What I Know Now about Wrangling Toddlers into Healthy Eating
By Sonia Jhas
I was so naive.
When Arya was an infant, I longed for the days when she’d finally eat real food. I never quite enjoyed the whole breastfeeding thing – breastfeeding was not a smooth part of my transition to motherhood — and to say that I was eager to have her move on to solids is an understatement.
In fact, I was practically counting the days. I felt like I’d finally be in my element – planning and organizing Arya’s food, cooking her Pinterest-worthy healthy meals, all the while teaching her healthy eating habits. I thought it was going to be fun. I thought I was going to be in control. I thought I was going to be able to do it ‘right.’
What can I say, I was naive. Maybe not dead wrong — but let’s just say I’ve had many-a reality check since then.
Arya was super slow to adapt to new foods; I had to offer her the same food at least 10 times before she’d be willing to take a bite… and even then, she’d hate it for a while before trying it again. She’s gone through, and still goes through, phases of picky-eating, when she only wants to eat bread, crackers, and cereal. (Apparently carbs are a gal’s best friend right from birth.) She’s also gone through rounds of mild constipation, which has been a total shit show — or lack thereof. (Nobody tells you how much your life will revolve around poop when you enter motherhood. Too much poop? Problem. Not enough poop? Problem!)
And yet, now that she’s two, I can confidently say we have reached an equilibrium that works well for us — a balance between chicken nuggets (which change their – and our — lives forever) and quinoa stew. So, I want to share with you what I’ve learned along the way. I can’t guarantee these tips for healthy eating for toddlers will work, but maybe you’ll pick up some tidbits to try with your child.
Sonia Jhas’s tips on getting toddlers to eat healthy
Stock the house with organic, healthy food for kids.
This sounds like an obvious statement, but more often than not, kids end up eating junkier food just because we have junkier options in the house. They get fussy during a meal, we get desperate, and low and behold, they’re having enriched wheat crackers with processed cheese for dinner three nights a week. If the unhealthy options don’t exist, then at some point, your child has to come around and accept the healthy food choices you’re giving them, even if they don’t like it.
I make it a point to fill the fridge with organic lean meat, fruit, veggies, and dairy – because what’s the point in enforcing a healthy diet for children if it’s loaded with antibiotics or chemicals?
Strive to create a culture of healthy eating, but don’t expect 100% compliance.
This was a hard lesson for me because I’m super Type A. I love systems and structure and I gravitate naturally to the all-or-nothing approach – which can be a real challenge when you’re dealing with a toddler. I felt utterly defeated when my planned dinner for Arya would end up only half-eaten because she just wasn’t in the mood for what I was serving up. I’d drive myself, and her, nuts because I wouldn’t let up; I just had to try harder. Finally, after all the tug-of-war, I realized my job was to have Arya adopt healthy eating habits without being a drill sergeant. Now, I have her eat at least half of everything on her plate. If she does that, she can ask for other healthy food choices (like different veggies, or a yogurt), and I’ll oblige.
Read more about kids and healthy eating on The Swaddle.
Figure out a structured compromise that will work for you.
For me, it’s a five-day, two-day split: Five days a week, Arya eats healthy, clean foods including variations of oatmeal, chicken quinoa stew, brown rice and veggie pilafs, brown rice pastas with lean meats, and all sorts of organic dairy, fruits, and vegetables.
Then, two days a week, Arya gets ‘fun meals,’ like whole wheat pancakes or waffles with coconut oil, brown rice mac n’ cheese or quinoa-crusted chicken nuggets. Sometimes we do pizza, and sometimes we even take her out for meals. Her ‘treat’ weekend meals don’t go all the way to the other end of the spectrum (I’m not happily encouraging McDonald’s), but I do bend the rules and give her more processed meals.
Model the healthy eating habits you want to see.
You can’t expect your child to eat healthy if you’re not doing it, too. Any of Arya’s healthy dishes I mention are what my husband and I eat as well. and I’ve found this to be a pretty big part of the equation. When Arya eats her oatmeal with coconut oil, so do we. When she eats her brown rice burrito bowl, so do we. So, she fundamentally thinks that this is just how people eat. She doesn’t feel like she’s being asked to do anything unreasonable or that we’re having more ‘fun’ than her with our meals, because she sees us doing the same thing as her. She likes to feel like a grown-up, and this is one way she can feel just like mommy and daddy.
Build flexibility into your meal structure – but beyond that, don’t take no shit.
Obviously, Arya enjoys her fun, 2-day meals more than her standard weekday meals. (Who wouldn’t?) But since day one, I’ve been very clear that she only gets these fun foods on the weekend. When Monday hits and she asks for mac n’ cheese, my answer is, “Sorry, kiddo. It’s not the weekend!” And because I’ve never caved or budged on my stance, she knows there’s no point in trying to fight; she cooperates and looks forward to the following weekend’s treats. I feel comfortable setting these boundaries, because this five-day/two-day routine is exactly how my husband and I live ourselves.
When in doubt: smoothie.
I try to push fruits and veggies for snacks as much as I can, but Arya is still really resistant and picky. So, I resort to giving her a green smoothie at least three to five times a week. These smoothies are a real mind-pacifier, because I load them up with all sorts of greens, fruits, and fats. One of Arya’s favourite smoothie recipes is made up of a handful of kale, a couple of broccoli florets, half a ripe banana, ¼ cup of full fat, organic, vanilla greek yogurt, a tsp of natural vanilla extract, ¼ tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tbsp chia seeds, and some water / ice. Get creative with ingredients and have fun with it!
Get your spouse or partner on board.
Mommy can’t always be the bad guy! It really helps that my husband is on board with Arya’s eating regime because she’s never being pulled in different directions — no mommy having to be the bad guy while daddy slips her some ice cream after dinner. I’ve found that toddlers are pretty good at manipulation when they want to get their way… having both parents on the same side of the argument really helps shut negotiations down quickly!