Bright Ideas for Mealtime
When my sister and I were little, we would pick all the ‘icky green bits’ off of our pasta. Our mom, exasperated and tired, allowed it. ‘Why fight it?’, I’m sure she thought, ‘I have bigger battles to fight.’ Those ‘icky green bits’ turned out to be herbs, like parsley and basil, which I now love. But it took many years of picking through buttered noodles to get there.
Decades later, when I had toddlers of my own, I swore my kids wouldn’t do the same thing. I would win the icky bits battle. Cue sarcastic laughter. Easier said than done, indeed. But there are ways to prepare toddler meals that won’t turn the kitchen into a war zone. Read along for family dinner ideas making for a less stressful part of the day and lay the groundwork for raising a healthy eater.
Toddler, Meet Spork
Babies generally start finger feeding around nine months old and move on to utensils at around 12-14 months. Many experts recommend introducing utensils when a toddler begins to show interest and curiosity. Leaving a silicone spork on a toddler’s tray with a small scoop of oatmeal or yogurt allows them to explore on their own at mealtime. Toddlers will likely attempt to mimic your actions at the dinner table, so be sure to keep your manners in check. Little kids are always watching!
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Toddler Meals: Forbidden Foods
I once knew a family that refused to let their kids have foods that contained sugar. Every time we had them over for a playdate, they raided our snack drawer like feral cats. Why do we crave what is forbidden to us? It’s just human nature—which is why the saying ‘everything in moderation’ applies to toddler meals, too. I’m not encouraging junk food as part of a toddler’s diet, but being mindful of forbidding foods. It may increase the chances of them seeking it out somewhere else.
Not having sodas or snacks high in sugar in the house is a good start, as there will be no need to forbid them. Research shows that children raised in very restrictive homes are more likely to crave either sweet or fatty foods, which can contribute to them becoming overweight.
Instead, have healthy choice snacks on hand, such as apple slices, cheese, and celery sticks. I’d often keep a bowl of cut cucumbers or carrots with Ranch dressing on the table so my kids could grab and go. Having them readily available ensured an empty bowl every time.
Parents who control the quality of what’s in the pantry will have fewer battles with their toddlers. Especially as toddlers grow into kids who can help themselves to the snack drawer at any time.
Toddler Meals: Getting Involved
Another way parents can pave the way to less stressful toddler meals is to get them involved early. How many times did I push my kids around the supermarket as they stretched their squishy arms toward sugar-filled Fruit Roll-Ups? Supermarket marketing is very clever—they know exactly what items to place at a toddler’s eye level.
Giving children healthy choices while carting them around the market is a way to give them the control that they crave while still being in charge. Offer toddlers (parent-approved) options and watch as they smile, empowered by choice.
At home later, if possible, let your toddler help with meal prep in an age-appropriate way. Toddlers make great sous chefs. Whisking, scooping, sorting, and rinsing ingredients are all toddler-friendly activities for bonding in the kitchen. Think about planting a vegetable garden—a great way to show kids how vegetables grow and eventually get to the table. The more a child is invested in the meal, the more likely they’ll enjoy it.
Toddler Meals: Hidden Foods
Too often, parents try to ‘hide’ veggies in their child’s food. They might puree broccoli, squash, or spinach and add it to spaghetti sauce so their child is none the wiser. While this does the trick of adding healthy ingredients to a toddler’s meal in the short term, it’s a long-term losing strategy.
Research shows that it can take up to 15 tries for kids to like certain foods. Yes, that’s a daunting number that requires much patience on the part of the parent. But don’t give up. Encourage rather than bribe. Building a healthy relationship between a toddler and food takes time. In the end, having a child who loves to eat and is open to trying new things will be the reward.
Toddler Meals: Family Matters
With ever-busy schedules, sitting together for meals as a family every night isn’t easy. But the benefits of family meal times are worth attempting. It’s a time for families to reconnect and recount their day. It’s also an opportunity to teach lifelong food habits.
According to Anne Fishel, Executive Director of The Family Dinner Project, “…amazing family dinner ideas are great for the body, the physical health, the brains, and academic performance, and the spirit or the mental health… there's lower fat and sugar and salt in home-cooked meals even if you don't try that hard, there’s more fruit, and fiber, and vegetables, and protein in home-cooked meals, and lower calories.
Ms. Fishel goes on to say, “Kids who grow up having family dinners when they're on their own tend to eat more healthily and to have lower rates of obesity.” While it’s unrealistic to expect a picture-perfect family meal seven days a week, carving them out when possible is another way for toddler meals to become more enjoyable.
A Recipe For Success
When all is said and done, patience is the biggest key to success when it comes to feeding toddlers. Despite the fact that my sister and I were allowed to pick out the icky bits as kids, we eventually turned out to be adventurous eaters.
Raising kids with healthy eating habits is a challenge every parent faces. Mealtimes with toddlers can be a rewarding experience. Having the right tools and structures in place around toddler meals early is a way to play the long game. Change won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
Written by Jamie Edwards
Jamie is an avid traveler, travel writer, and photographer. She launched I am Lost and Found, her adventure/luxury travel website after 25 years of living and traveling around the globe. She has lived in both NYC and Tokyo. Today she resides in Washington DC with her husband, two kids, and two black labs. Jamie’s goal is simple: to inspire travel.