Many parents feel meal time with their toddlers is a constant battle. They may eat well one day and eat nothing the next. Sometimes we bribe, threaten, plead and beg kids to eat healthy foods, only to exacerbate the situation.
Myra, the editor of University City Patch, has this battle with her two and a half year old son. "He only wants mac and cheese and meatballs. He won't try anything new. My husband feels he should eat what we eat and a lot of times my son will go to bed without eating dinner. Is he hungry? Did he get a snack at school?" said Myra.
The truth is children eat when they are hungry, let them maintain their ability to acknowledge physical hunger. Don't force or bribe them to eat a meal, snack, or finish everything on their plate. These behaviors may prompt a power struggle over food.
All of Myra's concerns are valid, common experiences with toddlers. It is a developmental process. When they are babies they are just learning to eat; getting food in their mouths and how to swallow it. If all of a sudden, you find yourself becoming a short order cook, making a separate meal for your picky toddler, this may be condoning their fickle behavior. A child may not warm up to a particular food one day and like it another. It helps to try different recipes and to keep reintroducing healthy choices. Toddlers also tend to assert their independence by a blanket "no." You can bypass this, asking "Would you prefer green beans or broccoli?".This gives them a sense of independence and the power of choice. Just know they are not going to starve, if they are hungry, they will let you know.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you should stick to a routine and serve meals and snacks at approximately the same time every day, eliminating juice, milk and snacks one hour before meals. The premise being, if your toddler comes to the table hungry, it will be easier to get them to eat. I never followed this advice and my kids are not picky eaters (now seven and nine). I do not have set snack times for my children and I allow them to graze through out the day.
Famed pediatrician, Dr. Sears on the other hand, believes that kids like to graze throughout the day while playing. Toddlers are in an extremely active state of their lives; exploring, running, climbing. This makes it hard for them to sit long enough to eat sometimes. Sears is a proponent of a "nibble tray"(muffin tin, ice cube tray, etc.), offering colorful, bite size portions of enticingly named (apple moons, banana wheels, egg canoes, etc,) healthy foods at a toddler's reach. "A child's demeanor often parallels her eating patterns. Parents often notice that a toddler's behavior deteriorates toward the end of the morning or mid-afternoon. Notice the connection? Behavior is at its worst the longer they go without food. Grazing minimizes blood-sugar swings and lessens the resulting undesirable behavior," suggests Dr. Sears. However, if you want your child to eat with you at the table, Sears suggests cutting snacks off about two hours before dinner.
I believe it is important for families to eat together at the table. Studies show, kids are more likely to be obese if they eat alone. Dinner is an important time to connect with your kids, ask questions, listen and find out how things are going. This is true regardless of their age, it is an important ritual that connects us as a family.
Another thing to be aware of is portion size. A toddler's belly is as big as his fist, so keep servings in line with your child's size. Children under five need approximately three to five servings of vegetables per day. Sears' rule of thumb is, each serving is one tablespoon for each year of age. So, Myra's son, who is two and a half needs about two tablespoons of vegetables three to five times a day(six to ten tablespoons), which is equivalent to approximately one half cup (16 tablespoons = 1 cup).
One of the things that encouraged my kids to eat vegetables was our garden. When they were teeny they would pick the cherry tomatoes and eat them right off the vine. We grew basil, made pesto sauce together, and ate with fresh tomatoes and pasta. My daughters were and still are invested in our garden, watering and picking the fruits or vegetables. Their involvement makes them more likely to eat what they have sowed. Another way to encourage healthy eating is the farmer's market, letting your kids pick fruits and vegetables to have for snacks or dinner, with your guidance of course.
When you get home from the market have your child help you wash the produce and put it in easily accessible bowls. I always put grapes, easy to peel clementines, bananas where my kids can get to them. When kids are younger make sure you supervise, to prevent choking and probably a huge mess.
Be sneaky! Add vegetables to their favorite foods. Myra's son likes meatballs. Myra can grate zucchini and mushrooms into the mix and that way the vegetables are built in. For the macaroni and cheese I used to add cottage cheese to it, which has calcium and protein. Add vegetables to soups, sauces and casseroles, muffins, cakes and breads (banana, carrot or zucchini)
My final advice is to relax. Kids will not starve or develop Scurvy if they refuse to eat dinner. Continue to present them with healthy foods until they develop an affinity for them. When all else fails - sneak them in. Keep portion size in mind, they need a lot less than we do. Get your kids involved in the process of picking, cleaning and cooking fruits and vegetables to keep them invested in their choices. Finally, just present foods high in vitamins and minerals like carrots, broccoli, asparagus, avocados, eggs, whole grains, legumes, yogurt and lean meats.