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Improving Children's Eating Habits

Here's how turn your kitchen into mêlée-free toddler bistro.

Written by Christina Schmidt

If you are raising a toddler, then you need very few reminders of how it can be a real struggle to get your little one to eat a nutritious and balanced meal. My goal is to give parents the guidance they need to turn their kitchens into mêlée-free toddler bistros. Here are some tried and true tips:

Create a toddler-friendly eating area for your child.

Toddlers like their own spaces and may eat more of your lovingly prepared meals at a table sized just for them. Also, be sure to accommodate with plates, cups, forks, and spoons that are just for your kid. Be creative by using colorful place mats and matching dishes decorated with your child's favorite cartoon characters, cars, trucks, princesses, animals, etc.

Outsmart that little rebel.

If your child likes to test his limits by saying "no" a lot when it comes to the foods that you offer, be sure to turn away from his tantrums. Giving attention to his protests often fuels the fire. Instead, offer him just a few choices. By giving your child a choice or two at mealtimes, you're letting him feel that he is still part of the decision-making process and that he has some control.

Invite your grazer to the table...but still give him room to roam.

Focusing on food is sometimes an insurmountable task for toddlers. They may be grazers who rarely sit and finish a meal and would rather snack throughout the day. Don't worry—if you make progress with one out of three meals and some snacks, you are doing very well. Keep up a consistent mealtime and snack routine despite your little one's obliviousness to the plate.

Expect the unexpected!

Toddlers can be highly unpredictable. One day it's "I don't want it!" and the next week the same kid can't get enough of the once-hated food, or vice versa. Whatever it is, as long as you keep offering healthy options to your toddlers, it's a win/win situation.

Commit to being copied!

Now is the time when you can make the biggest difference in your toddler's eating behavior. Studies show that food preferences are shaped between ages two and three. Be a role model for healthy eating and manners in front of your toddler. Even if the results are not immediate, it will pay off in the long run!

Remember the three bears!

Food should be presented to your toddler not too hot, not too cold, but just right, which is warm or close to room temperature.

Make each bite count.

Pack each bite with nutrition because you never know when pickiness or loss of appetite will rear their ugly heads, sabotaging your efforts for the day. Your goal is to maximize the opportunity for your toddler to eat healthy, so make sure all of the foods that your toddler is eating are full of the vitamins and nutrients that he or she needs.

Keep the pressure in check.

Don't overreact, scold, bribe, beg, or reward with a treat to get your toddler to eat. Over-controlling your toddler's eating behavior turns down the volume of the natural internal cues for hunger and fullness. Studies show that unpressured children will instinctively balance their diets.

An alternative to the "clean your plate" concept.

Your job is to choose the menu and dining times for your child. Your toddler may decide which of your daily specials to eat, if any. If your child isn't wolfing down everything on the plate, avoid requiring that your child clean it. Instead, try requesting "courtesy bites." You may get your child to take a few bites of those peas without all the drama and stress that goes along with cleaning the plate.

Don't replace food with fluids.

Prevent your toddler from filling up on excessive fluids before meals. Offering sips of water or milk to quench thirst is fine. Two full sippy cups before a meal, however, may be the reason the plate goes back to the kitchen untouched.

Avoid short-order chef syndrome.

Allow your little purists their eccentricities, such as not wanting foods to touch each other, but don't cater to special food requests at each meal. This will only reinforce finicky behavior. Offer limited choices (broccoli or carrots?), and serve one sure winner with each meal. Try this trick: Offer a tablespoon of the suspect food with an old reliable favorite when your toddler is hungriest. It works!

Think weekly!

Obsessing over getting all of the food groups into your toddler just might drive you bonkers. Instead, think weekly. Toddlers' diets magically tend to balance out nutritionally over a few days to a week, so don't panic if you come across a day that isn't quite as nutrition-packed as you would have liked for it to be.

