Note: If you are new to the Pretty/Hungry Blog, you can catch Parts 1-3 of the “Feeding Your Baby” series here, here, and here! Today’s post is a continuation of this series called “Feeding Your Toddler.”
In my (nearly) two years as a mommy, I’ve learned that rearing children can be a bit of a controversial topic. (Understatement of the century, perhaps?) And I want to be sure to reiterate that my purpose in publishing these “Feeding Your Baby” posts is not to be controversial. It is not to lecture you on what you “should” be doing. It is not me telling you that your child’s pediatrician is wrong about x piece of advice they gave you. Quite the contrary, I hope this series can be a helpful and encouraging resource that inspires you toward further research about how to optimally nourish your child.
And let’s not forget this all-important truth along the way: As one of my dear mommy friends so gracefully said it, “The food we give our children is important, yes. But not nearly as important as their Spiritual food.” Our job as parents is to be trainers of souls. What a sacred task! Let’s approach that responsibility with 100x the vigor we employ when deciding how to feed them physically.
With those things in mind, I’ll re-state that I come from one of many schools of thought when it comes to the proper diet for children. My particular food choices for Elsa’s infancy were influenced (in part) by:
Though of course there are elements of each of these writings I may not agree with, on the whole I find them to be very helpful resources.
Now that we’ve embarked on the wonderful madness of toddlerhood, eating has become an even greater adventure around here! Toddlers are opinionated, increasingly independent, and they are FUN! So what are my foundational goals for nourishing my toddler?
1) Limit/Avoid “Junk”
2) Involve Her in Food-Prep and Broaden the Palate
3) Work to Improve Autonomy and Table Manners
Pretty simple, eh? In fact, Elsa often eats what the rest of the family is eating (though it’s important to note that the rest of our family also makes a concerted effort to limit/avoid “junk” and broaden our palates. I don’t recommend feeding your toddler what you eat if you’re one of those adults who won’t touch a vegetable with a 10-foot pole. Modeling is the most effective form of teaching.)
So let’s delve a bit into those three principles and discuss some practical tips for implementing them:
1) Limit/Avoid Junk-
Broadly speaking, “junk” is food that is minimally nourishing. It is low in vitamins/minerals, highly processed, high in added sugar, often contains artificial ingredients/preservatives, not easily digested, etc. etc. Your little one still needs lots of fat and protein to support that growing brain and body, so filling her up on goldfish crackers is definitely minimally nourishing. It is important to make a concerted effort to first offer your child foods that will meet his nutritional needs for protein, fat, and vitamins. (We’ll go into a few specific suggestions later.)
It is very difficult to work backwards if you have already gotten into a bad habit with your toddler of offering snack-y or sweetened foods first. If offered at all, these foods are best saved for special occasions, and even then, offered as a special “treat” at the end of a nutritious meal. I certainly understand it is hard work to operate one’s household this way, but it’s crucial if you don’t want to foster an expectation within your child that he/she does not have to eat the healthy foods you offer.
Also important to note: At this age, your toddler’s body is still working toward being able to efficiently digest high-carbohydrate foods. (Lactose is one of the few exceptions. They are born with the ability to digest that. Yay milk!) But other grain foods, whether white or whole grain, are not optimal baby/toddler food. (For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend this article by The Healthy Home Economist.) Most adults are thrown by this concept because they think “whole grain” is synonymous with “healthy.” And while, for an adult, that is true… for a child under age 2, it is not. Parents of children under 2 should still be focusing first and foremost on providing fats, proteins, and vitamins to their children. (These happen to also be the key nutrients in nature’s most perfect baby food, breastmilk. Coincidence? Not a chance!) I hate to say it but this means those “whole grain baby waffles” you pay $7.88 for in the organic freezer section would be a much better investment next year. Or for your own breakfast. Or never, if your toddler expects you to serve them doused in sticky, sweet syrup. And even the ever-popular “baby oatmeal” would be better exchanged for a small bowl of plain full-fat yogurt or cottage cheese sweetened with a little applesauce.)
So you get the idea. As un-fun as it may be, limit or avoid “junk” as often as possible and focus on teaching your toddler that healthy food can also be delicious! (Good thing babies need fat because this makes it very easy to help my toddler enjoy vegetables! Just add a bit of butter and she gobbles them up!)
One of our rare “junky” treats- Licking the beaters when baking with mommy!
2) Involve Them in Food-Prep & Broaden Their Palate-
Elsa has blown me away with her interest in foods I would have otherwise “written off” as unappealing to toddlers. Often with children this young (who are intent on discovering every new thing they can get their hands on) it’s not an issue of forcing new foods on them, but of being willing to let them try stuff! (Even if it seems like an “odd” food for a kid.) For instance, when I make chili for dinner, I spice it the way my husband likes it, with cayenne. Elsa eats it just like we do, and has no problem with it! When we are cooking together, Elsa wants to try all the ingredients we are using and I usually let her… meaning she gets to try little pinches of baking soda, black pepper, raw garlic… whatever! You wouldn’t believe it but now the kid begs me for a pinch of pepper or a piece of raw onion every times she sees me pull it out to use in my dinner prep. I love seeing her enjoy such a wide variety of foods and flavors. And it actually makes it easier for me to accept it when she shows an obvious distaste for certain foods. (Currently she has a real problem with mushrooms, pickles, and cooked potato. But since I know her to be a very adventurous and non-“spoiled” eater… I have no problem saving these foods to be re-introduced at a later age.)
