People ask me questions all the time about feeding toddlers. Which foods to introduce, when, how I feed my toddler, how I avoided picky eating (ha, we didn’t!).
First off, this post is not about introducing solids to young infants; that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.
This post is specifically about feeding toddlers who have presumably already been introduced to a wide variety of foods, flavors, and textures by the time they’re, say, 18 months old or beyond (exact timing may vary, as all children go through developmental milestones at different ages, but I want to at least give you a ballpark age here).
A little disclaimer: I’ve intentionally steered clear of writing a post like this for a LONG TIME. Why? Because giving nutrition advice for kids borders on giving parenting advice, which is something I never, ever, ever, ever want to even attempt to do. Every kid is different, every parent has their own set of things that are important or not, and (at least for me), many parenting books/advice make broad sweeping recommendations that don’t work in every situation, which then leaves you feeling defeated as a parent because you “followed the rules” and still failed. So, please understand that my post is NOT about giving you more rules to follow, it’s about the ways we approach food to *hopefully* help set our child up to enjoy food and eat mindfully now and for many years to come.
If you’re familiar with my real food approach for pregnancy (as outlined in my books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes), then you know I’m a proponent of basing your diet around nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods as much as possible.
The rationale is to meet your nutrient needs (especially micronutrients) through food first before having to resort to an array of supplements to fill in the gaps. Emphasizing a mostly real food diet also helps ensure your baby gets all the nutrients needed to thrive—and that you, the mama, can avoid/mitigate common pregnancy discomforts or complications. It’s a win-win.
Real Food for Toddlers
Technically, much of the general nutrition for pregnancy advice also carries over into pediatric nutrition (that is, many of the same nutrient-dense foods that helped optimize their brain development in utero continue to be important once they’re out of the womb—nutrients like iron, vitamin B12, choline, DHA, iodine, etc.).
The challenge now is that this little person has opinions and preferences of their own and may not want to eat all the foods that you so lovingly prepare for them. Annoying, right?!
Now, when it comes to real food for toddlers, I could give a super nutrition-only focused answer. I could also pretend that the food choices and meals in my home are all squeaky clean, perfectly balanced, blahblahblah… but I’d be lying.
I may read a lot of research studies and be super passionate about real food nutrition, but I’M ALSO A MOM—a mom to a very independent, outspoken toddler.
He’s a toddler, like so many others, who is in the developmentally normal stage of expressing what he likes and doesn’t like, taking control of his environment, and making choices for himself.
Control? What’s that?
With that said, the only thing controlling about the way I approach food is the what—meaning WHAT foods I bring into the house.
I’m not controlling about the when, why, or how. I’m not even controlling about macronutrient balance at individual meals/snacks with him (though I do always try to offer protein/fats since they have the macro and micronutrients so crucial to brain development).
It is futile to try to control the way another person eats and frankly, I think it can be dangerous (many years downstream, anyways… more on this in a bit).
My role is to offer nutrient dense food, let him pick from those options what he’s in the mood for and how much. And that’s it.
Side note on snacks: I also welcome him asking for food and never deny his hunger; I don’t agree with forcing small children into meal schedules when their tummies are so small and their metabolism so fast.
Many, many, many people strongly disagree with this approach, so all I can say is to find what works for your kiddos and your family. I have a hunch that if snack foods are not real food (meaning highly palatable, carb-y options made from a base of white flour—cereal, crackers, puffs, etc.—then “snack time” can interfere with their acceptance of the real food you’re offering at meals. Because I intentionally don’t offer those foods, snack time at our house is just more of the same types of things he’d have at meals. So, for me, I don’t care if his snack at 3pm means he’ll eat less at 5pm; it’s all good food! Eat when you’re hungry, kid!
Words: Choose them carefully
Kids are incredibly perceptive. They pick up on so much, whether we like it or not. Your relationship with food will be, for better or for worse, something that they pick up on.
The words you use to describe food, to offer foods, to entice them to try something new, to influence whether they eat something or not… they matter.
The following is how we approach talking about food in our house. I don’t pretend to have this all figured out, but I do know that keeping conversation light and positive around food plays at least some role in shaping his healthy relationship with food for years to come.
First off, we don’t talk about some foods being good or bad for him (i.e. I don’t say things like “you can’t have the cupcake because it’s too high in sugar and sugar will make you fat”).
If anything (like if he’s begging for a cupcake at the grocery store), I might say: “Cupcakes are a yummy treat that we sometimes have at parties. Maybe they’ll have cupcakes at your friend’s upcoming birthday party… wouldn’t that be cool?” Then I might come up with a distraction/alternative offer… “Since we’re not going to a birthday party today, maybe we can find something else you’d like to eat?”
Then I’ll proceed to offer alternatives, like blueberries or whatever his favorite fruit or snack is at the moment.
You know your child, so you probably have your own negotiations/distractions that work in these situations. Some days I have to offer a lot of empathy and reassurance (“I know, honey. You really like cupcakes. They are such a yummy treat. I wish we could have them everyday, too. We’ll need to wait until the birthday party for a cupcake.”) and some days he happily redirects to the next distraction in the grocery store.
(Note to self: try to steer clear of the bakery/dessert section on the next shopping trip!)
Or if we’re at a birthday party with cupcakes, we agree that he can have one. We talk about how they’re very yummy and how having too many at one time can hurt his tummy or make him feel sick. (Note: my son does not have any food allergies or health conditions that would make a cupcake be legitimately harmful, beyond the sugar rush, of course, so we allow some treats.)