Step away from the stereotypes

. Avoid stereotyping your toddler as picky, and make a mental note not to be a role model for finicky eating in front of your child. Chances are, if you continue presenting those "problem foods" to your child, he or she will eventually come around and may even begin to enjoy them. If you are a picky eater, now might be a great time to start tasting those healthy foods with your child! A child who is cast as a hater of all that is green may begin believing it himself and may never try that broccoli ever again.

Grandfather new foods in with the old standbys.

Slowly introduce new foods, and don't make a big deal out if it. Every few days to few weeks, introduce an unfamiliar food into a meal with an old reliable, and let your toddler get used to the look and taste of the new offering.

Tasting needs the test of time.

Most parents only reintroduce a food three to five times, while studies show that it takes eight to 15 times for new foods to get a green light from toddlers. Don't give up. Keep reintroducing the food every few days.

If you grow it, they will eat it. Or if they simply see how it's grown, they will eat it.

Go to the local farm for a tour so that your tot can see where his or her favorite foods come from and how they grow. Toddlers love to eat foods that they have watched develop from seed to plate, so go ahead and plant that vegetable garden!

Cultivate a culinary kid.

Bring your toddler into the kitchen with you and let him or her help prepare foods. Toddlers love to help out and to create, and therefore might be inclined to eat what they've helped prepare. You can enlist your toddler, starting at around two years of age, to wash produce, peel bananas, stir and mix, sprinkle spices, help measure and pour ingredients, tell you when the timer goes off, hand you ingredients, decorate and arrange dishes, and help clean up. You can even try creating the menu together!

Become a food artist.

Remember that you eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth, so design and use colorful foods on the plate. Arrange green beans into a pine tree or a spider. Make a fruit or veggie rainbow on the plate.

Name it something new!

Broccoli can be trees, peas can be baseballs, oatmeal raisin can be ant cereal, spaghetti and cheese can be slimy worms, tomato slices can be hot rod wheels. If your child loves fries or cookies, try cutting veggies and other less-favored foods into those shapes and call them "veggie fries" or "carrot cookies."

Shape and sculpt.

Cut foods into fun shapes. Use fun cookie cutter shapes for sandwiches, cheeses, and fruits. Make teddy bear-shaped pancakes and swirl mashed sweet potatoes with yogurt. Buy fun pasta shapes such as stars, suns, moons, animals, etc. Make foods as mini versions; silver dollar-sized pancakes, mini muffins, and tiny pizzas really do appeal to those little hands!

Tell a tale.

Make a story out of your child's meal. "Once upon a time, a bird dropped a very tiny seed." In this way, your toddler's bite of food becomes an important chapter in the story.

Set a serene table.

Create a calm and relaxed dining atmosphere for your toddler. Stress can promote poor appetites, so put off your Table Manners 101 lecture for later and just enjoy your toddler time!

Make it a family affair.

Bring the family together for meals as often as possible. Today's world of working parents makes it tough, but it's worth it to fit in at least one family meal a week; once a day is even better! Eating together at home provides a sense of structure and security for your toddler. Research shows that eating together leads to a healthier diet with less fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt, and soda, and with more minerals, vitamins, and fiber.

Hide it!

Sneak in a serving of veggies by hiding purées in mashes, sandwiches, pita pockets, sauces, or soups. Cover vegetables with sauces or grated cheese, or flavor them with dill, lemon, honey, olive oil, orange zest, or basil. Grate veggies into muffins, pancakes, breads, meatloaves, or salads.

Offer toddler-sized servings.

Serve one tablespoon of each dish per year of age, or about one quarter of an adult serving at meals and snacks. Toddler stomachs are the size of their fists, so a little goes a long way. If you are in doubt, serve less than what you expect. In one study, three- to five-year-olds who were fed double portion sizes ate 15 to 25 percent more calories than those served proper portions.

Article Reviewed: November 7, 2013
Copyright © 2015 Healthy Magazine

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