I’m not a huge fan of the whole idea of “sneaking” healthy foods into kids’ meals. I completely understand the reasoning behind it – to avoid meltdowns and get kids to actually eat those foods – but my whole goal is to avoid having to do this in the first place. I know, I know – this is much easier said than done. I am a first time mom of a 16 month old, so perhaps an extended picky eating phase is on the horizon. For now, though, Rose eats what we eat, in a slightly altered form where necessary. Of course, she goes through phases where she prefers some foods over others, and she may not eat all of something on her plate. But as a rule, we do not prepare her something special based on her whims. Simply put, I do not run a children’s restaurant. Sometimes you have to be ruthless as a parent!
Below are the general rules I try to follow for feeding Rose. It is not always easy – at the end of a long day, I am certainly tempted to cave in to her requests for bread and cheese or to get upset if she rejects the meal I prepared. However, I have found that by and large this approach makes mealtimes more pleasant for all parties involved, and I know it will pay off in the long run.
Here are my general rules to instill healthy eating habits in babies and toddlers and make mealtime more pleasant:
- She eats what we eat. Our kids model our behaviors and attitudes around food. Although it’s not always possible, we try to eat meals with her. If Rose sees me digging into the broccoli on my plate, she will be more likely to eat it herself. If she doesn’t eat much of her meal, I do not make her something else. #meanmom – haha.
- Serve one thing she likes. I do try to include at least one healthy item at each meal I know will be a hit with her, such as roasted sweet potatoes, raw grass-fed cheese, a piece of sprouted grain bread or fruit at breakfast. I find this gives her a little autonomy over her food choices and curbs her initial hunger, after which she usually tries everything else on her plate.
- No fuss. I don’t make a big fuss over the food. If I offer a new food, I don’t beg her to try it or get upset if she doesn’t, and if she tries it, I don’t cheer her on. Basically, I try to serve her a balanced meal with a variety of flavors, tell her what everything is matter-of-factly, and carry on with the meal. I find this approach makes meals more pleasant and relaxed, and signals to her that meals are a fun time to connect with friends and family over good food. If meals become a power struggle over food, a toddler will be less likely to enjoy mealtime.
- Firmly but calmly respond to bad behavior. If Rose acts out, i.e. throwing food and/or dishes on the floor or having a meltdown, I gently but firmly tell her I won’t allow that behavior and either take away the food for a few minutes or take her out of the highchair and end the meal. This one can be very tricky.
- Treats in balance. I save any “treats,” such as fruit at lunch or dinner, until after she has made a good dent in her meal, but I try not to bribe her with those treats or even mention them during the meal. Using a treat as a reward for trying the broccoli signals to a child that broccoli is less appealing. A treat is a nice surprise after a pleasant meal and fosters a balanced approach to eating. It is not something I teach Rose to expect or be rewarded with, but it is also not something I deprive.
- No bribes. Relatedly, I don’t use food as a reward or a bribe. Bribing with food undermines the very healthy eating habits you are trying to teach your child. It sends the message that food is leverage, rather than something to nourish the body and satiate hunger, and that “reward foods” are to be preferred over other (read: healthier) types of food.
- Limit Snacks. I try to limit snacks as much as I can (except on airplanes – then we are in survival mode, and anything is fair game!). Rose is a much better eater and better behaved at mealtimes if she is hungry. It is okay and even healthy for a child to feel a little hungry. This way, she learns to regulate her appetite and eat when she is hungry. I give her one afternoon snack between lunch and dinner around the same time every day. If she has a particularly active morning and is asking for it, I will give her something small between breakfast and lunch – usually a small piece of cheese or a little kefir mixed with almond butter. Note: she still nurses in the morning and evening.
- Make things taste awesome! I don’t blame a lot of kids for disliking vegetables. Why would they like peas steamed to oblivion and served without any seasoning? We don’t give them enough credit for the sophistication of their palates. For the most part, I prepare food for Rose the way I would want to eat it – roasting or searing to get some nice caramelized flavors, seasoning with salt, using plenty of herbs and spices and balancing the flavors with acidity.
Here is an easy weeknight recipe, a variation of which I make regularly when I need a simple, healthy dinner I know everyone will like. This frittata is a perfect example of a baby or toddler friendly meal that is just as delicious and satisfying for adults. Rose LOVES eggs in all forms. Eggs are a great food for babies and toddlers, because they are packed with nutrients, quick to prepare in a variety of forms and relatively affordable. I buy organic, pasture-raised eggs. Not only do they taste so much better than the conventional variety, they also contain significantly more nutrients (1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2x more omega-3 fatty acids, 3x more vitamin E and 7x more beta carotene). Totally worth the price, if you ask me.
I pack this frittata full of greens, herbs, and garlic for nutrients and flavor. You can adapt it to your preferences and to what you have on hand. You can also chop the greens and herbs according to your baby or toddler’s ability to chew them. For younger babies or toddlers with no or few teeth, you can even lightly blend the frittata mixture in a blender to mince the greens more finely.
Oh, by the way – if you are interested in choosing the right gear for feeding your toddler to help make mealtime more pleasant, I encourage you to read my post on stylish and nontoxic toddler eating essentials.
I’d love to know – how do you instill healthy, happy eating habits in your children?