Toddlers are learning so much about themselves and their world. They have a strong sense of self and nowhere else is that more strongly expressed than with food!
They love to throw it, play with it, smear it all over (think spaghetti with tomato sauce) and sometimes maybe eat it! Sounds familiar? As parents you just want him or her to eat it - and nicely at that! A tall order thinks the 2 or 3 year old.
‘Nicely’, they think. What exactly is nicely? We repeat our instruction. And somewhere, the lines of communication are crossed, and nicely becomes a game. And you are the target: sound familiar?
First as parents its important to know that around 25% of babies and toddlers are independent eaters i.e. they don’t want YOU to feed them AT ALL. Once the finger foods are started they are not keen on being spoon-fed. Sounds like your little angel?
As a Child and Family Health Nurse I’ve seen so many parents get in a no-win battle with their toddler. And what happens - a rapid escalation. Oh, they are going to win. They know all the tricks and all of the rules. Somehow you, the parent, are equipped with neither. Doh!
So what can you do?
I’m going to give you a sneaky set of rules that even the smartest toddler doesn’t know about. Interested? I bet you are…
1. Keep mealtimes to a maximum of 20-30 minutes.
Toddlers have a short attention span. As soon as food is ‘messed with’ or thrown from the high chair, remove your little darling from the chair/highchair and do not comment on any ‘naughty’ behaviour. This will be really hard but we tend to pay slightly more attention to that and react more! Ignoring is the way to go. Any good stuff you see, praise like mad and connect the praise to the activity e.g. ‘wow Jimmy you’ve eaten your broccoli. Amazing. That will…’ whatever comes into your head that motivates such as play better football, become a top surfboard champion etc. Got the drift. Carrots and seeing in the dark doesn’t cut it nowadays.
2. Hide the veggies in the tomato sauce for pasta or grate veggies into beefburgers and meatballs
You have to be crafty. Most children can spot a piece of broccoli at a thousand paces. Whereas with chocolate and ice cream, it’s usually a case of - bring it on!
3. No dessert unless mains are eaten
No amount of whining allowed. If you give in, your child thinks you’re a complete sook and will never eat his savoury again. Why would you? Rules are really important. That’s why they’re called rules. They also create security and establish a relationship with your child. It’s hard to reason with a 2 or 3 year old as to why it’s important to eat your greens. So rules are helpful. As are consequences. Just ask them to try a little. They don’t have to eat it all. Sometimes our expectations are a little unrealistic. So maybe to start with, one tiny broccoli floret is good and one tiny piece of carrot is amazing. Work on it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just don’t dig your heels in too hard. It takes @ 20 occasions before a child actually grows to like a food.
4. Portion sizes
Nowadays our portion sizes are way out of control. We expect our children to eat sometimes as much as an adult. Totally unrealistic. If a child is given too much food he is less likely to eat as much as if say he was given a small plate that was finished and added to regularly. Too much food over-faces. Think about how you feel at the sight of a buffet – totally overwhelmed. That is exactly what your toddler is experiencing. A serving of veggies for a toddler is @1 cup a day and that is spread out over the whole day.
5. Colour of Vegetables
If your child eats only one green veggie and one orange but no more then that is OK. Children have likes and dislikes like us adults. Never force feed – only encourage and very gently. It is more important that they eat from the colour spectrum than ALL veggies. If carrots and pumpkin are off the menu then try sweet potato wedges. Healthy but still meeting the criteria. Won’t eat carrots? Then try tomatoes – both rich in beta-carotene. And don’t worry about Brussels sprouts. Not many adults like them either.
6. Giving veggies in different formatsVeggies can be put into sushi rolls – cucumber and avocado and children can feed themselves easily with them. Remember self-feeding is important to a lot of children. Put small amounts of very chopped up broccoli and cauliflower into macaroni cheese. How many children love a cheese sauce? Grating carrot or zucchini into homemade burgers. Also carrot and celery sticks with hummus and other dips. Sweet-corn fritters – can be picked up and can have added zucchini grated into them. Try sweet potato wedges - ever seen a child refuse a chip? I bet there's not too many of them out there.
Just don’t tell them what you’ve done! Often we pay too much attention to eating veggies and then the battle commences…so avoid the battle and try some of these ideas.