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Help Your Toddler Develop Healthy Food Habits

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Dr. Laura,
Was wondering if you could help....My SIL's 2 year old is a carb/milk/fruit addict...This is all he will eat....Most times, he ends up with just having a milk bottle or fruit because he doesn't want the other food that he has been given. He is 25 pounds...a bit low in weight for his age (34? inches tall) ...But doc says he is healthy (he was checked for anemia just in case...doesn't have it)

Any suggestions on how to help him to eat healthier? SIL doesn't want to make food into a bad know?

as an aside: SIL is a carb addict too....lots of junk food...from candy to fast foods daily. Don't know if this plays a part in his diet...Something she won't discuss...Not that I have personally tried...But I have heard her mother and others have.
She did ask me to post for some help though!! So, this is good, right?


The good news is that your SIL asked you to post for some help.
The bad news is that kids follow their parents' leads in eating.

But let's assume your SIL is really motivated to get her little one eating healthy. Two year olds need milk, of course, but too much can get in the way of iron absorption, so the usual recommendation is to limit two year olds' milk intake to 16-24 ounces/day. Milk makes a great nutritious snack, and many nutritionists say it's best not to give milk at meals, when it distracts kids from the food at hand.

I'm a psychologist, not a nutritionist, but helping kids develop healthy food habits is mostly psychology! I always suggest offering kids a bunch of small portions to choose from. They don't eat much, so make the portions small. But a selection of choices makes it more likely that they'll start eating something, and then branch out to other foods on the plate. If you serve them only one or two foods and neither appeals to them today, they're likely to say they aren't hungry and then ask for milk or cookies fifteen minutes later.

Make sure all the foods you offer are healthy and then let the child choose how much of each to eat. Since toddlers won't eat foods that are unfamiliar, you may need to offer a particular choice repeatedly to get him to try it.

An example of a toddler meal could be very small portions of the following. Choose 4-5 for each meal.

Scrambled egg
Cut up turkey
Cut up whole wheat bread spread with peanut butter (non-hydrogenated)
Black beans with veggies and mild salsa mixed in (unless your kid doesn't like "mixed food, then just salt!)
Mashed sweet potatoFrozen peas (don't cook. They like the cold temperature.)
Cut up cucumber wheels
Green beans, steamed
Turnips or parsnips- raw, or mashed with butter and salt (I know, sounds crazy, but my daughter loves them.)
Jersualem artichokes (crunchy)
Carrots - cooked. Be careful of raw carrots until they can chew thoroughly.

    Notice the emphasis is on veggies and protein, which are the hardest things to get kids to eat. Notice the hardest thing to prepare is the scrambled egg; everything else can be prepared very easily in advance and kept in the fridge to be served in small quantities over a few days time. Notice the range of different textures and temperatures. And notice that kids will eat what they're used to, from whole wheat bread to "healthy" peanut butter to beans.

    Why don't I have fruit on this list?

    Fruit is, of course, a good source of vitamin A, C, and fiber, among other nutrients. But what I have heard from many parents is that if fruit is part of a meal, kids won't eat other foods. I personally found that while fruit is a great dessert, it is best to delay the whole idea of dessert. Therefore, fruit makes a great snack, along with milk.

    As far as veggies go, the nutritionists say that kids need at least two vegetables with most meals. If you're snickering, remind yourself that kids actually like many veggies once they get used to them. That may mean you have to offer the same vegetable ten times before she even tries it, but just give very small portions and be patient. You should also know that kids are more likely to accept new foods before age 3!

    Most kids will find something they like in a presentation like this. Once they do, serve that thing frequently, as part of a mix of other foods, so your child has something on the plate to interest him and is less likely to just reject the meal out of hand. Gradually the list of things he likes will increase.

    Should kids eat what parents are eating? At two, that is a tall order. Most kids don't like most healthy adult fare, whether because it's too spicy, or simply because the foods are touching on the plate!

    There's a big debate out there about whether to disguise veggies so kids will eat them. Some nutrition experts love the idea. Some say kids need to learn to like the taste of veggies. My own feeling is that as kids' taste buds change, they become more open to vegetables and there is nothing wrong with doing both things. In other words, serve vegetables often and make them delicious. But also, there is nothing wrong with adding "hidden" vegetables into other foods as an ingredient for extra nutrition. Who says that spaghetti sauce shouldn't have a little ground-up frozen spinach? It adds a great umami taste and of course the nutrition load goes way up.

    Nutritionists say that if you offer children healthy options, they will eat the nutrients they need. It might be all protein today and all sweet potatoes tomorrow, but it will work out to a balanced diet over the course of the week. But that only works if the child does NOT have the option of sweets and junk foods. Those are addictive and throw off the child's natural tendency to seek out the nutrients he needs.

    Which brings us to your SIL. It's so hard for any of us to change our eating habits. The foods we grow up with really do become the foods we want throughout life. That's why it's so important that we give our kids a good start with healthy foods. Not to be overly dramatic, but a daily diet of junk food leads to heart disease, diabetes, and early death. Your SIL may not be able to do this for herself, but she might do it for her son. Whatever he sees her eat, he will want. Whatever he eats as a child will be his comfort food as an adult. Maybe this will give her some incentive to start to gradually change her eating habits.

    And how wonderful that she has you looking out for her and her son!
    Dr. Laura

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