Let’s face it: Toddlers are challenging at mealtime. They are busier spitting out their broccoli, playing with their food or running around the kitchen than really focusing on eating. The struggle is real.
So, most of the time, just getting any food in them feels like a win. But, when it comes to toddler nutrition, the true win is turning them into healthy eaters for life.
Start Good Habits Early
A series of studies published in the journal Pediatrics and sponsored by The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration shows that a child’s eating habits are cemented in early life, and the sooner you get children eating healthy foods, the better for their long-term health. What’s more, your child’s nutrition is critical for his or her current growth, development and health.
But, unfortunately, kids aren’t going to learn healthy eating on their own. “Parents are critical role models when it comes to teaching good and healthy eating habits to their children,” explains Tama Bloch, RND, a research scientist at Abbott. “But between time pressures and persistence often parents find themselves giving in too quickly or haven’t planned ahead so they can offer healthy options. But it’s important to take the time when kids are young because it becomes harder as they get older.”
When Did French Fries Become a Vegetable?
Case in point: One food consumption study of more than 3,000 infants and toddlers showed 27 percent consumed no fruits, 32 percent consumed no veggies and by ages 15-18 months, french fries were the most common “vegetable” eaten. Meanwhile, the more fruits and vegetables a child has eaten by 14 months of age, the more likely they are to both like those foods and to be a non-fussy eater at 3.7 years old, according to 2015 research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Gulp. We’ll admit, getting your child on the track for a life of healthy eating—and all of the developmental, cognitive and health benefits that go along with it—is a big job. But you can totally do it! And there is an easy way to remember some simple strategies.
Superhero CAPES for Healthy Nutrition
All you have to remember is to put on your super-parent CAPES (Creativity, Action, Persistence, Example, Schedule). And leverage the following five vital tips for being a healthy-eating superhero at mealtime and teaching your toddler to eat healthy for life:
Creativity: Keep Your Menu Varied
“The more variety you can offer your kids, the better,” Bloch says. “Just because they don’t like sweet potatoes the way you offered it to them the first time, it doesn’t mean they ultimately don’t like sweet potatoes. Offer it to them in a different way with a different pairing. Pairings are important. If a kid doesn’t like bananas, but likes peanut butter, offer a slice of banana with peanut butter on it.” Yummy dips, and even some cheese on top of bitter veggies, can go a long way. Also, when introducing your child to new healthy foods, or just serving up standards in a new way, make sure that you are also including one food that you know your child likes. That way, you know something on the plate will be a success, and your child will feel more comfortable with any new items.
What’s more, by focusing on a variety of foods and ingredients at every meal, you’ll help ensure that your toddler is getting the wide array of nutrients necessary for optimal growth and development. The 2015 American Academy of Pediatrics dietary guidelinesrecommend feeding your child vegetables, fruits, grains, low-fat dairy (after age 2) and quality protein sources, including lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds and eggs.
Action: Make Your Child Feel Like Part of the Process
Besides teaching them how to make healthy and nutritious decisions for themselves, having children participate in the decision-making process ups the likelihood that they will actually eat the healthy foods on their plate, Bloch says. Try taking your child with you to the supermarket to pick out some fruits or veggies to try—even if that means you cutting a coconut in half so your child can do some exploring. Making your child feel like part of the process is integral in establishing lifelong habits.
Another way to include your child in mealtimes is by allowing him or her to pick out fun, kid-friendly dishes, cups, and silverware at the store. Maybe they even have superheroes on them!
Persistence: Don’t Give Up
Easier said than done, right? But it is possible, and it’s worth it. As trying as mealtimes with toddlers can be, it’s important for parents to keep their cool—and not use dessert as a reward for a cleaned plate. “New research out of Aston University shows that using food as a reward or treat early in life could unintentionally teach children to rely on food to deal with emotions,” Bloch says. “So don’t get upset or disappointed. Your child should see no emotional ties to mealtime.” She recommends imposing one simple rule: You don’t have to clear your plate or even like everything, but you do have to take one bite of each food.
Example: Eat How You Want Your Child to Eat
“Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t tend to work very well with children—especially when it comes to mealtime. After all, if you expect your child to eat a full breakfast every day and you skip morning meals, that sends a mixed message over whether or not breakfast really is “the most important meal of the day.” Moms and dads need to show their kids that they prioritize the same nutrition habits in themselves that they expect out of their children, eating regularly, sitting down for mealtime, eating a wide variety of healthy foods and being willing to try new, different foods or give ones that they haven’t liked in the past a second chance, Bloch says. (Luckily, parents’ tastes also change over time!)
Schedule: Serve Three Meals and Two Snacks Every Day
Between our frantic schedules and our children’s wonky appetites, eating schedules often equate to a few bites here, a meal there and grazing on snack packs for the rest of the day. But a structured food schedule, consisting of three square meals and two snacks per day, can make things a lot less chaotic, keep your child well-fueled and teach them that, if they don’t eat their noon lunch, they’ll just have to wait to eat again until their 2pm snack. There will be no grabbing a candy bar from the department store checkout line an hour after refusing to eat lunch. “Meals should last no longer than 20 to 30 minutes. Hold to it. Don’t give in. After that time, tell your child when the next snack or meal will be,” Bloch says. The more regular this schedule is, the better.
It’s also important to make sure that each meal and snack is full of healthy and whole foods. Don’t confuse snacks with a two-a-day dessert habit. “Cookies and milk are OK every once in a while, but they should typically be healthy, like fruit, cheese and yogurt,” she says. “Snacks have to contribute to overall nutrition.”