5 Tips to Raise a Healthy Eater

I get it.

You're tired.

The last thing you need is a complicated recipe to sneak vegetables into your child's favourite food only to have them refuse it and ask for a snack 20 minutes later.

Or maybe you're just wondering, "how can I get my child to eat? anything. at all."

It might help to know that almost every toddler goes through a "picky" phase. Somewhere around 12 months-2 years, your toddler may start testing your patience around mealtimes. They are going through so many changes developmentally and simultaneously testing the limits of their autonomy.

As long as your child is growing appropriately and their doctor is not concerned about growth and development, you can rest assured knowing that this is all very normal. Being a "healthy eater" has less to do with what your child is eating and more with how they feel about food and mealtimes and what of these they will carry with them into adulthood.

How you react to picky eating can have an impact on your child's future relationship with food and mealtimes.

Here are some strategies to focus on to help your toddler develop healthy food habits:

1. Keep mealtimes positive and family focused

A calm, stress-free environment for meals offers your child an atmosphere to feel comfortable exploring food.

Mealtimes should be free of distractions (TV, computers, phones, tablets). This can be a very difficult habit to break, especially if your child already associates the TV with mealtimes and will only eat with their favourite show playing. The first step to solving this is to turn it off and start a new mealtime routine.

Sit down as a family for as many mealtimes as possible. Talk to each other. Even if it's just you and your toddler at the table chatting about 'what cows say'. Avoid heated adult discussions or arguments at the dinner table.

2. Be a role model

Sit with your child during meals, avoid distractions, enjoy a variety of foods, and avoid talking negatively about foods. You can't expect your child to display these behaviours if you aren't modeling them.

3. Toddlers thrive on routine and consistency

Build a routine around mealtimes, offer three meals and 2-3 snacks. Try to stick to this routine and avoid letting your child graze on snacks throughout the day. Offering consistent snacks helps to reduce grazing because there is trust in knowing food is coming soon.

Always serve meals and snacks to toddlers while seated, moving around while eating is not only distracting it also increases the risk of choking.

Sometimes toddlers choose not to eat an entire meal or snack and that's okay. If your toddler refuses the food that is offered there is no need to prepare a different meal to try and appease them. Avoid this kind of short-order cooking as it can increase food refusal.

4. Trust your child to eat the amount their body needs

Your job as the parent is to provide healthy and tasty meals and a positive mealtime environment. Your child's role is to choose how much of and if they want to eat the food you have served. This is the basis of the Division of Responsibility, a model developed by Ellen Satter, a registered dietitian and child feeding expert. It is the model many dietitians continue to use to guide parents in setting up a positive feeding relationship with their child.

Your child knows how much food their body needs. Toddlers are naturally intuitive eaters unless parents intervene.

Avoid using the 3 P's at mealtimes

Pressure - "try it, just one bite"

Praise (for the amount of food eaten) - "good girl! you ate all your broccoli"

Punishment - "you didn't clean your plate, no dessert for you!"

Remember, it is not your role to decide how much and if food is eaten

5. Be patient and embrace the mess

New foods can be scary for a toddler. Especially if the food is not something they have been exposed to consistently. Serve at least one familiar food with meals to reduce the pressure. Be patient and keep offering new foods in a variety of ways.

Toddlers love to explore food with touch. Teaching children not to play with their food takes away from important sensory exploration. Sometimes playing with new food (or putting it in their mouth) will lead to them eating it, sometimes it won't. Exploring the food through touch will help to increase their comfort level with new textures and sensations.

To deal with the mess:

  • put a table cloth under their chair for easy cleanup

  • have a fun clean up routine after meals such as water play

  • get a dog (just kidding. kind of)

Please remember, you are doing your best. Raising a toddler is hard work!

And don't worry, you haven't scarred your child into only eating goldfish crackers for the rest of his life. There is still plenty of time to nourish your child's healthy relationship with food.

The nutrition information contained in this resource is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, registered dietitian, or other qualified healthcare provider with respect to any questions you my have regarding the nutritional requirements based upon a medical condition. Reliance upon any content provided in this resource is solely at your own risk. Speak with you health provider if you suspect your child may have a condition or delay that would prevent them from eating safely.

Pediatric Registered Dietitian

Baby & Toddler Nutrition

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