As a parent, introducing your toddler to new foods and healthy eating habits can be both exciting and challenging. On the one hand, you want your child to have a diverse, nutritious diet and develop a love for healthy foods. On the other hand, you might face the reality of picky eating and mealtime struggles.
Children during the toddler years are starting to develop their own preferences and tastes, and it can be tempting to give into picky eating and offer only familiar, processed foods. However, this is the perfect time to encourage your child to try new and healthy foods and establish good eating habits that will serve them well.
It’s important to remember that every child is unique, and their eating habits will develop differently. At this age, toddlers are learning to assert their independence and control over their food choices, which can lead to mealtime battles. It’s crucial to offer a variety of healthy foods but also respect your child’s likes and dislikes.
While your toddler eats their meals, it is equally important that mealtimes aren’t filled with tears and frustration.
Why Are Toddlers Picky Eaters?
Children can sit independently by the end of the first year of life, chew and swallow various textures, learn to feed themselves and adjust to the family food and mealtime routines.
Parents and caregivers run into many roadblocks as kids adjust to the family diet. For instance, attempts towards independence, typical during infancy and toddlerhood when children try to do tasks independently, can actually get in the way of meals as your toddler tests the limits of their newfound independence.
Although there is no cause for concern yet, this can also make toddlers reluctant to try new foods and insist on repeating a small selection.
Picky eating is a typical behavior among toddlers. Toddlers start to use the word “no” at mealtime to display their independence as they begin to develop food preferences, according to Ashley Kim, Registered Dietitian with Get Up & Go by Children’s HealthSM.
Kim assures that it’s alright if a child’s appetite and preferences change daily.
A common toddler behavior is to like one food one day and reject it the next. It’s one of the ways young children test the limits and demonstrate their independence.
Toddler growth spurts and varying activity levels also result in frequent changes in hunger. Toddlers don’t eat as much as babies did because their growth slows down throughout this stage of development.
Toddlers have short attention spans for food because they are so interested in the world around them.
Strategies to introduce toddlers to new foods and healthy eating habits.
While it may take some time to introduce new foods, there are strategies parents and caregivers can follow to improve their odds of success.
1. Start with Small Portions
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers need about 1,000-1,400 calories daily, depending on their age, height and activity level.
When introducing new foods to your toddler, start with small portions to let them get used to it at their own pace. This also lets you avoid wasting food in case an attempt goes awry.
Give them a little taste of the new meal and watch how they react. You can give them a second serving if they seem to like it.
If they refuse, just let it be for the time being. Your toddler may reject a new food several times before finally taking a liking to it.
2. Start Early
It is ideal to start exposing your toddler to new meals as soon as possible. According to research, children exposed to various tastes and textures throughout their first year are less likely to grow up picky eaters and be reluctant to accept new foods.
When your little one is ready for solid foods, give them pureed fruits and veggies. You can give them nibbles of different foods as they get older to see which ones they enjoy.
3. Offer a Variety of Foods
Build your toddler’s meals from a range of foods from different food groups. Although it is impossible and unnecessary to include all food groups in every meal, ensure your toddler gets all the nutrients they need over several meals.
They will be able to get all the vital nutrients they need for growth and development in this way. Give them dairy, protein, whole grains, fruits, and veggies while avoiding allergies. Exposing them to various flavors and textures, such as sweet, sour, crunchy, and soft, also helps your little one become more receptive to new foods.
Get creative by disguising vegetables. However, make sure you aren’t doing it too often. It is important that your little one learn to eat their veggies even if they are intact.
You can try adding pureed carrots and celery to pasta, sweet potatoes or carrots to mashed potatoes, or serving sliced apples with a dip or peanut butter.
4. Be a Role Model
Toddlers learn by observing their parents and imitating their behaviors. You must set a good example of healthy eating if you want your child to eat properly. Let your child watch you eat healthy meals with relish.
Family meals should be eaten together at a table. This will improve your toddler’s mealtime experience and motivate them to try different foods.
It’s also great for some family bonding time!
For parents and children alike, family meals are a comforting ritual. While children are drawn to the predictability of family meals, parents can also find time to catch up with their children.
Family meals also allow parents to model good eating for their children and introduce them to new foods.
5. Avoid Fights Over Food
Conflicts over food can arise quickly as well as become a hindrance on the path to teaching your child healthy eating habits. Parents with the best intentions may find themselves bargaining with or bribing children to eat the healthy food in front of them. Giving kids some control while simultaneously restricting the kind of foods available at home is a much healthier (and more effective) approach.
Children should decide whether they are hungry, what they will eat from the foods offered, and when they are full. Following these tips will help your toddler form a healthy relationship with food:
- Set up a regular routine for your meals and snacks. When parents and children know when to expect the next meal or snack, choosing not to eat is acceptable.
- Don’t force your toddler to eat everything on their plates. Your little one will learn to ignore feelings of fullness by doing this.
