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. 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.
“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. “It's important to take the time when kids are young because it becomes harder as they get older.”
The good news is that with a few of the following strategies you can raise healthy eaters and navigate mealtimes like a hero.
C.A.P.E.S. for Healthy Nutrition
All you have to remember is to put on your super-parent C.A.P.E.S. (Creativity, Action, Persistence, Example, Schedule). And leverage the following five vital tips for being a healthy superhero at mealtime.
1. 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.”
Also, when introducing your child to new healthy foods, or 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.
2. Action: Make Your Child Feel Like Part of the Process
Giving children a chance to participate in the decision-making process increases the likelihood that they will 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 cutting an avocado or pineapple 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!
3. Persistence: Don’t Give Up
Easier said than done, right? 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 early in life could unintentionally teach children to rely on food to deal with emotions,” Bloch says. “So don’t get upset or disappointed.” 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.
If you need additional guidance to navigate feeding challenges, talk to your pediatrician or a registered dietitan or for general nutrition questions, call Abbott's Feeding Expert line.
4. 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 breakfast every day and you skip morning meals, that sends a mixed message. Parents can show kids that they prioritize the same nutrition habits in themselves by eating regularly, sitting down for mealtime, eating a wide variety of healthy foods and being willing to try new, different foods, Bloch says.
5. Schedule: Serve Three Meals and Two Snacks Every Day
Between busy schedules and children’s selective appetites, eating schedules often equate to a few bites here, a meal there and grazing on snacks 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 to eat regularly. “Meals should last no longer than 20 to 30 minutes. Hold to it. After that time, tell your child when the next snack or meal will be,” Bloch says. The more regular this schedule is, the better.
Armed with some nutrition know-how can help you not only win at mealtime, but also raise a healthy eater for life!