What are easy and healthy meals I can give my toddlers?
Toddlers can eat anything! No really they can. The best thing you can do for your toddlers is to get them used to everyone regularly eating the same healthy meal together. There are plenty of tiny tots that still have yet to develop all their teeth, so in that case watch the nuts and raw veggies, but otherwise toddlers can chow down on most things, including spices. Avoid packaged foods and meals that claim to be designed for toddlers. These foods create picky eaters with undeveloped palates and bad eating habits. Walk down any conventional supermarket and the baby aisle will point you in this weird packaged food path where baby sausages come from cans and raviolis are toddler sized. The frozen and refrigerated sections also have packages that claim to be healthy and complete toddler meals. Buyers beware! Toddlers are real people, with real food needs. By serving them the same food their parents are eating, they will start to get used to there being one meal at dinnertime which will be a good habit to get into early on. Plus, making multiple meals isn't just one more thing on your to-do list, it also causes other picky eater problems down the line (more on that later). When making meals, go ahead and use your favorite spices, herbs, and seasonings. Have your little ones help you cook! Cooking always leads to tasting and familiarity which breeds confidence. Keep in mind, the table should be a relaxing environment, so try easing stress by making meals ahead and simplifying things as much as possible, meal planning and prep ahead recipes can go a long way here.
But what if I just need to give them a quick snack while I tend to nearby tasks; what foods can they safely feed themselves?
Your best bet in these situations are soft finger foods, such as meatballs, dark meat chicken, beans, quinoa pasta, fruits and veggies, soft tofu, grilled, roasted or steamed veggies, or eggs. Plates with compartments are great because they remind us busy parents to give plenty of healthy variety. Seasonal produce is cheapest and often the best tasting, but frozen fruits and veggies are an easy inexpensive alternative.
Why are my toddlers refusing food that s/he used to eat?
Keep track of what your family’s eating habits have been lately, especially considering the recent holidays. Initially were you careful with the food you gave your toddlers but now are they given more/too many choices? Have you suddenly started short order cooking, making meals you know your toddlers will eat instead of risking refusal at the table? Have you been on vacation or had long-term guests stay? After the holidays and all that glorious fare it's hard to go back to eating a healthier whole foods diet. But keep in mind, parents are in charge of what our kids are served and our kids are in charge of how much they eat. Avoid short order cooking or loading up their plates with foods that they are uncomfortable with. Are they coming to dinner hungry or have they had too many snacks or snacks too recently? What are they eating for snacks? Is it processed?
When toddlers stop eating meals you have to become a detective to figure out why. Look at the set up in the home, the food schedule and track what foods are kept in the house and eaten between meals. Is your child offered a snack after the meal even if they didn't eat the food that was offered at dinner? Do they know that they will still get food, something they actually prefer if they refuse food? If this is the case, go back to a more rigid (for lack of a better word) schedule but maintain an upbeat approach. "You don't want the herbs on your chicken? Ohh I see. You know what, that’s where all the amazing flavor comes from. Let's try an herb together and see what it tastes like…" Exploring the meal together can help them focus their attention away from distractions such as their cravings for other foods. If they still ask you for a different item, gently remind them that everyone is eating chicken for dinner. If they still refuse to eat their meal, most likely they are either still full from an earlier snack or they are just not hungry enough to be willing to try something that they don’t crave. Give it a few moments to observe, without talking. They might come around on their own. If they have refused a substantial amount of their meal and you know they'll be hungry again before bed, wrap their plate up and keep it in the fridge. If they get hungry a little while later, you can take it out and serve it to them again. By serving them the same meal again, they will learn that refusing food and holding out does not mean that they can eat whatever they want later.
Be sure to rotate recipes so that meals are familiar but not constantly being repeated. It is normal for everyone to not want to eat things that they used to like, and with time then go back to it. Teething in toddlerhood can often contribute to changes in eating, so just keep offering healthy foods and avoid pitfalls. Making meals that are loaded with nutrient dense foods your kids like with a side of the refused foods also sets them up for success. Serve smaller portions of the food that they now refuse, sometimes the size of the portion can be off putting or overwhelming. As long as you continue to offer healthy options, that’s all that matters.