Barbara Bush, through her work as CEO of Global Health Corps, talked about “hidden hunger” in America. That is, a lack of the essential vitamins and minerals, which promote growth, immune system regulation and brain development in children. It’s not just the amount of food that matters, it’s the quality, too -- a child could be obese and yet still undernourished. Furthermore, eating habits developed in early years tend to continue into adulthood, so it’s important to get toddlers into healthy eating habits as soon as possible. Easier said than done? Well, here are some useful tips.
Introduce New Foods Gradually
Children are naturally averse to new tastes and textures, and it can take many weeks before they trust a new food. Vegetables and greens are notoriously hard to establish, however, there are a few tricks you can use.
One is to use small portion sizes -- just one spoonful of the new food each meal. The first few tries, they might spit it out, but keep trying every day. Don’t introduce too many new foods -- one each week is a good benchmark. More than this might be a bit overwhelming.
Another trick is to mix new foods in with ones they already enjoy. So, if they like oatmeal with raisins, you can try mixing in some apricots or cranberries instead. See this guide from Yummy Toddler Food for some more food introduction tips.
Divide the Responsibility
According to the Ellyn Satter Institute, children have a natural aptitude for eating and making food choices, and your job is to nurture this by dividing the responsibility in feeding. You’ll need to determine the what, when, and where of mealtimes, and their responsibility is how much and whether to eat. In other words, you choose the food groups, set the meal times, and begin to encourage healthy habits like eating together at the table. Don’t be pushy or coercive about the amount that they eat -- power struggles can backfire and cause aversions to certain food groups.
Likewise, don’t give them food every time they ask, as this develops the reflex of eating in response to mild hunger, as opposed to waiting until scheduled mealtimes. Overall, the idea is to give them a sense of control, while building positive eating habits.
Get Your Child Involved
Help your child develop an interest in food and cooking early. Of course, at this age, they are not going to be serving up gourmet meals while you put your feet up, but you can give them a little input over which foods to include. Since the “what” of the meal is your responsibility, this does not mean you give them full control. Instead, allow them to decide between two ingredients of your choice. You can also do this while at the supermarket when deciding which items to buy.
Another key way to get your child involved is to eat the same meals together where possible. You can talk about the food together and share your experiences.
Eating Healthily on a Budget
There’s an idea that healthy eating has to mean expensive eating. There is some truth to this -- organic vegetables and meats are always more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. However, it’s still possible to keep costs low without compromising on quality. One key tip is to plan out your meals and snacks for the next week and make a list of everything you need for these meals. If you don’t go to the supermarket with a list, you’ll usually overspend. Also, aim for store-brand products and frozen goods as these tend to be cheaper than branded, fresh alternatives, and buy in bulk wherever you can.
Getting a toddler to eat healthy food can be an uphill struggle. Don’t take it personally if you get resistance to your well-meaning actions. Just stay calm, be persistent and be a good model with your own eating habits. You’ll get them onto that broccoli soon enough.
Amanda Henderson is a mom to two wonderful, active boys and a preschool teacher. She enjoys writing in her free time, and recently decided to create Safechildren so that she would have a place to share her thoughts and favorite resources on parenting and child safety.