Toddlers are learning to navigate their world, communicate, and control some parts of their lives. They don't actually have control over much, but eating is one of the first areas they will master.
Parents can help them enjoy their limited power by giving them appropriate amounts of freedom when it comes to choosing foods and eating them.
That's not to say toddlers are deciding what to have for dinner. Parents have the important job of providing the kinds of foods that an active toddler needs. A parent's role is to present healthy foods and let a child decide which ones to eat — or whether to eat at all. Savvy parents can steer a toddler toward healthy eating, but might have to do it in a crafty way.
By anticipating problems and offering choices, parents teach kids which behaviors will yield positive results and which ones won't.
Here's how to turn common concerns into opportunities to teach healthy eating habits.
Most Toddlers Are Picky Eaters
Many toddlers express their budding independence through eating — or not eating, as the case may be. So nearly all toddlers could be described as picky eaters. If kids don't like a food, they won't eat it — no rocket science there.
Does your toddler want to eat only macaroni and cheese? When a child is stuck on one food, a parent might feel forced to serve that food every day so the child eats something. But eventually the child may tire of that food — and then what?
You choose the foods on your toddler's plate — and you don't have to serve macaroni and cheese daily. If you do, you miss an opportunity to introduce new foods and increase the number of those your child is willing to eat. Most "food jags," as they're often called, won't last long if parents don't accommodate them.
Kids won't starve and they will learn to be more flexible rather than go hungry. Present a variety of healthy foods — including established favorites and some new foods — to make up the menu. Your toddler may surprise you one day by eating all of them.
Your toddler doesn't like green beans the first time around? Don't stop serving them. Kids are naturally slow to accept new tastes and textures, so keep reintroducing the beans. Serve a small portion and encourage your child to try a bite without nagging or forcing.
And be sure you're setting a good example! Serve nutritious foods that you like or eat something new so your kids see you enjoying what you're asking them to eat.
You want your child to eat the spinach you serve; your child drops it onto the floor. Your well-meaning impulse may be to start talking up nutritious foods, saying how big and strong spinach will make your child. Or you might start bargaining: "Well, if you eat three more bites, I'll give you a cookie." The problem is that these tactics don't work in the long run.
Who hasn't used the line about spinach making you strong? But this approach may build dislike for the healthy food rather than increase acceptance. This doesn't mean you shouldn't teach kids about the benefits of healthy foods, but don't push too much by celebrating every bite of spinach your toddler eats or disapproving when he or she refuses.
For some kids, dinner becomes a negotiation session from the very start, and parents have been using dessert as an incentive for decades. But this doesn't encourage healthy eating. Instead it creates the impression that "treats" are more valuable than mealtime food. Foods like candy and cookies are not essential to a child's diet and it's not a deprivation to not serve them during the toddler years.
Threatening a punishment, much like bribing a child with dessert, ultimately isn't effective either. It creates a power struggle.
To encourage healthy eating, continue offering your child an array of nutritious choices — and keep the mealtime mood upbeat. Also try these strategies:
Serve right-sized portions. Parents often overestimate how much food a child should eat. Especially with foods that aren't yet favorites, a couple of tablespoons is plenty to start with. Small portions are less overwhelming, while bigger portions may encourage overeating.
Don't negotiate. It's fine to encourage kids to "try one bite" but don't fall into the negotiating trap. Prepare and serve healthy meals and let them decide what to eat.
Have family meals together. Set your toddler's place at the family table — it's good for kids of this age to see their parents and siblings eating together and eating healthy foods. Kids eat a more nutritious diet, with more fruits and vegetables, when they regularly have family meals.
Create positive peer pressure. Toddlers are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they see their peers eating them, so look for opportunities where they can eat healthy with friends.
Kids should start finger feeding around 9 months of age and try using utensils by 15-18 months. Provide many opportunities for this, but make sure your toddler eats enough so that the experience doesn't lead to frustration.
Jump in to help when necessary, but pay attention to hunger cues and signs that your child is full. You can always offer more if your child still seems hungry, but you can't take the food back if you overfeed. When you're controlling the fork or spoon, resist the urge to slip in one more bite. And as your toddler gets the hang of eating, step back and let your child take over.
Some parents think that not letting kids feed themselves is for the best, but it takes away control that rightfully belongs to kids at this age. They need to decide whether to eat, what they will eat, and how much to eat — this is how they learn to recognize the internal cues that tell them when they're hungry and when they're full. Just as important, toddlers need to learn and practice the mechanics of feeding themselves.
Listen to Your Child
Be alert to what toddlers say through their actions. A child who is building a tower of crackers or dropping carrots on the floor may be telling you he or she is full. Pushing food on a child who's not hungry may dull the internal cues that help kids know when they've eaten enough.
But this doesn't mean that it's practical or advisable for kids to eat on demand all day long. Those who eat all day may not learn what it is like to be hungry or full. That's why structured meals and snack times are important.
Kids can manage their hunger when they come to expect that food will be available during certain times of the day. If a child chooses not to eat anything at all, simply offer food again at the next meal or snack time.
Many toddlers need to eat often — as much as six times a day, including three meals and two or three snacks. Keep this in mind as you establish a pattern of meal and snacks. But realize that a food schedule only sets the times that you will present food to your toddler. Your child may not take every opportunity to eat.
Allowing kids to skip a meal is a difficult concept because many of us were raised to clean our plates and not waste food. But kids should be allowed to respond to their own hunger cues, a vital skill when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. That means eating when hungry — and sometimes not eating, even if it's time for Thanksgiving dinner.
Establish times for meals and snacks and try to stick to them. A child who skips a meal finds it reassuring to know when to expect the next one. Avoid offering snacks or pacifying hungry kids with cups of milk or juice right before a meal — this can diminish their appetite and decrease their willingness to try a new food being offered.
Avoid the Junk Food Trap
Toddlers need to eat healthy to get the nutrients their growing bodies need. Candy, potato chips, and other low-nutrient "junk foods" shouldn't be part of their diet because they can crowd out the healthy foods needed. Also, food preferences are established early in life, so don't miss opportunities to help your toddler develop a taste for nutritious foods.
Even if your child likes candy or chips, don't feel like you must give in. Kids can't run to the store to buy them, so just don't keep them in the house.
If your toddler asks for candy, simply say, "We don't have any candy." Then present two healthy snack alternatives to choose from. Even a child who mourns the lack of candy will still enjoy the sense of control from deciding which healthy snack to eat.