4 Realistic Tips for Helping Kids Eat Healthy Foods (Written By a Dietitian + Toddler Mom)
By Leah Kleinschrodt, MS, RD, LD
September 22, 2020
Ahh, toddlerhood – our babies are growing into little, independent people, who now probably like to have a say in what goes on in their world. If you’re reading this you know this goes for meal times and snacks as well! While this self-discovery and limit-testing is a normal and exciting part of childhood, it can be a challenging for us parents on many levels, including when it comes to our children’s nutrition.
While there are certainly challenges and preferences change daily, there is no need to despair or throw in the towel. Jill Castle, a registered dietitian specializing in childhood nutrition, said on a Dishing Up Nutrition episode that only about 25% of kids are actually picky eaters, while 50% of parents think their child is a picky eater. With some planning, trial-and-error, patience, and consistency, (Isn’t that parenthood in a nutshell anyways?!) you can navigate feeding your toddler a nutritious, balanced diet – the foundation of which is REAL FOOD.
Real Food is Critical, In the Womb & Out
We have written and talked about nutrition during pregnancy many times (here and here for starters), and when it comes to toddlers a lot of the same information applies. Many of the same nutrients that are important for a growing baby INSIDE the womb continue to be important for growing babies and children OUTSIDE the womb.
- DHA and choline and B12 help develop a growing brain and nervous system (eggs are a wonderful source of all three).
- Adequate protein, iron, and zinc are crucial for building muscle and structural tissues like skin, hair, and nails (you’ll find these in meat and fish).
- Vitamins A and D and fermented foods/probiotics lend themselves to a robust immune system (grass-fed butter and full-fat yogurt are a great source of these).
As you can see from the above examples, emphasizing real, whole food sources of these nutrients just makes a lot of sense.
4 Tips for Helping Kids Eat Healthy Foods
We all want our kiddos to be able to enjoy a wide variety of foods. It makes meal planning a lot easier and instills a lifetime of healthy eating habits for starters! However, getting your toddler to eat that broccoli (zucchini, greens beans, fill in the blank) is often easier said than done. It is natural for some toddlers to develop a fear or resistance to trying new foods (called neophobia) or to get stuck on eating just a few certain foods (called food jags).
Here are some tactics I have tried with my young son, or recommended clients try with their children.
Parents Decide What to Eat, Kids Decide The Rest: One way that I have approached feeding my 2-year old son is with the mindset that, at this stage in his life, we parents decide WHAT to feed our kids. Our toddlers get to decide IF, WHEN, and HOW MUCH of the provided foods they are going to eat. This means that we have control over the quality of the foods that enter our home and that our kids have access to. The rest is up to the child.
Offer Choices: The key here is that you offer choices, all of which are healthy real foods; therefore there’s no “wrong” choice for your child. What this looks like in my house is setting a variety of foods on my son’s tray (usually 1-2 options each of protein/carb/fat) and letting him choose what he is going to eat off of his tray. Some days it is only the sweet potatoes and grapes. Some days he’ll take a bite or two of meat, eat half of an avocado, several greens beans, and chow down watermelon with coconut yogurt for dessert. While every meal and snack may not be perfectly balanced, I find peace in knowing that when I start with a plate full of real foods, I don’t have to fret that my child might prefer one option over the other – they are both healthy.
If your children are older you could discuss two choices within the same food group. Would you like green beans or tomatoes? Would you like turkey or beef? Would you like grapes or blueberries? Would you like olives or avocado? Again, the choices that you are offering are based on quality foods, but your children can now flex their own decision-making muscles. One thing to remember is to keep the number of choices limited (2 options is best) and ask the questions slowly, allowing time to pause and to think. Try to avoid rattling through questions so fast that they can’t keep up and may get overwhelmed.
Persistence Pays Off: I’ve heard, and my own son has proven this to be true, that kids need to be introduced (by introduced I mean set on their plate) 10-15 times before they might take a bite. So if your little one doesn’t love zucchini the first time you make it for dinner, do not fret and DO NOT GIVE UP. Bring it back again and again, and persistence will usually pay off.
Model Healthy Eating: Finally, I absolutely love what my fellow dietitian Alyssa said about introducing new foods: “My number one piece of advice is to model that healthy diet. “Do as I say and not as I do” is NOT a great approach. When my kids see Mom and Dad always loading up on veggies, they get used to that being normal and tend to be more open to trying the foods we are eating.”
Kids Thrive with Balanced Eating + An Example Menu
If you’ve been following our blogs and Dishing Up Nutrition episodes, you’ll be familiar with the concept of balanced eating (protein + carbohydrates + healthy fats) every meal and snack. (See my sample menu below as an example.) We do this to keep our blood sugar stable. Stable blood sugar gives us consistent energy, even-keel moods, better focus, and keeps cravings at bay.
We know (because we’ve experienced it) that when we get out of balance, we can experience hunger, anxiety, brain fog, and irritability. Hangry anyone?! Did you ever stop to think that’s also how toddlers and kids operate and feel? Low blood sugar in an adult might look like road rage, but a low blood sugar in a toddler might look like a temper tantrum or hitting their sibling. Balanced eating will not circumvent every behavioral outburst, but it can certainly help toddlers operate from a more stable place without begging for snacks every 15 minutes.
So what might balanced eating for a toddler look like? Here are a some examples:
Breakfast: 1-2 eggs scrambled in butter with cherry tomatoes and blueberries
Lunch: rotisserie chicken mixed with mayonnaise, baby carrots, cucumber slices, and avocado slices (or guacamole)
Dinner: part of a beef patty, green beans cooked with butter, and cubed sweet potatoes
Snacks are an important part of the day as well. We usually recommend a snack between lunch and dinner and another snack about a half hour before bed to keep blood sugar level throughout the night. It’s thought that waking during the night is sometimes caused by a blood sugar crash. I think I can speak for all parents when I say no one wants their kiddos to wake at night if they can help it.
Here are some great examples of balanced (again, protein, fat and carb) snacks:
- Cheese stick with banana and nut butter
- Deli turkey slice with cream cheese and sliced grapes
- Smoothie or homemade smoothie popsicle (Here are 10 great smoothie recipes and I love our Creamy Blackberry Popsicles and Peach Pineapple Popsicles.)
- Whole-milk yogurt with applesauce mixed in and topped with pumpkin seeds
You can find even more great snack ideas here.
If you want to learn more specifics of what we recommend feeding children and why, I encourage you to sign up for our online class Foods to Build Happy, Focused Kids. It’s just 50 minutes long and will teach you even more about what to feed your children so they perform at their best! Especially helpful as kids navigate a challenging and different school year.
If you want even more support in setting up a lifetime of healthy eating habits, please come see me (virtually via Zoom!) or any of my fellow nutritionists and dietitians. We are here to help.