Is your toddler a picky eater? Join the club. Many parents struggle to get their kids to eat a healthy and diverse diet. However, that becomes almost impossible when every meal ends in screams: ‘I just want hotdogs!’ or ‘I don’t like it! Take it away!’
However, there’s more than nutrition at stake. While doctors say again and again that kids need to get used to vegetables, psychologists warn against using threats and bribes when it comes to food. Apparently, this can lead to lifelong food issues. ‘Eat this carrot and I’ll give you cake!’ makes kids associate food as reward, while ‘finish your food or I’ll get mad!’ teaches them to ignore ‘natural’ instincts of eating only until they’re full. What’s a frazzled and confused parent to do?
1. Don’t give into emotions
The meal battles usually start after the second birthday, when toddlers discover the wonderful word called ‘No.’ Now here’s the deal: the more upset you are, the more you encourage your toddler to rebel. ‘Hey, mom’s caving in! I should try this again!’ he thinks.
Keep your voice firm but calm, and repeat (in simple and concrete terms) what you want your child to do. Don’t say ‘carrots are good for you!’ just say ‘eat three bites.’
Avoid meltdowns by timing meals so that your child is hungry, but not starving. Kids’ stomachs are smaller than an adults, so they benefit from a light mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack like crackers or fruit slices.
2. Offer kid-friendly food
Toddlers aren’t just lured by the taste of food, but by its appearance, smell and texture. They may spit out ‘mushy’ vegetables or freak out if sauces mix on their plate. Try steaming vegetables so they retain their crunchiness, and get creative with descriptions. ‘Look, the broccoli looks like little trees!’ Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes, and serve food in colorful containers.
3. Sneak in the nutrients
Kids can’t complain about what they can’t see. This is why a food processor can be your best friend. Chop your vegetables into little pieces then mix into a burger. Puree them into a soup. Mash them up and add to a casserole or a potpie.
4. Offer acceptable choices
Toddlers want to feel that they have control over their world. This is a natural part of their emotional growth and necessary for their self-esteem. So, give them a choice—just make sure both options will make you happy. For example, ‘Do you want cheese dip or ketchup with your chicken?’ or ‘do you want your sandwich in squares or triangles?’
5. Get kids involved in the kitchen
Toddlers are naturally curious, and eager to learn new things and feel ‘all smart and grown-up.’ Encourage them to help out in food preparation. For example, they can help wash the vegetables or count the potatoes for the casserole. Not only will they be more inclined to eat what they ‘cooked,’ staying in the kitchen lets them become more familiar with the food. Toddlers are naturally suspicious of new things, so seeing different ingredients—and how these all come together to make a dish— can psych them up for dinner.
6. Introduce the ‘no thank you’ bite
Many toddlers go through a phase when they’ll obsess over a particular food and eat nothing else. This usually passes on its own, but until that day comes, encourage them to try at least one bite of new food a day. They don’t have to eat the whole thing, but the point is to keep an open mind (and mouth). Don’t be discouraged if they say no to something, either. Offer it again a few days later. Toddlers may gradually grow to like something once they get used to a flavor or texture.
7. Talk about nutrition in a fun way
There are many children’s books and even TV shows that teach the importance of eating right and trying new things. Stock your family library with classics like ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ and new bestsellers like ‘How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?’ Funny pictures or catchy songs can drive a message far more effectively than lecture at the dining table.