Meal time has become a source of stress the past 6 months in our house since Piper is an extremely picky eater! We’ve learned what she’ll consistently eat and continue to introduce new foods and dishes and encourage healthy eating habits. Today I’m chatting with Crystal Karges who is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, lactation consultant and nutrition coach for mothers on how to get your toddlers to EAT!!
What are your go-to toddler dinner ideas?
One thing I have learned as both a mother and dietitian is that kids are more adventurous eaters than we give them credit for. With my first, I was hesitant to serve her the things we normally ate and enjoyed, but I quickly learned that the more variety of foods we exposed our kids to, the more willing they were to try and eat new foods. Kids learn by example, and if they see you enjoying a variety of foods, they will be more likely to want to try the foods you are eating.
I always encourage parents to plan meals around what YOU would want to eat and serve this for the whole family. There is no need to plan separate meals for yourself and your toddler. Don’t let your toddlers taste preferences dictate your menu because their food choices will change. Serving your family the same meal means that you don’t have to be a short-order cook and that your toddler will be exposed to a greater variety of foods.
That doesn’t mean you can’t take your child’s food preferences into consideration. Just don’t get stuck on serving only their tried and true foods because you’re worried they won’t eat anything else. Kids learn to eat new foods just like they learn any other skill, and in order to help them, we have to keep serving a variety of foods. When you pair new foods with foods that they are more comfortable with, they’ll feel less intimidated and more willing to try.
So bottom line, mama – plan your menu around foods that you enjoy and offer balanced meals to your family, including your toddler, that include a combination of carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats.
Here are some of my go-to dinner ideas that the whole family will love (including toddlers) include:
- Pesto pasta with chicken and veggies (a quick, tasty way to offer vegetables to little ones who might be picky, plus iron-rich for growing toddlers). This can also be modified for nut/dairy allergies.
- Chicken-veggie meatballs with marinara sauce (another delicious way to boost veggies by adding to both the meatballs and the sauce)
- Cornmeal-crusted chicken tenders
- Mini meatloaves with veggies and mashed sweet potatoes
- Baked Salmon with Mac’n’Cheese (using whole greek yogurt and veggies)
- Whole Grain Quesadillas (can add protein/veggies of choice and/or beans) with Avocado
- Frittata or Quiche (can add in veggies, ham, etc) served with fresh fruit
- Veggie Fritters served with a greek yogurt/dill sauce for dipping
- Spaghetti Squash served with a meat and veggie marinara
- BBQ Shredded Chicken or Pulled Pork with sweet potato home-fries
- Lentil-Vegetable Chili with Cornbread Muffins
Overall, focus on offering a ton of variety, in flavor, texture, and presentation, and your child will learn to eat what you serve.
How can you sneak in protein and veggies into a toddlers diet?
The above dinner ideas are great ways to offer a meal that offers both protein and vegetables in a tasty way that toddlers might enjoy.
Think about ways that you can easily incorporate veggies into some of your favorite dishes, such as adding veggies to pasta or mac n’ cheese, mixing in a veggie-based pesto, soups/chilis, etc. One thing I like to do is create a base for meals, like soups, by pureeing veggies (cooked carrots, onions, garlic, tomatoes) and mixing it into the broth, or pureed butternut squash to mix into mac n cheese. This can boost both the flavor and nutrient profile.
Smoothies are also a great way to add in both fruits and veggies and can make a nutritious snack that’s fun for kids.
Keep in mind that fruits and vegetables have similar nutrient profiles, so try offering either a fruit or vegetable at meals/snacks, and don’t worry too much about how much of it they are eating. They will get the nutrients they need when there is consistency in exposure, offering variety, and maintaining a low-pressure environment.
Protein needs for toddlers are much lower than we might think, and most toddlers are able to meet their protein needs when offered a variety of both meat and non-meat sources. This might include beef, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, nut and seed butters, cooked leafy greens, cheese, yogurt, milk, and eggs. Most toddlers need about 15-20 grams of protein per day, which is a little more than 1 cup of milk and 1 egg.
Favorite toddler snacks for on-the-go?
In general, I like to combine protein/carbohydrate foods for snacks to help kids have something that is satisfying and filling. Some of my favorite toddler snacks for on-the-go include:
- Apple and peanut butter “sandwich” (use nut/seed butter of choice)
- DIY trail mix (combine dried fruit, granola bites, nuts/seeds, etc)
- Hummus and carrot sticks or snap peas
- Granola bar and fruit (look for one lower in sugar and higher in protein, cut into small chunks for toddlers)
- Whole-grain fruit mini-muffins
- Cheese circle (Babybel) and Pirate’s booty popcorn
- Snapea’s Crunchies with fresh fruit and cubes of cheese
- Graham cracker sandwiches with cream cheese and fresh fruit
- Multigrain crackers, string cheese (cut-up), dehydrated strawberries (or other fruit)
- Yogurt tube (can freeze, too!) with multigrain cereal
- Fruit/veggie pouch with a hard-boiled egg or cheese circle
What’s your dinner time philosophy? Should we strictly serve our toddler what we are eating? Not give her anything else if she won’t try it? Offer a few things we know she’ll eat combined with our meal?
I shared a little bit about my dinner time philosophy above, but if I could sum it up in one phrase, it would be “Parents provide, child decides”. This simply means, as parents, we are in charge of what we are serving our children and when we are providing meals and snacks. It’s up to our kids to decide whether or not they want to eat and how much of anything they want to eat from what we have given them.
This also means that mamas should not be short-order cooks or try to plan a meal that will please everyone in the family – this is just not realistic. Plus, toddlers are notorious for their changing food preferences and appetites, and this is completely normal for healthy, growing kids. So rather than engage in meal time negotiations, just focus on serving balanced meals that offer variety, and don’t put any pressure on your kids to have to eat what you serve. They will learn to eat from the foods you provide, and they will innately eat according to what their bodies are needing. We often unnecessarily stress over how much food our kids are eating or if they are getting enough vegetables, but no one knows best about how much to eat for their bodies then the child. Trying to get them to “try just one bite”, or making them eat their vegetables before they can have dessert or leave the table will only backfire and cause them to distrust food and their bodies. Make mealtimes fun and relaxed, offer them what you have prepared, and let them decide what and how much to eat.
If your child refuses to eat anything you have served, don’t panic. She may simply not be hungry, may be getting sick or going through a developmental leap. Just be consistent, don’t force your child or pressure them, and make sure you are eating yourself. Remember, you are not a short-order cook, so simply let your child know that they don’t have to eat now if they don’t want to, but food will not be available until the next meal or snack.
I mentioned this earlier, but I do think it’s helpful to serve at least one food component that your child is comfortable with at each meal, such as fruit, bread, milk, etc. When they can identify at least 1 thing that they are familiar with at mealtimes, it can make eating more comfortable for them.
Remember mama, food is just food, and you can nourish a healthy child by being consistent, offering balance and variety, keeping foods neutral (meaning no good versus bad), and making mealtimes low-stress (no bribery, forcing or pressuring). You’ve got this!
Additional resources :
Find more info and support at https://www.crystalkarges.com/
Image by Anna Reynal