Tips and tricks for feeding toddlers

Good nutrition is an essential component to health, and kids ages 0 to 3 are at a critical window in human development. For toddlers, eating is an important activity that supports their gross and fine motor skills and introduces them to the family diet, taste, the rhythms and routine of family life and socialization. During the last 15 years there has been an explosion in of the number of foods targeted to toddlers’ diets in American grocery stores, many of which are convenience foods that are soft and easily chewable – but offer low nutritional content and added salt and sugar.

The marketing for these foods is savvy, utilizing digital media geared toward parents and misleading food labels. While millennials and young Generation Xers are reported to care deeply about diet quality and the environment, many are swayed by the perceived ease and efficiency of on-the-go foods, despite their inefficient packaging.

In my nutrition practice, parents often mention the fear of choking as a factor in their decision to choose foods like puffs, and the ease and mess-free nature of fruit/veggie pouches. It’s no surprise that today’s families are busy – on top of that, some parents may lack confidence in feeding.

The most recent USDA data shows that children ages 1 to 3 eat less than one serving of vegetables each day, but they do consume enough fruit and protein. High intakes of dairy, driven by single-serve yogurt and cheese and heavily processed starchy foods and fruit snacks are contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Infographic courtesy of Baby Food FACTS (click to zoom in)

Here are some recommendations to help your little ones eat well:

  • Serve a vegetable at lunch, dinner and as one snack. Include a variety of green, red and orange foods (kids have to see them often and regularly to accept them). Serving size: 1-2 tablespoons
  • Serve legumes (some ideas: chickpeas, black beans and lentils – even hummus and bean dip count!)
  • Avoid too much yogurt, cheese and cow or breast milk (limit to 3 or 4 servings daily)
  • Limit grain- and fruit-based snacks marketed to toddlers (e.g., gummies, puffs)
  • Remember: Mess is okay (and it’s an important part of learning to eat)! Smelling, touching and deconstructing often come before tasting and eating.
  • Parents are role models! Fill your plate with the foods you want to teach your child to love.

Recipe ideas and examples:

  • Batch cook and freeze mini muffins – these can include ground flax seed and/or shredded vegetables like carrots, zucchini or cauliflower. It’s perfect for a quick snack.
  • Add cooked sweet potato or squash to pancakes or quick breads.
  • When serving pasta or rice, regularly add small pieces of tender cooked vegetables or finely chopped steamed greens. These can be frozen and quickly warmed or blanched once or twice a week and warmed quickly for ease. Include zucchini, peppers, carrots, onions, red cabbage, chopped green beans, chard or spinach.
  • Many children love to dip their food – blanch a variety of veggies (like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini or peppers) until tender and store in the refrigerator. Serve with buttermilk ranch (for some natural probiotic) or green goddess dressing.
  • Try soup, stews or pasta dishes with lentils, chopped sautéed kale, broth and parmesan cheese. Minestrone, lentil, split pea or creamy cauliflower soup are easy and inexpensive to make. (Here’s a minestrone soup recipe I like – try adding two teaspoons of  shredded turmeric root for added color and antioxidant power).
  • When ordering pizza, include at least one vegetable as a topping.

Additional resources:
A guide to serving sizes for toddlers
Grow Healthy: resources from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics