|Aislyn [2.5 yrs]& her cousin Kieran [3 yrs] eating a healthy dinner.|
A lot of people tell me they really struggle with finding healthy foods and meals that their toddlers will eat. I often use examples of what I feed my daughter (Aislyn) to provide clients with some healthy ideas. Some people may think this seems like too much work, but many of the dinner ideas I provide you with below take <10 minutes to make. Putting together meals for the day for anyone will take a bit of time, unless you are using literally all packaged foods that require no prep. However, as I say to my clients "if being healthy and fit was easy, everyone would be that way!". So, if your child's health is important, take a few more minutes each day to cut some fresh fruits and veggies for them. I cannot stress enough how much parents serve as role models. Aislyn will want things I would never think a toddler would eat, simply because she sees mommy and daddy using it (eg: wheat bran, high fiber twig cereal, walnuts, pea protein powder, etc.).
People also struggle with getting their kids to eat healthy foods as well as how to encourage them to finish a meal. Should they bribe them with dessert? Do they punish them if they don't eat the green beans? I figure since I have so many clients and friends that struggle with these things, I should write a blog about it to help share some tips and ideas. My undergraduate research focused on "Parental feeding styles and the risk for childhood obesity", and now that I am a mother of two, I feel that I have ample credentials to write on the subject.
My Parenting Style: I feed Aislyn mostly healthy meals and snacks all through the day, and very rarely give her ultra-processed foods. She drinks water for the most part, but I do sometimes mix fruit juice and water together (probably 10% juice, 90% water) to encourage her to drink a little more. She does drink organic 1% milk, which I often mix with kefir. I figure since she is eating pretty healthy most of the time, a little extra sugar to get some more hydration and some probiotics in won't hurt.
I do occasionally give into bribery. There are mixed schools of thought on this, but I feel that sometimes it is necessary. I also have found that I try to bribe with foods that aren't necessarily "treats." Today Aislyn wanted more "boo boo's go bye bye" (broccoli), but I said she needed to eat another bite of her sandwich to get more broccoli. This leads her to think broccoli is special. I've done the same thing regarding finishing a meal: "if you take 4 more bites, I'll give you (plain) cheerios or (unsweetened) applesauce." Now plain cheerios and applesauce are both thought to be treats. However, that is not to say that my husband and I don't also bribe with other stuff if we have it in the house. After family events or parties, we often go home with cake or cookies. I will bribe her with (for example) "if you take 4 more bites, you can have a cookie." For which, we only give her half of a cookie. She does get sugary "junk" food, but in very small quantities. Luckily, she is very good about listening to her body and not overdoing it for the most part. Sometimes she will eat only part of what I give her and says "save for later?". She did this with an ice cream bar- each day she would only eat 1/4 of it and save the rest for later, even though she could have had the whole thing if she wanted.
Aislyn's dinners are generally very healthy, as you would expect having a dietitian as a mother. However, I don't forbid her to eat things that might not be considered healthy. When she's at the grandparents' houses, she may have pasta, mac and cheese, ice cream, and other things. That is special. The other night we were at a friend's house, and she ate pizza. That's fine. I don't buy pizza for her or make mac and cheese because there are enough situations throughout the year where she gets these fun foods. Though, I occasionally have bought the mac and cheese that is made out of bean pasta since it has fiber and protein as a treat. I tell my adult clients the same thing. I don't recommend buying candy and cakes, because between birthdays, holidays, and parties, most people have exposure to these things quite frequently.
I think it's important to expose kids to "treats", but not train them to expect one after every meal. I see this with clients who grew up getting dessert every day, they are the ones that want something sweet after a meal. One of Aislyn's favorite desserts is unsweetened applesauce with cinnamon. I do, however, buy things that aren't necessarily healthy for her to eat occasionally since she is a kid and needs to have fun snacks like her friends do. In those instances, I use things like Teddy Grahams, Quaker Squares cereal, and Wheat Thins, which are 100% whole grain, but do have a decent amount of sugar. I think it's also important to teach kids why they need to eat certain foods. At 2 years old, Aislyn gets a lot of "boo boos". So, I taught her that vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, carrots, and others, make "boo boo's go bye bye"- so she is actually eager to eat them, especially when she has a boo boo. We taught her that her salmon and turkey help build big muscles (and she likes "making muscles" with her arms).
