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You want to feed your toddler a healthy diet? Seriously?!

I meet a lot of parents who are near despair with their toddler’s diet. They started with good intentions, introduced them onto solids in the best way possible. Lovingly they cooked up small pots of healthy vegetables and froze them in tiny ice cubes. For a while it was going fine, baby was eating healthily… vegetables, meat, fish… variety. They were starting to recognise cutlery as implements to eat with rather than missiles to hurl. The floor had become tinged orange, the aftermath of meal times no longer concerned them.

Dr-Orlena-Family

And then it stopped. Overnight.

Vegetables? You want me to eat them? Fish? Ha, I laugh in the face of fish. Food was flung, thrown, spurned. And in desperation, parents turned to the ubiquitous and trusted pasta as the only source of nutrients that their toddler would eat.

Next the ‘healthy eating’ guilt sets in. Loving parents began to get concerned about the total void of vegetables. The absence of anything you can remotely pretend was healthy. The odd bit of carrot if you’re lucky. Nothing, simply nothing green.

And yet, they appear to have an almost insatiable appetite for biscuits. Full of sugar and processed yuck. OK, 1 or 2 is fine. But seriously, they can eat the whole packet without blinking. You look under the chair thinking they’ve dropped them. Noooo. Check that bulging tummy sitting there all innocently. And you know what? Fantastic Mr Fox? They can sniff them out from a mile away. Hide them at the bottom of the bag? Ha! Your toddler knows! How? They. Just. Know.

So what, dear parents, are we supposed to do? Abandon all hope of salad and broccoli? Give into processed rot and live with fish fingers and packets of crisps? Or take the other path that leads to premature greying and a rather unsightly bruise on our foreheads where it’s met with the nearest wall on frequent occasion?

Don’t worry, there is a solution, a halfway house. In short, ride the storm but don’t loose sight of the bigger picture. Sure, we do want our young ones to eat healthily. Personally I can’t stress enough how important a healthy diet is. As an adult, you can seriously reduce your risk of many diseases by eating healthily and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Even in children we are seeing an increase of diseases that are linked to poor diet, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. It’s preventable and really sad.

However, the majority of toddlers, or even children don’t fall into either category. Parents, please feel free to relax. Yes, you do want your kids to eat healthily but it’s a longterm thing. A question of habits. Get them eating healthily when they’re young and they’ll continue into adulthood. It’s just like all those other things we teach our kids, manners, behaviour, maths, talking, reading, brushing your teeth. They’re all learnt behaviours that take time to practice. Once you’ve got it you’ve got it.

My main piece of advice is to stop worrying and see the bigger picture. Fighting over meal times is only going to make things worse. Take the zen approach to vegetable consumption! That doesn’t mean stop presenting vegetables. It means don’t get upset when they get thrown back at you. Don’t give up hope. You can get your children eating a healthy diet. It just takes patience and a little thinking outside the box.

Orlena Kerek

Orlena Kerek

Dr Orlena Kerek is a pediatrician and mother of 4 young children. She blogs at Snotty Noses about child health matters and the great fun that she has with her kids, living in Spain (she offers a free guide on how to help your children eat healthily if you sign up to her newsletter.). Her baby health website, snotty-noses.com aims to help parents recognize illness in babies.

42 comments

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  • This is such a widespread problem, and I know of very, very few children who don’t go through this, and there must be a reason for it.

    Granted, as a society we eat way to many processed carbs and way too much sugar, but, even those parents who don’t go overboard here, still have their toddlers all of a sudden refusing vegetables.

    I’m beginning to think it’s a developmental thing – not just mental and them being able to stand up for themselves, refuse things, test what reaction they get with x behaviour.

    I think its really a physical development thing. This is such a pervasive problem – 95% of toddlers do it at around the same age… Even as toddlers, our kids are still pretty primal, and led by their instincts – hunger/thirst/fear/tired.

    You know when you’re pregnant and you have cravings because your body is working so hard and desperately needs salt/iron/zinc/calcium? I think it’s kind of the same thing with toddlers – their bodies are growing rapidly – especially their brains and mental processes – and I think they must, instinctively, go for the pasta/bread/cheese etc because that is what they need the most for their growing bodies…

    There is certainly way too much sugar/processed food in their diets, but taking that out of the equation, I think this is why so many toddlers suddenly only eat ‘white’ foods 🙂

    Just my opinion – and it isn’t perfect 🙂

    Eliza

  • This was interesting to read. I started to have this problem around Thanksgiving and Christmas last year with my daughter when she was about 2. My solution was to look at my own diet and added veggies as the major component of every meal, even breakfast. I also tried to make vegetables taste better. We cut out all sugar and white flours completely. She ate hardly anything for three days, then started eating salad, peas, and beans hungrily. She went back to being a great, healthy eater at two. She still loves the baby food packets of green beans, squash, and sweet potatoes. I should really make homemade, smooth veggies like that at home since they’re kinda pricey.

    • Oh wow Alison – I might try that – I’ve been threatening to cut grains and sugar for a while now… but I wasn’t sure if it would just fail miserably and we’d be back to square one. My daughter eats weetbix and sandwiches morning, noon and night – drives me mad, as my meals are always pretty healthy.

