Young children’s eating habits are always changing. From day one, parents decide whether the baby will have formula or breastmilk. For the most part, in those early days, the baby typically determines where, when, and how much to eat.
Picture from @mindful_homeschoolers
When the child transitions to solid foods, things change a bit. Parents still decide what the child eats, but also when and where. The child, however, determines how much to eat or whether or not to eat at all. And therein lies a source of struggle for many parents: How do we set up and sustain healthy eating habits for our kids?
First, let’s back up. Some babies are immediately excited to eat solids; others might take a bit of time — and either way is fine. By 12 months, most children will learn to eat three meals a day with snacks in between. (And, yes, many young toddlers go through that phase where they will throw food and play with it. That’s all normal toddler behavior and has more to do with sensory exploration and cause-and-effect curiosity. Don’t sweat it!)
Here are six tips for introducing healthy eating to your children:
Offer new foods with low expectations
Offering fresh foods with low expectations may be hard for some parents to accept, but we can’t expect children to like or even try new foods at first — we can just keep providing healthy options with patience and persistence. It’s OK to encourage your toddler to try new foods, but you never want to force them to eat something, because that can backfire. Make smart food choices for your child by offering different wholesome foods: more fruits and vegetables, less packaged meals.
Give the child two options, so rather than just asking them, “Do you want broccoli for dinner?” you may say something like, “Which would you like for dinner, broccoli or cauliflower?”
It is also important to remember to act “normal” and not celebrate or praise when your child does try something new and healthy — you don’t want him/her to know that you desperately want them to eat certain foods. And on the flip side, avoid calling your child a “picky eater” or saying that he/she doesn’t like a particular food in front of the child, because they can internalize it.
Don’t cave on “favorites”
Just like adults, children must come to understand that sometimes a favorite food will be on the menu, and sometimes it will not. The parents are responsible for making food decisions and preparing meals without catering to likes and dislikes. A good approach is to pair foods they already know and like with the one you want to introduce — in small amounts, so they’re not overwhelmed. Let them choose what they wish to from only the foods you put on the table. BUT (this is a big “but”!) avoid offering the same less-healthy alternatives you know they’ll eat (like, say, plain pasta or boxed macaroni and cheese), as this may send the message that you don’t expect your toddler to learn to like new foods.
All right, you might be thinking, but what if my child doesn’t eat anything I offer him? The short answer: It’s OK. You don’t want to pressure, bribe, or persuade your child. It’s OK if she eats only one or two of the foods you offer. And if she decides not to eat anything, she will probably be hungry later — a little bit of hunger is not hurtful. Don’t be tempted to cave and let her eat an entire bag of chips! She will have to wait until the next eating time, where you’ll provide some more delicious healthy foods.
Stick to a routine
Be consistent in your mealtimes and offer a few choices. After all, this will help your child know what to expect. Most people eat breakfast, snack, lunch, another snack, and then dinner (If your routine isn’t the same, don’t worry.) Again, you must not offer any other snacks in between regular meals and snack times — if you do it once, they’ll expect it! In this way, children learn to eat when their parents are eating and behave age-appropriately at mealtimes.
It is essential that you also eat in front of your child so they understand that the food you are providing is safe. And well, as the saying goes, “monkey sees, monkey do.”
Keep them included
Inviting your child to grocery-shop, put the foods away when you buy then, or preparing meals with you can be very helpful. Your child will be more likely to try something that he helped cooked, and, as a bonus, he’ll get to play “kitchen” in a real kitchen! Present your toddler with ingredients in bright colors and exciting shapes and textures that may appeal to his natural curiosity. Treating food preparation and mealtimes as a positive, fun family experience can go a long way toward raising an adventurous eater.
Model good eating habits
Diversity in food has to start with you. You can’t exactly expect your child to reach for a wide variety of veggies if you are eating only meat and potatoes, right? Show your child that you, too, enjoy foods of all stripes (and colors!), and it will encourage her to try the same. To create a positive feeding experience, try describing the color, texture, flavor, and temperature of the food you’re eating to intrigue your toddler. Invite her to describe the food too: Is it hot or cold? What colors do you see? Does it feel crunchy or soft? Keep mealtimes positive and relaxed, and model proper mealtime behavior, reflecting your family’s preferences and traditions. They will get the hang of it!
Trust your child
Unless he has a known feeding difficulty, you have to trust that your child will eat what his little body needs. As I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to stress about him skipping a meal or snack once in a while. The bottom line is: As long as you are providing diverse, healthy foods around the same time daily, your child will have lots of chances to get the nutrition he requires — and opportunities for his positive food identity to build. Being patient, calm, and consistent is key during this new phase in their development.
I know — all of this is easier said than done when dealing with little youngsters. But taking a smart approach early on may save you years of mealtime battles. And their health, of course, is as much of a priority as our own.