Struggles over food

How to get your picky toddler eating healthy

“I don’t like that,” was his standard response to whatever we put on his plate, usually followed by, “Can I have french fries?”

Why are mealtimes often such a struggle with toddlers? Calgary dietitian Jennifer House, owner of First Step Nutrition, says: “A toddler’s rate of growth slows down, so they may be choosing to eat less than they have been eating previously, which causes parents to worry.” But that’s not the only factor, she adds. “Eating is one of the few things toddlers have control over. If they see that taking control over this bothers their parents, they may continue to try to get a reaction by producing power struggles over food.”

Child care provider Julie Larose adds that she finds many toddlers have strong likes and dislikes. “Toddler taste buds are pretty sensitive,” she says. But there are some ways to smooth over the mealtime battles.

Create no-pressure meals

Most of the pressure comes from trying to get your toddler to eat, but House says that’s not really a parent’s job. Here’s how she describes the mealtime responsibilities.

Parents are responsible for when the food is provided (regularly scheduled meals and snacks), where the food is provided (ideally at a table with minimal distractions) and what food is provided (a variety of healthy foods from all food groups, more or less the same as the rest of the family, and prepared to be eaten safely by the toddler)

Toddlers are responsible for how much (if any) food to eat.

Keeping these responsibilities in mind can pretty much eliminate food struggles. “It is not the parent’s responsibility to get a certain amount of food into the child and, once they realize this, there is a lot of pressure taken off both the parent and the toddler,” House says. “Either pushing the child to eat more or trying to make him eat less can lead to a lifelong unhealthy relationship with food. Some days he will eat next to nothing, and other days he will eat a ton. That’s OK. Really, your child is the best judge of his own appetite.”

Larose says she plans her daycare menus so that each child can find something appealing. “I make fewer casseroles and mixed-up dishes for toddlers than I would for older kids, so it’s easier for them to see what they’re eating,” she says, “and I add side dishes that provide nutrition too.” For example, lunch might be chunky vegetable soup with homemade whole-grain bread or crackers, plus cubes of cheese. “Some kids will pick the carrots out of the soup and then eat the rest, and that’s OK. And if a child opts to only eat the bread, at least it’s not just empty calories.”

Add healthy snacks

“Snacks are a requirement for toddlers, since their tummies are so small,” says House. The trick, though, is to make sure the snack doesn’t fill the child up so much that she’s not interested in her next meal. So snacks should not be too big, and should be at least an hour or two before the next meal.

Larose’s daycare schedule offers a snack at 9 a.m., followed by lunch at noon, and another snack at 3 p.m. “I find the younger toddlers usually need to eat more often than that, though,” she adds. So a one-year-old may also have a small snack at 10:30 a.m.

A healthy snack, House adds, contains items from at least two food groups. Whole-grain bread with peanut butter, yogurt with fruit, or cut-up veggies with yogurt dip are some examples of nutritious ways to appease hungry toddlers.

 Encourage variety

What if your toddler refuses all vegetables, or only wants to eat chicken nuggets and french fries? “Remember that you’re the one with the responsibility for choosing the foods to offer,” House says. Try cooking and preparing those unpopular veggies in different ways (steamed, raw, mashed, with a cheese sauce, with a dip), but keep offering. And don’t have the chicken nuggets and fries as a backup when your child refuses to eat what the rest of the family is enjoying (sorry, Xavier!). As House says, “Short order cooking is not required.” If you suspect your main dish is going to be rejected by your toddler, you could add some sides (vegetables, fruit salad, a whole grain) that she likes.

Eat your veggies!

House points out: “You are a role model for your toddler.” Let him see that Mom and Dad love their broccoli and he’s more likely to at least give it a try. Larose notes that “peer pressure works even with toddlers. At my daycare, if one child tastes something new and likes it, everyone else might give it a try.” House adds that it may take a dozen or more times of being offered a food before a child takes a bite. So don’t give up.

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