5 Tips To Get Your Toddler Eating Healthy Food
My 2-year-old takes one look at the gourmet masterpiece I’ve prepared for him and announces to the world, “No.”
Kid doesn’t have many words but man can he enunciate N-O.
I sit opposite him at the kitchen table, thinking of the time and effort I put into planning this well-balanced menu of fruits, vegetables, protein, and carbs.
Finally, George digs into the one food on his tray that he likes. Today it’s mac ‘n’ cheese. He eats all of it and ignores the real, healthy food I’ve meticulously prepared and chopped into bite-sized pieces. Then, he jabs his fork into the empty place on his tray where the mac ‘n’ cheese used to be and yells, “More!!”
I used to dread mealtime with my toddler.
And it happened five times a day.
But after one year of feeding therapy and two months with a nanny who had more patience in her pinky than I had in my entire being, I learned tactical feeding tips that continue to surprise me when they result in my son eating a new, healthy food.
Toddler mealtime struggles can certainly be kid-specific, but by approaching the experience with patience, curiosity, and playfulness, mealtimes have become less stressful while also allowing my son to eat anything other than pizza and raisins.
Here are 5 tips to get your toddler eating real food:
1. Present the same food over and over. (And over and over.)
After three exposures of cucumber I proclaimed, “George doesn’t like cucumber.” Why would I go to the trouble of peeling and chopping a cucumber if he wouldn’t even touch it??
But of course George didn’t want to touch it. It was a foreign object. Weird to look at. Unfamiliar. The only way to make it familiar was to keep presenting it. So I did. Over and over and over.
One day I looked over, cool as a you know what, and he had picked up a piece of cucumber. I held my breath and tried to act like I wasn’t looking and definitely like I did not care that he had touched something green on his plate. George curiously brought the cucumber to his mouth and licked it, then put it back down.
Days later, after more ignoring of the cucumber, he picked it up, chewed it, and spit it out.
And then, one day, after maybe 30 exposures, George swallowed a piece of cucumber. And then he went back for MORE.
The next seven times I put cucumber on his plate he wanted nothing to do with it. But I keep putting it on his tray because I never know when he’ll be in the mood for cucumber again.
2. Eat the same food as your kid. In fact, eat it off their tray.
When George ignores a piece of food on his tray, like a carrot, I ask him if I can have some. He happily responds, “Da,” (translation: yes). I grab the carrot, eat it, and say, “Mmmm.” He watches (or doesn’t) and moves on with his life, but I’ve planted a seed. Mama likes to eat carrots.
Every once in a while, after I eat something off George’s tray, he will then eat that food. I watch, dumbfounded, as he grabs his own carrot, puts it in his mouth, and swallows.
3. Make it fun.
I can’t tell you how much I rolled my eyes the first time my husband turned his fork into an airplane. He ever so slowly ascended the fork into the sky, far above our heads, and George followed with his eyes, mesmerized. When Sam finally descended the plane for landing, George willingly opened his mouth and swallowed a piece of hard-boiled egg, a food that up until that point, he didn’t touch.
4. Present a variety of food in equal amounts.
There should always be at least three options on his tray, and at least one item we know he likes.
Obviously he will start with the mac ‘n’ cheese and eat all of it. When he demands more, REMAIN CALM.
Yes, I’m talking to myself.
I used to be overly concerned that he wasn’t eating enough calories so I was happy he was eating anything at all. If he wants more mac ‘n’ cheese, dammit, just give it to him! Hurry!
But as our feeding therapist reminded us, we are not short-order cooks. Just because our child demands something does not mean we have to give it. So when George shouts for more, I calmly tell him he ate all the mac ‘n’ cheese. I then point to the other foods on his plate. “Look, you have chickpeas, apples, and sweet potatoes. Do you want to try any of these?”
George continues to point to the empty spot on his tray where the mac ‘n’ cheese used to be and yells more, and I continue to tell him it’s all gone and remind him what else he has to eat.
He eventually calms down. He doesn’t eat anything, but he stops yelling. Sam and I continue to eat our own dinners and contemplate when we should give him more mac ‘n’ cheese.
Just as we’re glancing at the clock, feeling each second tick by, George picks up a sweet potato and eats it. Then he eats a piece of an apple and I conclude that I’m a genius.
5. Give options
My son hates being told what to do. So whenever we can we give him an option.
Would you like the red bib or the blue bib?
Would you like to use your fork or my fork?
Do you want me to do it or Papa to do it?
Would you like to sit in your high chair or stand at the island?
By the time George finally starts eating, it’s on his terms.
Here’s The Reality
Mealtimes are still hard.
But every once in a while there’s a breakthrough. George eats a new food and my husband and I make eye contact from across the kitchen and silently celebrate. We dare not even breathe so as not to interrupt the sacred act of eating a piece of chicken.
What all five tips have in common is that they take time and patience. And while you should present the same foods over and over, eat off your kid’s plate, make it fun, present a variety in equal amounts, and give options, you should not hover, force feed, bribe, or give ultimatums. These short term “victories” will not create a healthy relationship with food in the long run.
I still don’t love mealtimes. I still get stressed out. But when I step back and look at the big picture I see a boy who no longer eats just fruit and cheese. He eats hummus and salmon and tuna fish and avocado.