Do you ever feel like the probability of getting your toddler to do algebra is greater than getting her to eat the green beans on her plate? If you answered “yes!” you are not alone. The toddler years can be very challenging. After all, it’s a time when your little one’s emotional development is a constant game of tug- of-war between the need to feel safe and protected by you and the desire to exert her independence and show you just what she can do on her own.
How this inner struggle plays out at the table can be very unpredictable. So, how DO you get your toddler to eat most of the foods you give her? How do you convince her that there is life outside of mac and cheese? And, how do you even get her to sit long enough to eat a few bites?
As a pediatrician and a parent, these are questions I deal with almost daily. I have explored them for the sake of my patients as well as for the preservation of harmony and peace at my own dinner table.
Here are some thoughts and tips for achieving eating success with your toddler:
1) Make eating a social event. Meals should be a time for the family to gather at the table and recount the day’s events or simply catch up with each other. Since most of us live busy and hectic lives, set realistic goals for family meals. Once a day? Once every other day? You will be amazed at how quickly your toddler will embrace this. Not surprisingly, what can be better for the toddler ego than scheduled time with a captive audience?
2) Model good habits. Our children are watching us. It’s true. Have you seen your toddler walking around the house having a conversation on her imaginary cell phone? Remind you of someone? The same holds true for what we eat. If we make good choices about what we eat, our children are bound to see it and follow suit. I love making hearty salads: nuts, veggies, cheese, chicken, mixed greens, etc. I serve them as a dinner side most nights. I don’t always put ALL of the ingredients in my childrens’ salads, but they are curious and will often ask to try what I’ve got in mine. One day my son asked me to pack him a “mommy salad” for his preschool lunch – I nearly fell out of my chair!
3) Pick a time and place. I have seen many worried parents go to great lengths to feed their children. Some of the covert tactics employed sound more fitting for a chase scene from a suspense thriller than for a parent trying to get his child to eat broccoli or finish his lunch. ”I chase him around the house with food all day… I leave snack plates in certain spots around the house so he’ll eat.” One of the key principles for achieving successful eating habits is the understanding that meals command and deserve respect. What I mean by this is that every meal should have its time and place. Breakfast happens at the kitchen table in the morning. Lunch happens in the dining room at noon, and so on. We adults don’t eat on an ongoing continuum all day, why should our children? If we spend the day chasing after our children with food, we reinforce the notion that there is no need to stop what they are doing because the food will be there at every turn and every moment. We devalue “the meal.” We also interfere with the normal physiological processes of feeling hungry and full that can only come from eating at scheduled intervals. So, pick your time and place and have a meal!
4) Serve-up a colorful plate. One of the most challenging issues when it comes to feeding toddlers is getting them to eat their fruits and vegetables. I know this well, as I have a daughter who, unlike her brother, will eat little more than mac and cheese. How do we get our toddlers to eat the 2011 USDA recommended MyPlate portions of ¼ vegetable, ¼ fruit, ¼ protein and ¼ starch? We play up their fascination with color and design. Serving hummus and veggies? Use the hummus as the center of a sun with yellow peppers and carrots coming out as the sun’s rays. Add tomatoes and cucumbers to finish off the grass and flowers. Serving pancakes for breakfast? Add bananas and blueberries to make a happy face. Be as creative as you’d like or let the vegetables speak for themselves. Most of the time, just having a contrast of bright and rich colors on a plate is enough to entice. Think of a typical thanksgiving plate with the bright orange sweet potato, crisp green beans and deep red cranberries. Is your mouth watering yet?
5) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If your son has spit out his brussel sprouts in disgust 10 times, don’t give up. Studies suggest that it can take 10-15 exposures to the same food before a child will actually eat it. Continue to offer a wide variety of foods and allow him to slowly incorporate them into his diet.
6) Limit drinks. Toddlers should be drinking approximately 16-20 oz. (2-2½ cups) of milk a day. If milk is the object of your child’s affection and she would rather have nothing to do with food, wait until the end of the meal to let her drink milk. If your child can’t seem to get enough water but fills up quickly on solids, limit water intake. Remember that there are a lot of fruits and vegetables with high water content, so don’t worry that your child isn’t drinking enough if she is getting water from other food sources.
7) Don’t feel the need to have them finish everything on their plates. Teach your child that it is ok to stop eating when he or she is full. Forcing a child to clean his plate can lead to overeating. Help your children by serving them sensible portions and encouraging them to eat only until they are full. Power struggles over food never leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth.
8) Take it a week at a time. No matter how old or how young we are, we all have good days and bad days when it comes to what we eat. This is why it is important to think about how your children are meeting their nutritional needs over the course of a week rather than over the span of one day. Today may have been the day your son ate most of his protein. Tomorrow he might meet his weekly quotient for fruit. Take inventory at the end of the week for a more accurate assessment of how well he’s eating.
As parents, we will always worry about making sure that our children are eating enough and getting the nutrition they need. And that doesn’t necessarily stop after the toddler years. If you have older children who are picky eaters, many of these tips still apply, and it’s never too late to try to build good eating habits. Remember: although the progress may sometimes feel slow, take it one meal at a time because with each meal, you are building good eating habits for life.