5 Steps to Setting the Stage for Healthy Toddler Eating Habits – from pregnancy to toddlers

I was recently at a family event with my 3 year old. The hostess graciously took me aside and said, “We’re having soup and salad for lunch, but the chef can prepare anything for Esther. Chicken fingers, fries…” I had to think for a second. Why was she mentioning this to me? I was confused and then thought, “Oh! She thinks my toddler doesn’t eat the same food as me!” I quickly told her Esther would enjoy soup and salad the same as everyone else and she doesn’t really eat “kid food.”

Fresh fruit gets the thumbs up
Fresh fruit gets the thumbs up

My girls are “good eaters” in the sense they eat a large variety of food. They are fruit and veggie lovers and if there is a food they initially cringe at, nine times out of ten, I can persuade them to at least taste it. Toddler eating habits is a hot button topic because of the early childhood obesity epidemic. Healthy eating habits start early and I would like to take this time to share what has worked for me and my family when it comes to introducing healthy foods (which can be anxiety-producing for many). There is no magic to this, and I certainly do not pretend to know it all. I just know what works well for me and after being told “Wow, your girls eat everything” so many times, I figure it was time to share what has worked so well for us.

I know I am not a perfect eater and I do not create the perfect home eating environment. Just last night Esther ate blueberries and graham crackers for dinner after getting home from the grocery store. I bought a box of graham crackers to make crust for pie and she spotted the box. She asked for them and I said yes knowing I needed to put the rest of the groceries away and I did not have the time or energy to pull together a balanced, hot meal… blueberries and graham crackers for all! (Oh, then she ate 3 jelly beans after doing a good job going potty.)

Overall, this is just about enjoying life with my kids and food is a big source of enjoyment and family time in my home. I hope you find what works best for you, but this is where I share my secrets to help your toddler eat healthy foods too.

 

1. Enjoy food from the very start (in utero)

My husband and I took an amazing trip to France before having kids. At one extremely gourmand restaurant in the heart of the French countryside we enjoyed a 4-5 hour dining experience. Seriously. This was an 11-course birthday dinner for my husband and we enjoyed every single morsel. I felt like Violet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the end, and I would have liked to have been rolled back to bed. What really struck me was a family eating dinner in the corner with two small children with them. The kids were incredibly well-behaved, sat and ate with their parents, and did not make a fuss at all… for 4 hours. This was the expectation of these children. I soon learned French children learn to eat well from a young age. This is their norm. Before getting pregnant with my first daughter I thought, American children are not physiologically different from French children. They should be capable of exhibiting the same eating habits, so I wanted to set myself up for success.

My girls eat everything. From the start of my pregnancy with my first daughter, I was cognizant of what I ate. I have always been focused on food (see my four part food series here), but eating while pregnant is a different genre altogether. A study published in Pediatrics in 2001 confirmed my suspicions; babies know what you put in your body – even in utero.

“Flavors from the mother’s diet during pregnancy are transmitted to amniotic fluid and swallowed by the fetus. Consequently, the types of food eaten by women during pregnancy and, hence, the flavor principles of their culture may be experienced by the infants before their first exposure to solid foods. Some of these same flavors will later be experienced by infants in breast milk, a liquid, like amniotic fluid, comprises flavors directly reflecting the foods, spices, and beverages eaten by the mother… The results demonstrated infants who had exposure to the flavor of carrots in either amniotic fluid or breast milk behaved differently [positively] in response to the carrot flavor in a food base than did non-exposed control infants… the study suggests prenatal and early postnatal exposure, at the least, predisposes the young infant to favorably respond to the now familiar flavor. [This] facilitates the transition from fetal life through the breastfeeding period to the initiation of a varied solid food diet.”

Baby girl getting her first taste of Vietnamese pho
Baby girl getting her first taste of Vietnamese pho

Similarly, my husband and I love Indian cuisine. Curry, garam masala, coriander, cumin, and cardamom are spice rack staples in my pantry. I was not going to tone down what I ate while pregnant, while breastfeeding, or when introducing solids to my girls. This is how my husband and I eat; and it just made sense to expose our girls to the same foods we eat. I could never figure out when I would put the “kid food” away and begin exposing my kids to the same foods I enjoy. I do not know the answer to this question, so I just avoided this transition altogether and gave my girls the same foods I eat from the start. I would cook dinner and puree whatever I made and feed it to them (a handheld blender is PERFECT for this). All of my girls have enjoyed “curry flavored breast milk” and they subsequently gobble up my curry-spiced dishes (or baby food purees) too!

