Eating well gives your toddler the energy he needs to learn and grow. And it’ll help him stay healthy, maintain a healthy weight, and establish good lifelong eating habits. Here are some ways to make nutritious food the most appealing choice:
Get your toddler involved
A great way to get your toddler excited about eating well is to get him involved in the family’s food decisions. He’s too young to help you develop menus, of course, but he’d probably love an excursion to the grocery store.
As soon as your child’s old enough to manage it, ask him to hold the grocery list for you as you shop. Give him a few choices along the way: Peaches or mangoes? Peas or carrots? Graham crackers or fig bars?
Make a habit of selecting one new fruit or vegetable to try each week, keeping in mind that it may take a few tries before your child will actually eat it. Some doctors suggest that parents offer children new foods at least ten times before moving on to other healthy options.
Make meals and snacks fun
Enlist your toddler’s help in putting toppings on a pizza or grated cheese on a casserole. Arrange carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, and bell peppers to look like a face on his plate. Make pancakes in the shape of his initials and cut toast into a heart shape. Offer yogurt for him to dip graham crackers or fruit slices in, and outfit him with a lively placemat and dinnerware.
Go to the source
Take your toddler on an outing to an orchard, community garden, or berry farm so he can see where the food on his plate comes from. At this age he may not make the connection, but the experience might inspire him to try something he wouldn’t otherwise be interested in.
Be picky about juices
Fruit juices count toward your toddler’s daily fruit intake, but be particular about the kind and amount of juice you offer. Serve your toddler only 100 percent fruit juice or fruit-vegetable juice combinations. (These are full of nutrients and contain less natural sugar than many fruit juices.) Some kids even enjoy vegetable juice straight up!
If your toddler won’t drink milk, you may want to try juices fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Don’t offer fruit “drinks” because they may contain as little as 10 percent juice and have an array of artificial flavorings and sweeteners.
Keep in mind that even the healthiest fruit juices can easily become too much of a good thing. Juice can contribute to childhood obesity and malnourishment because a child who drinks a great deal of juice gets extra calories but not all the nutrients he needs. It can also lead to tooth decay, especially if your toddler carries around a bottle or sippy cup throughout the day.
So limit your toddler to ½ to ¾ of a cup of fruit juice each day, and use fresh fruit to meet the rest of his requirement. When he’s thirsty, offer him water.
Shake and bake
Smoothies are an easy way to get fruit and other nutritious foods into your child’s diet. All you need is a blender and a few simple ingredients. You can use your choice of fresh fruit, frozen fruit (such as berries or bananas), or even canned pineapple or peaches. (Strain the syrup first—or better yet, buy the kind packed in 100 percent fruit juice.)
You might want to include tofu or hard-cooked egg whites—they add protein without changing the taste or texture—and a bit of ground flax seed for extra fiber and omega 3s. Blend with fruit juice or add milk, yogurt, or frozen yogurt for a creamier drink and a dose of calcium.
Whole wheat and bran muffins are good sources of grains and fiber, and they can also be a vehicle for fruits and vegetables. Make or buy them with bananas, blueberries, carrots, pineapple, or zucchini.
Fortify but don’t fool
You might try incorporating healthy foods into dishes you know your toddler likes, but don’t be sneaky about it. (Even if he falls for it now, he may later feel betrayed when he figures out what’s up.)
Tell him you’re giving him some special pasta spirals tonight—with spinach mixed in or with broccoli and cheese on top. Better to be up-front and encourage an adventurous approach to eating from the get-go.
Make it count
Be aware of your child’s nutritional needs, but don’t worry—it’s not hard to meet a toddler’s daily requirements. A toddler only needs about 1,000 calories a day. That means a serving of vegetables is 1 to 2 tablespoons and a serving of meat is about the size of the palm of his hand. Here are some easy ways to serve up good nutrition:
A tablespoon of peanut butter spread thinly (large dollops can cause choking) on a slice of whole wheat bread and half a cup of whole milk supply your toddler with lots of protein, magnesium, zinc, fiber, and calcium.
And just one banana, half an apple, and half a cup of strawberries meet most toddlers’ suggested intake of fruit for the day.
Be a good role model
As you consider all the ways of getting your toddler to eat well, remember to practice what you preach. If your child sees you eating lots of junk food or skipping meals, you can’t expect him to eat properly. Make an effort to eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and you and your child will both be better off.
Forget the food fights. Let your toddler decide how much to eat. And don’t use a sweet treat as a bribe or withhold it as a punishment.
Try to make mealtime together—at the table, not in front of the television —as enjoyable as possible, so that your child can establish a good, healthy relationship with food.