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Introducing Your Toddler to Healthful Foods

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by Krisha McCoy, MS

You may already enjoy cooking and eating healthful foods, but getting your toddler to eat them is a different story. Many toddlers are picky when it comes to what they eat, and parents often struggle to find foods that their toddlers will eat.

But feeding your toddler a nutritious diet is very important, not only because kids need good nutrition to grow and develop, but also because they learn to accept foods with different textures and tastes during their early years.

Introducing New Foods to Your Toddler

Most toddlers start experimenting with table foods between 12 and 24 months, and the food adventure continues throughout the toddler years. Here are some tips that can help your toddler develop healthful eating habits during these formative years:

  • Variety is key. We all know kids who only eat cheese or who won't touch anything except for fruit. But toddlers need a variety of different foods for optimal growth and development. When you prepare meals for your toddler, aim to include as many of the following food groups as possible in each meal: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy.
  • Don't give up. If you serve your child a new food that he or she doesn't like, don't give up. It is not uncommon for children to need to be introduced to a new food 10 times or more before accepting it. Even if your toddler won't eat the food, try to at least serve a small portion on the plate or at the table. Just seeing the food can help your child begin to accept the new food.
  • Prepare healthy recipes. When feeding a picky toddler, we all have our fail-safe meals to turn to. But while an indulgent treat every once in a while doesn't hurt, every meal shouldn't consist of macaroni and cheese with French fries. Aim to cook most of your toddler's food at home, where you can control how much fat, sodium, and sugar is in it. Choose meals that contain fruits, vegetables, lean proteins (e.g., poultry, fish, beans, eggs), and whole grains. And use lower fat cooking methods, such as baking, roasting, or poaching.
  • Set a good example. Whether you know it or not, your toddler is modeling his or her eating habits after yours. So for your own health and the health of your child, become a healthy eating role model. Avoid dieting or obsessing about the fat and calories in your meals. This can lead your child to develop unhealthy feelings about food. Instead, eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products, and limit the amount of fat, sodium, and added sugar in your diet. Also show your toddler that you listen to your body by stopping eating when you feel full.
  • Avoid using food as a reward. It is easy to use food to reward good behavior or persuade your child to do something. But rewarding your toddler with candy, ice cream, or another favorite snack can cause your child to develop an unhealthy emotional relationship with food. Instead of rewarding with food, offer your kids a trip to the library, praise and affection, or an extra bedtime book when they behave how you want them to.
  • Cook with your kids. A great way to help your kids learn to enjoy and appreciate healthful foods is to plan and prepare healthy recipes with them. Grocery shopping is a great activity to do with toddlers. When you are shopping, talk with your toddler about the foods you are selecting and how certain foods are especially good for their bodies. And when it is time to prepare a meal, invite your toddler into the kitchen to help. If your toddler feels proud of being a part of preparing healthy recipes, he or she will be more likely to eat and enjoy them.
  • Bring back the family dinner. In many households, the family dinner is a thing of the past. But when families sit down together to eat healthy recipes, it can be a comforting way to end the day and create a time for bonding among family members. What's more, there is evidence that kids whose families regularly sit down for meals eat more fruits, vegetables, and grains, and less foods that are unhealthy for them. Make it a point to serve everyone in the family the same meal, which can expose your kids to a variety of healthful foods. So, even if it is only once or twice a week, make it a point to gather your family together for a healthy meal.
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