2. Create a healthy home food environment

My approach to feeding my children is filled with joy. I LOVE watching my girls eat. I could do it all day. I marvel at how they discover new foods, textures, and tastes and really enjoy them! If I anticipate a negative reaction from them, they will sense this and feel hesitant or even anxious about a new food. Even if something familiar is prepared differently (like roasted chicken compared to chicken in soup), I want to approach the dish with excitement.

I have nothing against purchasing high-quality prepared foods, but I have never bought frozen “kid food” like chicken nuggets, “toaster” pizza, or “sticks” of any kind (fish, mozzarella, etc.). My kitchen does not look like we have small children in our house because I do not purchase jars of baby food, puffs, pouches, juice boxes, kid-focused crackers, kiddie or baby yogurt or any pre-packaged snacks. My toddler’s closet is covered with Disney characters, but my kitchen is 100% brand-free. We don’t really snack (see #4 below), and I prefer to cook/bake the majority of the food we eat. It comes as no surprise I make all my own baby food, but this is because it’s just more convenient for me (I just puree whatever I made for dinner), it costs less, and it sets me up for success in the future. I know this isn’t possible or desirable for every household, but it’s important to me, so I make it a priority and find time. You can read more about how I find the time here.

Esther enjoying mama's pureed peas
Esther enjoying mama’s pureed peas

The vast majority of my grocery shopping trips consist of fresh produce, dairy and protein. We shop the perimeter of the store where fruits, veggies, eggs, yogurt, cheese, fish and meat can be found. You can read this to learn more about how I grocery shop. I love the challenge of making a meal healthy and for less money. If I can make it better, why would I buy it? I know this isn’t every mom’s objective though. Yet, I do not want to expose my girls to subpar food. My daughters eat what my husband and I eat, and we eat real food. My little ones eat the same exact food my husband and I are eating, so when it comes to giving them more solids and less pureed baby food, there will be no big surprises there.

Moreover, I do not want to set the expectation or think they are not capable of eating the same meal as me. I will not assume they do not like a dish and try to avoid giving them something I worry they may not like. My girls model after me, so when I sit down to enjoy a tasty dinner, they are sitting down to the same plate of food. Our dinner plates look the same. Albeit their plates are plastic and the individual compartments are filled with bite size pieces of food, still we have the same dishes.

When eating out, we select a meal from the adult menu for Esther because kids’ menus are not appealing to her. She doesn’t eat mac ‘n cheese (I have offered it because I love love love Velveeta shells and cheese, but she refuses) and she only recently started eating fries other than what I prepare at home. It was just a few months ago I realized Esther doesn’t eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (a little kid staple!). I wondered why and realized I just do not make them for me and Josh, so it’s not something she has eaten much of either. We have since offered it to her and she’ll occasionally eat it, but it’s just not a part of our regular food environment.

3. Set myself up for success by setting the dinner table

Looks tasty!
Looks tasty!

Besides being a good time to reconnect as a family and talk, the family dinner table is where we teach a lot of life lessons on good manners, table etiquette and good eating habits. You will often hear, “Esther, spoon goes in the mouth or on the table” in response to her waving her spoon around or taking a painstakingly long time to put the food in her mouth (and food is subsequently dripping onto her lap). If I can help it, I do not feed my kids dinner before my husband and I eat and this applies to eating at home, at a friend’s house or at a restaurant.

I have witnessed parents plop their kid down in front of a TV and expect them to shovel food into their mouths absentmindedly. What does this accomplish? We’re only giving them the habit of eating with distraction (which leads to overeating and overweight/obesity). It doesn’t make sense to me.

In response to getting your child fed before the adults, I must ask, would you be interested in sitting at the table and watching other people eat once you are done eating? I have done this before and it’s mind-numbing. So, at a restaurant, we do not order Esther’s meal before our meal. We make a point to tell the server to bring Esther’s food out the same time as our food because they are so used to assuming we want our kid to get her food first, but why? When Esther tells me she is hungry I tell her we ordered our food and it’s getting prepared now. We need to be patient. I thank her for being patient and we focus on something else while we wait.

