Part 2: Encouraging Choosing Healthy Food
This is the second part of a two-part series on fostering healthy food choices in your strong-willed toddler. If you missed the first part, check out some tips for limiting screen time in toddlers for healthy brain development.
Scenario: You serve a healthy and nutritious meal. Two seconds later your toddler is pushing the plate away, asking for cookies instead. While you want him to eat his lunch, you also don’t want to start a food war, so you’re not sure what to do next.
Photo credit @keepingupwithemme
How to Approach Healthy Food Choices with a Picky Toddler
First and foremost, remain “nutrition neutral.” FeedingLittles is an excellent resource on Instagram for tips on preparing and serving meals to toddlers. They have very thorough information and have come up with solutions for nearly every struggle parents have encountered at the dinner table. The account is run by Megan, a dietician, and Judy, an OT feeding therapist. They have a holistic view of health, caring about both children’s physical as well as psychological well-being.
Feeding Littles taught me that a seemingly obvious response, like “cookies aren’t healthy for lunch,” can backfire. Instead of encouraging your child to make a healthier choice, this kind of statement actually teaches them that certain foods, like cookies, are special and rank above others.
What to Say About Food Choices Instead
Take a look at the chart below and swap out unhelpful responses with these neutral statements to continue to encourage healthy food choices.
Photo credit: @feedinglittles
These neutral statements stop the cycle of shame and provide gentle direction for your child so he or she can learn to make healthy food choices now and down the line. Here are a few more stellar suggestions from Feeding Littles to keep in mind:
Photo credit: @toddlinacrossamerica
- Stay consistent. As a parent, you get to decide what foods are served. Your children get to choose how much to eat. Remind your child that what you’re serving is specifically chosen to help their bodies feel good, and those choices can change with every meal. Sometimes that means eating spinach, and sometimes that means ordering chicken nuggets. It’s a balance.
- Redirect. Redirection can turn things around. Still, obsessing over the cookie? Teach them how to spread the peanut butter on the toast or count out the blueberries. If focused on the next fun task, cookies may be forgotten.
- Provide choices. Remember the choice is powerful. Provide two options for food items you feel comfortable serving.
Validate. Acknowledge cookies are tasty and remind them that they will eventually have cookies another time. You can also make a campaign promise to have cookies after the next meal, but if you make that promise, be sure to follow through.
Photo credit: @armyofmuggles
Other Ideas to Encourage Healthy Food Choices
It’s no secret that toddlers are masterful manipulators with a keen ability to test our patience. Again, it is essential to remain consistent with the language we use. Remember to continue to offer a variety of choices repeatedly. Just because they don't choose the healthy food choice today, doesn't mean that they wouldn't tomorrow. Try not to jump to conclusions about what they will choose before they choose it. Sometimes they may surprise you, depending on who, where, and the manner in which the food is presented.
I hope these tips are helpful the next time your toddler is ready to enter the boxing ring and attempt to engage you in a power struggle over a snack or activity. Hang in there, and let me know if you have any tips to survive these strong-willed days.
Need to go back and check out tips for healthy screen time choices? Go back and learn more here.
Photo credit: @livin.mivida.ale
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Katie McCall is a lifestyle portrait photographer, content strategist, and producer based in San Antonio, Texas. When she isn’t behind a camera or laptop, she's exploring the world with her husband, darling one-year-old daughter and tiny pup. If you’d like, please follow their adventures on Instagram (@hersideproject)!