If Aislyn doesn't eat her meal, we don't give her a treat. We keep reintroducing the meal she didn't eat as her snack option. If she doesn't finish her oat bran, I will present that when she is hungry later. Didn't finish her turkey sandwich? That can be her afternoon snack. That way you don't waste food and the child learns that they need to eat their meals to get anything fun. It's also a tip I give to my clients who find themselves finishing their kids PB & J or eating those goldfish that their child didn't eat. If it's more than 1/2 a bite, it's worth saving for later.
So, enough on my philosophy of what I feed a toddler... what do I actually feed her in a day? Here is a typically school day:
1. Cereal= Trader Joe's high fiber cereal or a bran flake type cereal mixed with a more fun cereal like Life, Multi-grain Cheerios/Grain Berry Honey Nut Os, or sometimes just Nature's Path Heritage Flakes + 1 or 2% milk and a fruit (banana, sliced berries, etc.).
2. Oat bran w/ banana or berries, cinnamon, 1 tsp maple syrup, milk and sometimes Trader Joe's vanilla pea protein powder (she really likes it!). Sometimes she eats this cold, and sometimes she wants me to add in wheat bran since she sees me using that.
Sometimes I will mix flavored kefir with milk for her to drink along with water, or if she's still hungry, she'll get plain yogurt mixed with fruit. At some point during the day, I make sure she gets "cultured dairy" for the calcium, protein & probiotics.
AM SNACK: Sliced banana (or if I don't have that, another sliced fruit)
LUNCH: Sandwich: Avocado, hummus, or turkey w/ a part skim mozzarella cheese stick and sliced vegetables (cherry/grape tomatoes, broccoli, cooked carrots, or cucumber); occasionally I'll throw in whole grain crackers like Wasa or Trader Joe's Seeds & Grains Crispbread
PM SNACK: Sliced fruit (apples, berries, grapes) + a "somewhat fun" snack which often is just more cereal like cheerios/Quaker Squares/Life or sometimes crackers like wheat thins
DINNER: Protein, veggies & a starch
Dinner Examples: Salmon, broccoli & sweet potato; pork tenderloin, whole wheat couscous & mixed vegetables; chicken sausage, beets, carrots & TJ's cauliflower gnocchi; Lentil or Chickpea Pasta w/veggies & marinara (or oil & parmesan); tofu w/ stir fry veggies & quinoa; air fried 'healthy' chicken nuggets w/ air fried potatoes & ketchup, asparagus; lox (&chix), quinoa blend, broccoli (picture below), sauteed shrimp, mixed veggies & avocado toast
DESSERT: Applesauce, cheese & crackers, popcorn, or sometimes a treat like Teddy Grahams or a cookie/other baked good that we got from somewhere.
Aislyn knows weekends are special, so that's where she gets her pick of a special breakfast*:
1. Homemade Whole wheat pancakes or waffles
2. "Eggies" (eggs w/ cheese and often a small slice of toast)
3. Homemade Whole wheat French toast
* All served with milk, water, and fruit
If I do take the time to make her whole wheat waffles or pancakes (often Grain Berry or Kodiak brands), I will make a big batch and freeze a bunch so I don't have to do it all the time. If I really don't have time, I will buy the Kodiak Cake frozen waffles or pancakes and use those. I do put some butter and maple syrup on them.
Lunch is often a PB & J (all natural, no salt peanut butter w/ low sugar jam that is just made of fruit), lunch meat or fresh cooked turkey/chicken for protein, and of course, a vegetable on the side.
Of course, as with any kid, Aislyn goes through periods where she won't want to eat what I make. That's when I either just let her eat what she wants from the meal, or occasionally I will give her another option if it's already made in the fridge. I will not go out of my way to cook a whole other meal. One meal where she doesn't get protein isn't going to stunt her growth, so it's not a big deal. Sometimes it isn't worth the fight. It's not 100% perfect every day, but Aislyn has been eating healthy her whole life and at times does actually enjoy the food. For example, she asks for oats on the weekends sometimes, when she could be eating waffles. She asks for more broccoli when she could be eating more French fries. So, my advice to parents is to make healthy foods the norm, but still allow your child some treats a few times during the week. Try to make things that are actually fairly healthy seem like a treat. Hopefully with these suggestions, you will raise your kid to be healthy and actually want to eat foods that are good for them.