How to Help Your Toddler Eat Healthier Foods

It’s dinner time, and I’m serving something healthier after last night’s fried chicken.

Naturally, and on cue, it’s met with resistance. “I’M NOT EATING THAT,” my daughter roars before crossing her arms. And the food fight ensues.

Arguing with stubborn eaters may only make things worse. But fear not: There are ways to navigate the food fight! It may not seem like much now, but these small changes at mealtime can improve your child’s eating habits. From what to say to meal presentation, here are real-life tips from a nutrition expert to help set your kid up for healthier eating:

Let Your Child Decide How Much to Eat

Remember your parents telling you to clean your plate? Turns out, it’s better to let your child make the decision on how much to eat. Little ones are more attuned to their hunger and fullness cues than you think, and forcing them to eat past full can lead to patterns of overeating later on in adulthood.

Give the Sense of Choice

If your child is old enough, try offering choices. Do they want green beans or broccoli? Carrots or a bell pepper? The fork with the princess on it or the one with the puppy? Small choices like these presented during mealtime can help a toddler feel in control and more willing to try what’s on their plate.

Avoid Bribing or Using Food Rewards

Offering kids other foods like ice cream as a reward in return for finishing their broccoli puts greater emphasis on reward foods, which sends conflicting signals. Your child may learn to see less healthful foods as more desirable (the prize), which can increase cravings for these foods now and into adulthood.

Of course, non-food rewards like a sticker, a hug, or letting them choose their bedtime story are all fair game. Praise can be helpful too, as long as it’s not misguided. For example, “I’m so happy you tried the carrots” takes control away from the child, while “Great job trying the carrots!” reinforces the child’s behavior.

Try Alternate Cooking Methods

Don’t forget, you can alter how the veggie, meat or grain is cooked!

During repeated exposures of certain dreaded mealtime veggies, alter the texture by cooking or preparing it differently. Maybe raw cauliflower is a no-go for now, but steamed and “riced” cauliflower may have better results.

Change texture, flavor and consistency by serving raw, steamed, baked, broiled or roasted. Add another flavor too. Perhaps bell peppers alone don’t fare as well as when they are paired with a tasty, nutritious mashed avocado. Even family favorites like mac and cheese can be prepared with different textures and flavors!

Presentation is Key

New foods can be overwhelming for a child, and how you offer these foods can make a big difference. Try offering a small serving of the new food with a small serving of a well-liked food. Your child won’t fill up on the well-liked food, but they also won’t be turned off by the new one. Up the presentation by making creative shapes, animals, or cars out of the veggies you are trialing. Have them get involved in putting food in their plate. This gets young kids involved in the cooking process.

Get Creative

What sounds more fun: “Super Vision Sticks” or carrots? Take the fear out of experimenting with new foods and textures by talking to your kids about food colors, shapes and fun names. Even reading fun nutrition-themed books can get your little one interested in trying new foods, like The Hungry Caterpillar. Take a trip to the library and find picture books with healthy foods! Then, try some of the foods in the book together. Check out these cute healthy-themed children’s books.

Model Dinnertime Behavior

We all know toddlers mimic their parents’ every step, so try to model appropriate eating behavior yourself! If your little one sees daddy eating the tomatoes, he’s more likely to want to try them too. Be mindful of your snacking habits! Resisting that bag of chips or eating in front of the television after a long day might be a challenge, but don’t give up. Remember that your child sees your eating patterns and is likely to adopt the same behaviors.

Giving in to a stubborn eater’s disruptive behaviors only reinforces that those behaviors will get them what they want. Be positive, be patient and get creative when offering healthy choices to increase your child’s acceptance of new foods.

Parenting mealtime behavior can be difficult, but it’s not impossible! Just remember not to be too hard on yourself; some kids just take a while to warm up to veggies!

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