“He survives on air. I can’t get him to eat anything!” These are the cries you hear from a lot of parents of toddlers.
Or, “All she’ll eat are hot dogs.”
Or, “All he’ll eat is ketchup.”
So for starters, breathe. This is normal.
Developmentally speaking, toddlers are at the age when they are learning about preferences and making their own decisions. Ahem. You may have noticed?
This is good! And normal. Your kid is exercising free will and that’s pretty cool…even though it can make mealtimes a real pain in the butt.
Another thing to consider is that toddlers thankfully aren’t outgrowing their clothes every month anymore. My kid has been wearing 2T for a long time. That means he probably doesn’t need as much food as he did when he was outgrowing Old Navy onesies faster than I could snap ‘em!
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that your kid is normal and you don’t need to apologize or make excuses or feel embarrassed. Certainly not around me or any other parent who has been there!
But that doesn’t mean you should helplessly stand by as your child eats Oreos for dinner. You with me?
Know this: It is still possible to teach healthy eating habits. Here’s how.
1. Trust your child, but limit the choices
There is an amazing study I talked about in this post about kids instinctively knowing what to eat based on their bodies’ needs. Therefore we shouldn’t worry if, like my son recently, they seem to eat only one food for a week or longer. (We’ve been going through yogurt like nobody’s business!)
A child who needs iron may go for red meat. A child who needs Vitamin C may go after fruit. And so on.
There’s just 1 catch.
You throw off a child’s innate ability to navigate food choices when there are non-real food items in the mix. Given the choice of meat, eggs, fruit, veggies or a sugar cookie…guess what every kid is going to want to eat?
Yeah. So keep the cookies out of sight and offer a variety of real, whole foods. Try to withhold judgment when your little one eats only carrots today and refuses them tomorrow.
2. Don’t waste your ammunition
Say you’ve got a pint of raspberries in the fridge. If your kid is like mine, those will be gobbled up in a millisecond and he’ll just want more.
I know the berries are a surefire thing, so I try not to waste them up front. Instead, I start meals with his least favorite option – usually veggies. This is when he’s most likely to eat them because he’s the most hungry. After offering veggies, I offer meat/protein. Last, the raspberries.
3. No food is better than junk food
It pains a parent’s heart for a belly to be empty. There have been nights that my son refuses to eat a thing. (I usually realize the next day that he’s sick.)
But don’t resort to offering ice cream or cake just to fill your child up with something, anything. Truly, it is healthier to eat nothing that to eat sugar or junk food, which depletes and weakens the body. Not to mention, by offering sweets you set a confusing example of what “dinnertime” means.
4. Get your kids involved with preparing food
This is huge. Part of developing a healthy relationship with food is learning where it comes from. It doesn’t just appear on the plate!
Take your kids grocery shopping. Let them look, touch, smell. Talk about the food and what you will do with it. At home, let them help with washing, peeling, cutting, mixing (depending on their age and ability). My son is almost 2 and he’s really good at shaking cinnamon into oatmeal and sprinkling salt onto his eggs. He knows that when he’s hungry he might have to wait a little bit because the food is cooking. It’s a lesson in delayed gratification. Food doesn’t just pop out of the microwave at his every whim.
5. Take care of yourself first, and set the example
Regardless of how your child eats, be sure to cook and eat a decent meal for yourself. This is important on so many levels, and often the step that gets overlooked as we pick leftover chicken nuggets off the highchair tray. Recently I wrote a whole article about how prioritizing our own meals is the very best way to influence our kids, and I believe it really is your best bet. Because no matter what your kid eats or doesn’t eat today, in the long term they learn by watching you.
Get some real food on the dinner table for your own sake, and for your kids’.
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