By Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD
Parenting isn’t easy. Trying to get our toddlers and young children to eat their vegetables can seem impossible. But, throwing up our hands and surrendering to the impulse to give up trying to teach our children healthy eating habits is not an acceptable option. Good nutrition and portion control are some of the most important lessons we as parents can share with our children. Sadly, with so many families simply doing the best they can to survive the hustle and bustle of day-to-day living, pushing the envelope with our toddlers, when it comes to fruits and vegetables, can get pushed to the back burner.
Childhood obesity is a complex issue. The blame for this disturbing trend certainly does not fall entirely on parents and caregivers. The prevalence of fast food and supersized choices are also huge factors. But it should be noted that many overweight adults facing life threatening chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, and some cancers, started out at as kids living in households with unhealthy eating habits. As parents we need to understand that our toddlers are doing more at the dinner table than blowing bubbles in their milk; they are developing the eating patterns that will last a lifetime – it’s a critical learning and developmental time that will determine whether they adopt healthy eating choices now and in the future.
As a mom of a strong-willed toddler, I understand the dilemma dinnertime can be and how much parents dread it. Even the most appealing dinners can be vetoed, rejected, or splattered all over. It’s frustrating to say the least. Making an effort to expand a picky eater’s pallet to more wholesome foods can leave a well-intended parent feeling helpless. As parents we may truly want to get started offering our family healthier food, but dramatically changing the fare on a table of picky eaters (no matter what age) can prove to be a daunting task.
The good news is, as parents we still have tremendous influence over our children and can do a lot to help develop healthier eating habits, regardless the age or stage of childhood or adolescence. Following are my favorite family tactics that can offer help for parents struggling with a dietary dilemma.
Family Mealtime Family mealtime has benefits that go beyond the table. Making an effort to eat most dinners together gives parents the chance to set good dietary examples. Eating together fosters a sense of belonging and security that extends past the plate. If corralling everyone around a table at the same time seems difficult, make it a priority a minimum of once a week.
Offer a Variety of Foods Fess up, it’s not just our kids who can get stuck in a food rut, we grownups can too! Use the USDA MyPlate as a guide for every meal to make sure a variety of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy appears on every plate. Aim to try one new healthier recipe weekly, and at minimum offer one fruit or vegetable or both with every meal.
Be Prepared for a Picky Eater Some children are more resistant to new foods than others. Never force a child to eat. A better strategy is to always make room on the plate for diverse choices, and simply ask questions; how does it taste, what do you like about it, and what do you know about where and how it’s grown. Questions take the pressure off the act of eating, and can spark curiosity about the food. We parents also must eat, praise, and show enjoyment of the healthier foods.
Prevent Portion Distortion One of the most essential pieces to healthy eating is portion control. As a registered dietitian, I recommend families follow the MyPlate recommendations for daily servings of wholesome foods. Unfortunately, today many of us suffer from “portion distortion” and can overeat despite our best intentions. Parents can make a significant impact simply by serving meals on smaller plates, leaving un-served portions on the stove to avoid unnecessary seconds, and not allowing young children to order off adult menus.
Don’t be discouraged, there is hope to teach even the testiest toddler healthy eating habits. Begin by modeling these behaviors yourself. Mealtime can be a challenging time, but a good way to start the nutritional transformation is by pledging to make no more excuses. Remember, the positive eating habits your children pick up when they are young will help them maintain a healthy lifestyle into adulthood.
Foods Toddlers Need
Most 2- to 3-year-olds need to consume about 1,000 calories per day. Here’s how to distribute those calories in a healthy eating plan:
Grain Group: About 3 ounces of grains per day, preferably half of them whole grains. That is about three regular slices of bread or one slice of bread plus 1/3 cup cold cereal and ¼ cup cooked rice or pasta.
Vegetable Group: 1 cup raw and/or cooked vegetables per day. Like adults, young kids need variety: mashed sweet potatoes, broccoli with low-fat dip or tomato sauce for pasta.
Fruit Group: 1 cup fresh, frozen, canned, dried and/or 100% percent juice per day. Emphasize whole fruits rather than juice. Kids love melon balls, Mandarin oranges (fresh or canned in juice) and fresh or frozen berries (easy to thaw and serve).
Milk Group: 2 cups per day. Whole milk is recommended for children younger than 2. Older children can have lower-fat, calcium-rich choices such as fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.
Meat and Beans Group: 2 ounces total per day. Options include one ounce of lean meat or chicken plus one egg or 1 ounce of fish plus ¼ cup of cooked beans (black, pinto, etc.).
Oils: 3 teaspoons or less per day of liquid oil or margarine.
For more about nutrition for young children, visit www.eatright.org.