I think many parents fear what will happen if their kid doesn’t eat right away. On the flip side, I feel like I am disrespecting my daughter, as a person, if I assume she cannot wait 15-20 minutes with me and Josh for our food to arrive altogether. In the interim we talk about different things. Having a conversation with a toddler is hilarious. Here is a snippet:

Mama: Esther, what do you want to talk about?
Esther: <looking thoughtful> Chicken.
Mama: Okay, chickens are birds. They lay eggs…

While we wait, we play with the paper and crayons provided by the restaurant, pull out a toy or two from the diaper bag, but we’re not desperate to keep her entertained. The majority of the time, the goings-on of the restaurant is enough to keep my kids entertained, they love to watch other people and see what’s happening around them. This is an opportunity to practice sitting and waiting. Waiting is OK, no one’s head is going to pop off. If they don’t learn now, when will they learn?

With this said, I will not pretend we have a perfectly prepared family dinner every night. There are plenty of times I am still chopping and prepping dinner and Esther’s bedtime is looming. She’s hungry and I’m not ready to give her a home-cooked meal, so she’ll eat fresh fruit and a bowl of cereal for dinner or leftovers from another meal at the kitchen table while I am working on dinner for me and Josh (which will inevitably be eaten well after she’s asleep for the night). I am not perfect.

4. Reduce snacking

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Pomegranate seeds are the perfect toddler snack for tiny fingers to pick up

The French do not snack but once a day and it’s between lunch and dinner. Why do we feel like we need to give our kids snacks throughout the day? I want my daughters to be hungry for a meal. If they just downed a yogurt and apple slices, they are not going to be interested in eating lunch. It is easy for kids to push away their meal plate and staunchly announce they are not trying any new foods if they are not hungry.

Providing many snacks is something I do not prescribe to because I don’t see the purpose except for tiding over my toddler until dinner is ready. Also, you could probably have guessed by now, but snacks in my home do not come from a box or crinkly package.

Snack time is not on the go either. Remember, I am teaching healthy eating habits and pausing to enjoy your food. Paying attention to what you’re eating is a part of creating a healthy food environment. For example, yogurt is enjoyed with a spoon. I am not impressed with yogurt in a squeezable tube. Where does my toddler have to rush off to so quickly? Is there a play emergency I am not aware of? I feel like there is time to sit and eat yogurt at a table with a spoon, it does not need to come in a tube.

The bonus to the reduction in snacking is a cleaner purse, diaper bag and car! You wouldn’t guess I have small children by looking at my car (beyond all the baby gear by way of strollers and car seats) because my car is not ravaged with crumbs and food spills. Better yet, I am not breaking my back trying to sweep up or spot remove stains and crumbs in-between and under the seats. Sweet!

5. Limit juice

I may ruffle some feathers, but I feel strongly about this. Juice provides no nutritional value and the AAP is clear about this recommendation. I think the word recommendation is a misnomer because they advise you actually LIMIT the amount of juice consumed to 4-6 oz for toddlers (no juice for kids less than 12 months)! For example, a “tall” coffee cup at Starbucks is 12 oz. This is literally 3 times the amount of juice outlined!

American Academy of Pediatrics Juice Limitation

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend juice. In fact, they say it should be limited!
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend juice. In fact, they say it should be limited!

Even when it is 100% fruit juice, low-carb, no sugar added, or sugar free, and you feel like you’re doing something healthy by downing a nice glass of OJ in the morning, it’s still not recommended. Even watered down, the sugars increase the likelihood of cavities and juice increases obesity. There is just no need.

We do not have juice boxes in my house, but I know juice is inevitable. Heck, we give a small glass of grape juice to Esther every Friday night to celebrate Shabbat. It’s her “wine.” I’m not going to keep my kid away from juice like it is radiation poisoning. It’s a special treat, and my toddler subsequently sucks down a juice box without letting up for air (but oddly enough she hardly ever finishes her Shabbat glass of “wine”). Juice boxes are like crack cocaine to her and she wants more. I say no, but I get it, juice is delicious – I like it in my mixed cocktails and sangria!

If you want your kid to get their daily serving of fruit, give them the real thing. Juice is not an equal substitute. When Esther asks for another juice box at a party or little kid gathering, I say no and she knows there’s no budging. Also, I am almost guaranteed a peepee accident if she has juice. Live and learn.

Bottom line: Real whole fruit is always the recommendation.

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The perfect after meal treat – a kiss!
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