery, or banana, but they must choose one of those options," says Sharina Johnson, a mom of three in Chicago, Illinois. "This has resulted in less food being wasted during meals, and more food getting eaten." Kids also love "participation" meals—ones that start in the kitchen, and get finished and personalized at the kitchen table, adds David. "You can do tacos, pasta, soup, rice bowls. Toddlers get to choose which toppings or mix-ins they’d like from bowls you’ve set out on the table."

Let them play with their food! "When kids open pea pods, dip veggie sticks into sauce, and compare food shapes, textures, and flavors, it helps them connect to food," says Linda Piette, RD, a pediatric nutritionist in Boston, Massachusetts, and author of Just Two More Bites! Helping Picky Eaters Say Yes to Food. "As we eat, I'll ask the kids ‘Can you eat something from your plate that is orange?’ or ‘How many peas can you poke into your fork?’" says Courtenay Baker-Olinge, a mom of two in Mount Vernon, Iowa. "This gets them interacting with the food so that the meal is more interesting than whatever toy might be calling their names."

Entertain ’em. David suggests the "What’s on your plate" game: Everyone goes around the table, mentions one thing on their plate, and takes a bite of it. "It keeps kids’ attention and gets them to try lots of different foods," she says. Baker-Olinge is all for fun food shapes: "I’ll make a smiley face with orange slices for eyes, a strawberry for a nose, and a banana sliced lengthwise for a smile."

Tell, don’t ask. Five words to avoid with a toddler: "Do you want to eat?" Too often, the answer is going to be "NO!" Instead, say something enticing about the meal such as, "Wow, look at that juicy corn" or "Mmmmm, smell that soup," suggests Piette. "Make mealtime an appealing and regular part of their day, but don’t stress out over fickle eating habits, either. Growth slows during the toddler years and appetites drop; skipping meals, or loving a food one day and hating it the next, are the norm. Provide healthy choices, then relax and go with the flow."

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