      Lol – I’m going to have a mutiny on my hands, but hopefully it will work 🙂

  • Sometimes fighting over it makes their stubbornness kick in. I obviously think it is important to set a good example and still present vegetables, even giving them smaller portions to finish than I might want to, but it isn’t worth daily fights.

  • i always had my kid taste everything once and go from there. some kids really can’t take the textures of some foods. i say you do what is best for you and your family

  • I’m guess I’m lucky that I don’t have a super picky eater on my hands. She loves fruits and veggies and is a big fan of tomatoes and broccoli.

  • I think stressing out about kids’ eating habits just causes worse issues. Some foods are just acquired tastes and eventually even picky eaters eat enough healthy foods to get the nutrients they need.

  • Absolutely, there is no use in fighting. Hard to do however, when my two youngest have declared, every single night, that they “DON’T LIKE SUPPER!!” … so now no words are exchanged, and their dishes are simply set down in front of them. They eat it on their own time 😉

  • I totally agree with you! My daughter is such a picky eater and I stopped trying to battle that a long time ago. Now that I gave that up she actually is more willing to try new foods and eat veggies.

  • I agree, fighting over meal times is a waste of time and could possibly create further eating issues. We need to relax and be creative! Personally I love sneaking veggies into yummy smoothies!

  • Being creative with healthy food I think is so important Pinterest has helped me make some very healthy fun food for the kids. So many great ideas on how to eat healthy.

  • I learned to stop pressuring on what to eat and how much to eat. I put it on their plate and ask them to at least take one bite. Most of the time it is gone, sometimes they don’t like it but at least they tried.

  • Six years with a child and I learned that they will eat what they see adults are eating. So I made conscious efforts for my son not to see us eating chocolate bars, sugar candies or drink soda

    • Kero, you’re so right. It works the other way too. If I want my kids to eat something (normally exactly the same as they have) I put it on my plate. Then they really want it.

  • I didn’t have nearly as much trouble as everyone else seems to have. I started them off with veggies. When they started turning up their noses we invented the “No Thank You Helping”. Two tablespoons. Just enough for two or three bites. Enough to be able to say, “no Thank You, I don’t want any more.” It worked like a charm. Since childrens tastes change as they grow, it allowed them to change their minds and like something they may not have liked before and find out that they really do like it now.

    • I think obesity in children is so sad. And yes, I think things have changed probably both diet and our approach to bringing up children.

  • I agree the zen approach really does work. I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with my 5 year old, he wouldn’t touch vegetables for the longest time, but I now have him requesting carrots and at least trying other foods.

  • This is pretty interesting. I am a bit old school and my girls are all in their 20’s and I am proud to say Still eat “clean” tho that word was not present back then. We didn’t fight over dinners. All my girls helped in prepping meals and with 3 years between them it worked. They loved making dinner and I can’t tell you how many dinners we ate out of the easy bake oven but things are so much better when you do it yourself. I will say if we ate at 6 I’d have to start dinner at 3 lol because letting them help took a while but they built self esteem and we learned about the foods. Try to find stories about vegetables. If I went grocery shopping they went also. They were each allowed to pick 2 new things to try. Only rule had to be wholesome. So we did have French Toast covered everything including grapes but it was fun. Should be a trip to see what happens when we have grandchildren and how my daughters handle life 🙂

  • I’ve read a lot of articles about how to ‘sneak’ healthy foods (primarily veggies) into a child’s diet. One of my favorites is pureeing other vegetables in the sauce used for pasta.

  • I think the reason that a lot of kids tend to steer away from “healthy eating” is that toddler friendly food is typically highly processed, full of sugar, junk. It is nice seeing healthier options these days.

    • Yes, in fact there was a study a couple of years ago that looked at the sugar content in all baby foods. They said that they were all too sweet, even the ones that were sweetened with natural sugars. Their argument was that it made kids get used to sweet tasting foods. I know it’s difficult but I recommend home cooking rather than processed foods.

  • During my daughter’s toddler years, she wasn’t eating food- she was being fed through a feeding tube but I can definitely understand the frustration of trying to get them to eat healthy. I always say to choose your battles wisely and some fights just aren’t worth it. When my daughter started eating solids again, I did the whole Jessica Seinfeld “hide the veggies” approach and put them in everything. Some was better than none. LOL

  • You narrated my experience with my almost three year old perfectly- lol. Luckily, he’s still managed to hold onto an affinity for omega-3 packed sardines? To sneak in his veggies, I’ve started juicing. As long as the juice isn’t green (I must use beets and carrots to diffuse the kale) and as long as it doesn’t taste too bitter (enter apples and coconut water) he will drink a fresh squeezed juice oblivious to the benefits- ha ha! You’re right though, healthy eating as a life habit takes time. I’m trying to approach feeding both my son and my veggie resistant husband with humor.

About Author

Orlena Kerek

Orlena Kerek

Dr Orlena Kerek is a pediatrician and mother of 4 young children. She blogs at Snotty Noses about child health matters and the great fun that she has with her kids, living in Spain (she offers a free guide on how to help your children eat healthily if you sign up to her newsletter.). Her baby health website, snotty-noses.com aims to help parents recognize illness in babies.