Trying to feed your toddler healthy, nutritious food can be a battle – but it doesn’t have to be. Little Learning School’s leading paediatric dietician Kathryn Hawkins shares her top 11 tips to help you get your child’s eating habits off to a positive start.
1. Eat and enjoy at least one meal a day as a family
Eating as a family gives you an opportunity to be a role model healthy eating and table manners. Children look up to, and mimic their parents, so make sure you turn off the TV, leave your phone in the office, and make family meal time fun! Avoid making it a battle ground, just provide a healthy balanced meal and allow your toddler, child, teen to eat as much as they need whilst engaging in family life. Oh and think outside the square – if you cant have dinner as a family – make it breakfast!
2. Cook meals at home and try to encourage your children to help you
Involve your kids in the menu planning and shopping, too. Sometimes, having a weekly plan they can see (when they are old enough) can help them prepare for new or different meals. Involving them in menu planning also means they have an input and they can see that their favourite meals are being weaved into the week. It is also a great reason to discuss variety and including ‘everyday foods’ like vegetables.
3. Parents provide, children decide
This is the best way to manage even the fussiest eater! Essentially, parents decide when the meal is served and what is served and the children decide how much to eat. This is best done in collaboration with point number 2 – involve the children in the meal planning, but also make sure the plate is balanced. For example the meal may be homemade rissoles and mashed potato. As the parent you can add 1/3 plate of vegetables or salad to the meal. The child may choose to eat all of it, some of it or a very small amount and that is fine. Continue to dish this up and give them opportunity to eat a variety of food (point number 4). Another idea is to have all the components of the meal on the table and let the children chose what they would like. This is more suited to children 2 years and older.
4. Continue to offer certain food, even if you don’t think it will get eaten
This is an important one! If you don’t put a certain vegetable or type of food on your child’s plate because you don’t think they will eat it, then they will never eat it because you have removed the opportunity! If you just present your child with the same meal as the rest of the family, then they are within their rights to leave something they don’t want to eat on the plate. But, by giving the food then you are giving them an opportunity to try it, and one day, they just might! Especially if they see the rest of the family eating it. Don’t make a big deal out of it and don’t force them to eat it, just serve it up and see what happens.
5. Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods
Kids should be eating whole, minimally processed food—food that is as close to its natural form as possible. Make sure 1/3 of the lunch and dinner plate is filled with vegetables or salad, and try to offer whole fruit with the skin on (rather than canned or jellied fruit) when possible. Other great options are oats, multigrain bread, nut spreads and natural dairy products rather than flavoured. Try to avoid packaged food, biscuits, chocolates etc.
6. Encourage water
This is a simple one – don’t have other options in the house! Water and milk are the best drinks for everyone, and by having water only as a child, you are helping create a great habit. Don’t be afraid to toss in mint, lemon, or lime wedges to flavour the water.
7. Avoid negative language around less healthy foods such as ‘bad’ or ‘fattening’
It’s not the type of food that’s bad, it’s the amount and how often the food is eaten that can be problematic. Instead, refer to these foods as ‘occasional’ or ‘extra’ foods and keep portion sizes small.
8. Fill your fridge and pantry with a variety of healthy foods
Make it easy to access whole fruit, whole grain crackers, cottage cheese and ricotta, unsalted nuts, nut spreads, natural yoghurt and pre-sliced veggie sticks with hummus or tzatziki. As your child gets older, you can ask them what they would like for a snack and help them prepare it. A great way to get them listening to their body, making decisions around food and learning to prepare food.
9. Be mindful and listen to hunger cues
Most children are great at eating to their hunger so let your child stop eating when they don’t want anymore. Young children will eat when they’re hungry regardless of the food on offer, so always have healthy options available. Try to stick to3 meal times and 2-3 snack times a day but allow flexibility to cater for ‘hungry days’, extra naps and unexpected situations (aka real life!).
10. Discourage eating in front of the TV or computer
This is often done mindlessly without paying attention to hunger cues and can start to turn into a habit. I should also add that eating in bedrooms or on the sofa is not appropriate either. Ideally children should eat at the dining table or kitchen bench and only in other areas if it is a special occasion.
11. Avoid using food as a reward or bribe, or holding back on foods as punishment.
We have all been here and done this! The issue here is that we are introducing an emotional relationship with food, which can lead to issues later in life. Often the reward food or bribe food is an ‘occasional’ food, and once rewarded, is associated with feeling better / good / doing a good job. Use activities or trips to the park as alternatives when needing a bribe!