5 Tips That Actually Work for Healthy Eating With Toddlers

By Brittany Carlson


“That’s it,” I said, after my kids refused to eat dinner again. “No more sugary snacks.”


I just couldn’t keep cooking dinner to have both of my kids throw their helpings away, then complain before bed that they needed a snack. 


It was a bold statement for me to make, considering how often I toss them a fruit snack or granola bar in the backseat when we are driving to school, to swim lessons, to church or to the park. 


So, how to make snacks healthier and mealtimes less frustrating? I sought the advice of other parent friends and nutrition experts online, and here are some of their ideas:

 

Make Healthy Food More Fun

I got this tip from Ali Holman, a television fitness expert, through her  “20-Minute Fit” program: use ice cube trays to present healthy snacks and meals to kids. The compartments are perfect for things like cut fruits, cheese cubes, veggies and whole grain crackers. (This basically a more accessible version of the Bento box, which many of my friends use with great success). 


After I learned this tip, I started serving my kids lunch in ice cube trays with some combination of deli meat, cheese slices, crackers, sliced veggies and fruit. We call it the “Treasure Hunt” lunch. My boys love “hunting” the compartments to see what they want to eat. Adding different-colored fruits and veggies makes this meal more appealing, and separating each item helps kids who don’t want flavors and textures to mix (like my 5-year-old). 


Another fun way to offer new foods is to incorporate them into family activities or crafts. My friend Dianne said she often made her kids “ants on a log” (raisins and peanut butter on celery) or “sailing ships” with apple slices, toothpicks and cheese slices. She would even read a book to go along with the snack (such as a story on ants or ships) to get her kids more excited about it. 


Pinterest also has so many ideas for making food into fun designs. 


Another mom friend, Haley, lets her kids use almost-expired veggies as paint stamps. 


She also offers veggies to her children in different forms, such as cutting carrots with a cookie cutter, making them into noodles or grating them to put in bread. 


“I believe that exposure is key,” she said. 


“Gardening is also [a] good fun experience for kids to get comfortable around certain veggies,” she added.  

 

Limit Snacks to Certain Times

At my kids’ last visit to the dentist, I learned that my 3-year-old had the beginnings of cavities in a couple of his teeth because I was allowing him to “graze” on a bag of goldfish or pretzels throughout the morning or afternoon, instead of sitting him down, having him eat a snack, then going back to his activities. The dentist told me that grazing isn’t good for children’s teeth, and I’ve learned it’s not good for their eating routine either. According to eatright.org, kids should have designated “eating zones” at home so that parents can keep track of what they are eating and how much.


Allowing my son to graze on snacks wasn’t letting him build up hunger for mealtimes either – hence the wasted meals. According to eatright.org, younger children should eat three meals and at least two snacks a day, eating about every three to four hours. At our house, I’m trying to limit snack times to once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and not after 3 p.m. so they’ll be hungry for dinner. 

 

Swap Out Sugary Snacks For Healthy Ones

I’m learning this the hard way, but here is the truth: if you don’t buy sugary snacks, they don’t have an option when they’re hungry. It’s either a healthy snack or no snack.


When I’m on the go, I try to pack apples in my purse and whole grain crackers instead of chips. 


At home, offering veggies with dips can help make them more fun and palatable to kids. 


“Hummus magically made mine like raw veggies,” my friend Mary said.


There are so many resources for how to offer healthier foods for kids, including the “Kids Eat in Color” website and Instagram page. The author for the site, Jennifer Anderson, is a mom and registered dietician and the site is full of articles and photos on ways to interest kids in trying healthy foods. My favorite one so far is to create a mini construction site with a fork for a “forklift” bell peppers cut into mini “boards.”  

 

Include Your Kids In Meal Prep and Planning

Rachel, one of my son’s teachers, advised having “guided conversation about healthy and non-healthy options” with your kids. You could also ask them to choose what veggies and meals they want to eat during the week when you’re making the grocery list, she said. 


For some ideas for making meal planning for fun for the whole family (think theme nights), check out superkidsnutrition.com. 


At our house, we try to plan the meals over dinner the night before I hit the grocery store, and I ask the kids to tell me a meal they want to eat that week, as well as what they would like for lunch. I encourage them to pick out what fruits and vegetables they would like as sides. 

 

Make Healthy Eating A Family Affair

Ultimately, our children look to us to see what to eat and how much. It shocked me when my 3-year-old asked me for salad the other day, but I realized it was because I’ve been eating one every day for lunch and he just wanted to be like me.


I try to eat healthy foods because they are good for me, but also because I want to set an example for my kids to follow. They know that it’s okay to have treats, but they also know that the important foods—the ones that give us strong muscles and minds—are the fruits and veggies that I put not just on their plates, but on mine as well. 


By incorporating these healthier practices into our family routine, I’ve noticed a big difference in how my kids approach new foods and in how much they actually eat. My three-year-old now loves Greek yogurt with berries as a morning snack, and my 5-year-old’s favorite dinner is salmon with quinoa and broccoli – I kid you not! Best of all, we can spend our family dinner time actually talking about our day, rather than haggling over how many bites they have to eat. And that is a win-win!

 

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Brittany Carlson is a lifelong lover of words and all things chocolate. She is an Army wife and now has two sons, Adam (4) and James (18 months). She has written for several Army community newspapers, including the Stuttgart Citizen (Germany), Fort Leonard Wood Guidon (Missouri) and Fort Belvoir Eagle (Virginia). Brittany holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She and her family live in upstate NY. 

 

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