- Avoid bribing or rewarding with food. Don’t offer dessert as a reward for eating their meals either.
- Don’t use food as a way of expressing appreciation or affection. Instead, give your child a hug, verbal praise, or quality time together when you want to show love.
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6. Make Meals Fun and Engaging
Sometimes several bad experiences may make your child fearful of mealtimes. Try to change your toddler’s perspective of mealtime into something fun with engaging activities and incorporating their preferences.
Encourage them to participate in the preparation and planning of meals. Your child may be more willing to try new foods if you involve them in meal preparation.
Most children will love to help decide the dinner menu. Talk to them about planning a balanced meal and let them make their own call. Don’t forget to thank the chef when the meal is over!
You can let your toddler choose a fruit or vegetable from the market or include them in the cooking process. Let them assist you with easy activities like mixing, pouring, and stirring. They may feel more immersed in their meals as a result and be more willing to try new dishes.
Use colorful plates and serving utensils to make the dinner more visually pleasing. You may also shape the food into funny faces or animals to make it more exciting.
Getting kids involved can help them develop the skills necessary to make good decisions about the foods they want. The mealtime routines you help your little one establish today will inspire a lifetime of healthy decisions.
7. Let them explore
If you give your kid a chance to experience a new food with all their senses, you’ll have greater luck introducing it to them. Don’t insist they eat something if it doesn’t work for your little one. Let them play with it instead! Once they are familiarized with whatever food you’re introducing, they’ll naturally put it in their mouth next.
Encourage them to touch and smell it. Perhaps you’ll even need to roll it between their fingers. Children learn through exploration and experience. If they can fully scrutinize new foods before trying them, they will feel more at ease doing so.
8. Avoid Processed Foods and Sugary Drinks
The natural sugar in food provides a child’s body with all the sugar it needs. A lot of empty calories from added sugar can also cause hyperactivity and make it difficult to settle down at bedtime.
Don’t, however, outright forbid sweets. A strict no-sweets policy invites cravings and overeating when given the opportunity. Place more emphasis on a balanced diet rather than on certain foods.
Children should eat less packaged and processed food and more whole, minimally processed foods as close to their natural state as possible.
Processed foods and sugary beverages typically are high in calories, salt, and sugar content but have low nutritional value. They may cause obesity and dental cavities, among other health issues. Certain foods and beverages must be avoided or kept to a minimum in your toddler’s diet.
Alternatively, give them water, milk, or 100% fruit juice in moderation.
Also, try offering homemade alternatives. Make 100% fruit juice popsicles by freezing them in an ice cube tray with popsicle handles. Or use pineapple, banana, grape, and berries to make frozen fruit skewers.
9. Be Patient and Persistent
It can take a while (read a long time!) to introduce your toddler to new foods and healthy eating habits. Teaching your little one healthy habits calls for a lot of patience and perseverance.
If your child refuses a new food, don’t give up. Continue offering it to them in small quantities, and gradually they might acquire a taste for it.
Before a toddler tries and accept new food, it may take up to 10-15 attempts. In the meantime, remember to keep your cool and keep trying consistently.
When To Seek Professional Help?
Between 25% and 45% of all kids experience eating-related issues, especially when learning new skills and are challenged with unfamiliar meals or mealtime expectations.
Most eating problems are temporary and easily resolved with little to no intervention. Yet, persistent eating issues can hinder children’s growth, development, and relationships with their caregivers, creating developmental and long-term health issues.
However, it’s recommended to seek professional help if you find that even after several and varied attempts, your toddler is not taking to new foods and eating habits well.
It is also possible that your child may be suffering from an underlying medical condition or at an increased risk of dehydration, aspiration, and lung problems. It could also lead to physical and mental development delays, speech problems, and cognitive issues.
Watch out for the following signs and seek professional care if you find that your toddler is exhibiting one or more of them:
- Difficulty chewing
- Excessive salivation
- Refusing to eat food or drink
- Long feeding intervals
- Coughing or gagging during eating
- Nasal congestion while eating
- Poor weight gain
- Recurring respiratory diseases
- Excessive spitting up of food or vomiting
- Feeding while arching the back
- Disinterested in eating
There are numerous approaches used to treat feeding issues. Changing the texture and temperature of the food given to the child is usually the first step.
In some cases, mouth exercises are recommended to strengthen the mouth muscles. Feeding issues may also be alleviated by tongue movement and chewing exercises.
Include a variety of textures in your toddler’s regular meals to encourage them to explore new foods. It may be easier for your child to swallow food if you alternate between liquids and food textures. Allow your child to eat at their own pace rather than rushing them.
Your doctor may also advise nutritional changes and a specialized diet if your toddler is not gaining weight.
Introducing your toddler to new foods and healthy eating habits is essential for their growth and development. Starting with small portions, providing a variety of foods, setting an example, and using the other tips and strategies mentioned in this article, can help your child develop healthy eating habits.