Pretty bold title, right? I’ve gotten a lot of requests to post my favorite tips for raising healthy eaters, but I’ve put it off over and over again. Why? First of all, I’m no pro. I am a mom. A mom to only ONE (adorable) toddler girl.
Further more, I’m scared of Murphy (you know, Murphy’s Law). I have the lingering fear that as soon as I type up all my “rules” for raising a healthy eater that she’ll decide she wants nothing more than crackers for every meal.
Now that I’ve posted my disclaimer, here we go. These are things that have worked for us and are tips I plan to use with any future children in hopes they will be as great of eaters as Hailey currently is at 15 months old (knock on wood…)
1. Start in the Womb. While pregnant I remember reading that babies in utero start swallowing amniotic fluid around 12 weeks and that their taste buds develop around 21 weeks. There are multiple studies that suggest babies quickly learn and prefer the flavors they are exposed to via amniotic fluid. I remember taking this “eating for two” and keeping in mind I was “tasting for two” too. I made sure to load up with healthy foods, like and array of vegetables, beans and whole grains, as well as strong flavors I loved, like garlic and spicy foods like Indian cuisine. Additionally I limited my sweets to a handful of dark chocolate here and there in hopes that she wouldn’t develop a strong preference for sweets. This wasn’t too difficult since I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but poor Hailey will more than likely inherit my chips and salsa tooth.
To this day, Hailey enjoys strong flavors, like salsa in her eggs and not-too-spicy Indian food. Coincidence? Maybe. But I’ll still follow this tip again next time.
2. Begin with Vegetables. Fruits are healthy foods and no doubt healthy for us, but they are much sweeter than vegetables. Hailey’s first foods were avocado and sweet potatoes, and sweet potatoes were as sweet as we went for a while. I wanted her to learn to enjoy vegetables before deciding she preferred sweets, so she ate potatoes, avocado, peas, green beans, broccoli and beans all before I gave her many fruits to try. Of course now she loves bananas, blueberries, pears and apples, but still does great eating her greens.
3. Try Different Preparation Techniques. Just because Hailey wasn’t wild about a food on her first try didn’t mean I retired it to the dislike list. In the same way that I won’t eat a boiled Brussels sprout, but I’ll devour roasted ones, I try different preparation for foods. Try roasting instead of boiling, or pan frying instead of steaming. Maybe even solid state instead of puree, or vice versa.
4. Experiment with Seasonings. When Hailey was younger she would eat plain black beans like crazy, then one day she stopped. I tried one to make sure they hadn’t gone bad and decided it was pretty bland. I threw a handful in a pan and added a little olive oil, lime juice, a sprinkle of garlic powder and salt. I gave them back to Hailey and she gobbled them up. I believe at a certain point babies and toddlers want a little flavor in their food too.
5. Don’t Make them Finish. When you think of feeding toddlers do you always think of the parent begging “just one more bite?!?” I know I always think of that and have found myself doing it once or twice. It is important to me to not make meal time stressful and I want Hailey to learn to listen to her internal cues. If she isn’t hungry, I won’t force her to eat. I offer her food two or three times and if she insists that she is all done, then I let her go play. She’ll usually eat more at the next meal and it all evens itself out.
6. Don’t Use Reward Foods. It’s my belief that if a child only eats vegetables so she can get to the “good stuff” then she’ll grow up with the understanding that vegetables are a necessary evil. Instead, I want Hailey to enjoy healthy foods. Around here, dinner is dinner. There is no 4 bite minimum if she wants desserts because we don’t have dessert. (Oh, that sounds like deprivation, right? Trust me, she’s ok. David and I don’t have dessert nightly either. It’s a sometimes thing and when we all go get ice cream, Hailey gets some, too.)
It’s true some nights she’ll eat all of her tomatoes and only a few of her green beans, and that’s ok with me.
7. Give (healthy) Choices. Toddlers seem to be on a power trip sometimes, don’t they? I thought that was a teenage thing, but no, it starts at age 1! Hailey likes to assert her opinion and I like to give her some control over her food choices. I’ll show her peas and broccoli and let her choose between the two. I’ll put out yogurt and a cheese stick, then she’ll pick which one she’d prefer. I hope to let her feel in control with decision making and am happy to do so, as long as the choices she has to choose from are all winners.
8. Lead by Example. Hailey is at an age where she mimics our actions, our words and our eating habits. If I’m standing at the counter eating peppers and hummus, she wants some, too. If I’m chowing down on pizza, she wants that, too. I eat both and Hailey eats both, too. I want her to eat what I’m eating, so I try to make my choices wholesome and varied. I know we’ll eventually hit an age when she wants to do everything opposite of what I do, so I’ll take advantage of the mimicking while I have it.
9. Don’t Stick to Traditional Foods. Young children don’t know what traditional breakfast foods are, so don’t feel obligated to stick with them. It’s true we usually have eggs, yogurt, oatmeal or fruit for breakfast around here, but there have been times when I’ve given Hailey frozen peas, leftover pasta and tomato sauce (we were low on groceries). She happily downed it. When Hailey has had a cold I’ve put warm chicken broth in her sippy cup. After a strange look, she sucked it down. Kids don’t know what normal is because you’re creating their normal, so let them think that smoothies are supposed to be green and stuff as much spinach in them as you like!
10. Don’t Stress. Is your child slow in warming up to solid foods? Does she throw food at you (I know Hailey has done this)? Absolutely despise broccoli? Don’t let it stress you out. Meal times should be fun times that create a positive correlation with healthy foods. Furthermore, as with everything, each child’s experience is unique. If they only want to eat a bite or two at one meal, go with it. Won’t eat cauliflower no matter what you do? Pick a different veggie. If you have any real concerns about weight gain, talk to your doctor, but otherwise, just roll with it. They’ll be fine and they’ll eat when they’re hungry.
Ok, I’m done. If Murphy’s Law comes to bite me, my next post will be all about how to sneak vegetables in to innocuous foods. In the meantime, check out Munchkin Meals to see what Hailey and other healthy kiddos are eating.
What tips do you have for raising healthy eaters?