A blogger friend of mine, Julie, has a fabulous blog devoted entirely to this topic! It is such a great resource for parents and I love love love it! Her blog is called Teaching Good Eaters, and it focuses on empowering parents to foster good eating habits in their children. Starting them young is so beneficial, but even if there are some pretty dysfunctional patterns established in your family’s meal routine, I’d encourage you to spend some time perusing Julie’s blog. She has so many great tips for helping children of ALL ages, at ALL stages of picky-ness. You’ll be glad you found her gem of a blog in the midst of all the noise out there. 😉
Soothing those incoming molars with a cold, raw carrot!
3) Work to Improve Autonomy and Table-Manners-
Simply put, keep resisting the urge to snatch the fork out of your toddler’s hand and just “do it for them.” Yes, it makes mealtime a messy business. But it also makes for well-coordinated, confident, happy children! Not to mention, it’s a great place to start venturing into the realm of giving children areas of control in their own lives. Obviously, you want them to eat the healthy, nutritious foods you are offering them… but if they seem resistant, maybe the issue isn’t the food itself but the fact that they feel you are forcing it on them. Back up and give them a little space to play with their food, to sense it with all five of their senses, and to self-feed. I think you’ll be amazed at the effect this can have on what your child is willing to eat. Another tip that has worked well for us: When Elsa shows little interest in eating finger-foods I’ve prepared for her, everything changes when I offer her a fork. It then becomes a fun challenge and she enjoys the high-fives when she successfully spears and ingests whatever item she previously found so uninteresting.
As for “table manners”, I hope you know that I am not advocating a drill-sergeant type approach to mealtimes. I fully believe children should be free to get messy and “experience” their food at this age. I believe it’s critical to healthy development, in fact. By “table manners,” I mean that we see mealtime as a chance to reinforce the same attitudes we expect in all areas of life. For instance, we do not fuss at Mommy or use a rude voice to yell “No No!” at her (at the table or anywhere.) We do not push undesirable foods onto the floor to avoid eating them. When we do those things, there is an immediate and consistent consequence, and then we forgive and move on. If a certain mealtime is just not going well, we put the food away and try again later (rather than resorting to “treats” just so the child has something in their stomach.) Though there are always exceptions, generally speaking, a hungry child will eat when they need to. Of course if you are experiencing extreme cases of refusal to eat or your child shows signs of major sensory inhibitions, consult your pediatrician and/or a child nutrition specialist!
Wielding that fork like an expert!
Some great ideas for toddler food at this age are:
-whatever you are eating
-full-fat cottage cheese, milk, and yogurt (naturally & minimally sweetened, of course)
-nut butters (if your child is not allergic)
-soft veggies and fruits (or slices of the harder options, like apples)
-butter or ghee
-vegetable purees (no need to phase these out just because they’re no longer babies… I still love them and I’m 28!)
–homemade broth and dark meat chicken
-meatloaf! (One of my favorite toddler foods! It is high in protein and very easily to pick up and chew. Perfect for little ones.)
Meatloaf happens to be one of my favorite toddler foods because it is a great way to incorporate protein into your kiddo’s diet and it is super easy for a little one to pick up, chew, and swallow! Meatloaf and dark meat chicken are my favorite meats to offer Elsa, and she happens to love them too.
Appetizing photo, I know!
Here is a printable recipe for the quick, simple, and scrumptious meatloaf I like to make for Elsa. It works really well to make at the beginning of the week and warm up individual slices whenever you need them.
- -1 lb lean ground meat (turkey is my favorite)
- -1 C. milk
- -2 eggs
- -1 small, chopped onion
- -1 C. crushed crackers
- -1/2 tsp. salt
- -1/4 tsp. pepper
- -1 pinch nutmeg
- -1/3 C. ketchup
- -2 Tbsp. brown sugar
- Preheat oven to 350.
- In a large bowl, lightly whisk the milk, eggs, onion, crackers, salt, pepper, and nutmeg together. Add in the ground meat and use clean hands or a spoon to combine the ingredients into a smooth mixture. (Take care not to pack or overwork it.)
- Spray a regular-sized loaf pan with cooking spray (on sides and bottom.) Then spread ketchup onto the bottom of pan in an even layer and sprinkle the brown sugar evenly over the ketchup.
- Transfer the meat mixture to the loaf pan and smooth out the top, but do not pack it down.
- Bake at 350 for 55 mins-1 hour. Remove from oven and allow to cool a bit before serving.
- Since ovens do vary, if meatloaf center does not appear completely done when you cut in, a quick zap in the microwave is sufficient to cook away any remaining raw-ness!