If he does end up having a cupcake at a birthday party and later complains that he feels yucky, I try to reinforce the connection to the food. “Yeah we had some treats today and sometimes when we have too much, it doesn’t feel good. This is why mama only lets you have one per party.”
There is no discussion of a food being too high in something (like sugar or calories), no discussion of how it could make him fat… (notice these are all external justifications), we simply focus on how the food will taste and make him feel.
In other words, we’re continually reinforcing mindful eating practices.
Mindful Eating vs. Disordered Eating
Emphasizing how foods make you feel versus focusing on their nutritional worth/health effects is something my own mom did and it seemed to work well. Despite raising two girls in Los Angeles of all places, neither of us developed eating disorders or body image issues.
I was quite literally surrounded by diet culture and media, had friends and college roommates with severe eating disorders, I studied dietetics where many of my classmates had eating disorders, and yet somehow I escaped.
The closest I ever got to developing unhealthy and obsessive habits were 3-fold at 3 different times in my life: 1) going vegetarian, 2) tracking food & calories for a dietetics class, and 3) attempting to do cardio at the gym regularly.
Isn’t that ironic? These are some of the very tactics people try to get healthier!
Thankfully, it was ingrained into my subconscious from my childhood that if something didn’t make me feel well, it probably wasn’t good for me.
I gave up all of those habits before I developed disordered eating or a full blown eating disorder because I knew how to listen to my body.
Allowing Kids to Make Their Own Choices About Food
Let me reiterate: If something doesn’t make you feel good, stop doing it.
Isn’t the whole point of raising children to help them develop an inner compass to make good choices regardless of if it’s food or any other thing in life? I don’t expect that to align with everyone’s parenting philosophy, but it aligns with mine.
If I make all the choices for my own son (especially around food), if I try to tell him that I know better and you have to do xyz, how is that serving him in the long run?
Sure, I can force feed him and deny him any treats, and he’d probably have a better nutrient intake (in the short term), but it just doesn’t sit well with me.
What happens when he’s school aged and surrounded by junk food all day?
What happens when he’s at a friend’s house where they don’t prioritize real food?
What happens when he’s in college and fends for himself with meals?
What’s one thing that’s always going to be with him to guide his choices?
The signals it send him around hunger and fullness, and what foods keep him energized, and what foods leave him feeling lethargic and anxious and bloated.
Now I realize, this is me projecting WAY into his future, but I do believe that learning your own boundaries around food is important. The older kids get, the less we can insulate them from the fake food of the real world. Even though in infancy, during the most formative time of developing taste preferences, his diet was essentially all real food, I now intentionally allow some treats.
I’ve known too many people who grew up in super strict health food-only houses who rebel beyond comprehension when they first contact highly palatable processed food. If you’ve always been told that you have to eat a certain way instead of feeling how much different you feel when you eat one way versus another, why wouldn’t you rebel?
But for those who have been given a chance to explore different foods, you might have the foresight to think: Do I want to feel like crap from over-indulging? Or do I just want to have a taste of that food and move on the next meal and eat normally again?
I know, for me, having had the freedom to eat treats/junk food on occasion meant that there wasn’t an emotional or rebellious pull to act out through food. Why? Who does it serve in the long run? What am I rebelling against when I already set the “rules” around food for myself?
So, after that lengthy tangent… Sometimes meal times mean my son eats all the foods we offer, other times he only wants banana (seriously, what’s with toddlers and bananas?), sometimes he’s not hungry when we’re eating… it doesn’t bother me.
Because guess what?
Next time he’s hungry and I offer him something to eat (and I usually rattle off the nutrient dense stuff first 😉), he might choose an egg, or oysters (not joking), or sardines (also not joking), or green beans in butter (for the third time, not joking).
But it also warms my heart that he can savor the melty butter on a freshly toasted slice of real sourdough, that he can tell me how yummy and sweet that cupcake was at a friend’s birthday party, and that he instinctively knows when he’s had too much of those foods, stops, and says “I’m done with this.”
That is knowing your body. That is savoring your food. That is life.
And I’m not gonna lie, it’s the cutest thing ever when he tells me:
“Mama, I want oysters. Oysteeseeeeeeers!”
Encouraging real food for toddlers can be a challenge, but allowing for treats on occasion helps them develop mindful eating skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
If my (probably-not-what-you-were-expecting) approach to feeding toddlers speaks to you, please tell me about it in the comments.
As I stated in the beginning of this article, I don’t pretend to have this all figured out. I don’t claim to be an expert in pediatric nutrition (hello, prenatal nutrition is really where my passion lies). All I try to do is encourage as much real food as possible for our whole family (that includes our son) while allowing for flexibility and space to explore fun foods on occasion.
Please share in the comments some of the ways you’ve found helpful at handling the challenges of feeding toddlers, managing snack time versus meal time, deciding when to allow treats or when not to, and anything else that you think might be helpful for other parents.
We can all learn from each other—and pick and choose little “parenting hacks” to incorporate into our lives.
Until next week,
PS – If you found this post on real food for toddlers helpful and if you’d like to see a post on introducing solid foods to infants, let me know. I can share how we approached this in our family. I’m happy to detail the (probably imperfect) steps we took to end up with a toddler who will—at least sometimes, between picky eating phases—ask for things like oysters and green beans.