[Reprinted from Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline also now available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
I was one of those children who was incredibly picky when it came to food and, despite my mom’s gently enforced ‘one bite rule,’ I went on to become an incredibly picky eater as an adult, as well. I vividly remember as a young child gagging as I tried to force down a bite, my throat feeling like it was closing up, and like there was no way food was going to fit through there. As a very compliant child, it bothered me immensely to disappoint my mom, and, being the logical person that I was even at that young age, I remember feeling that her expectations were very reasonable and being frustrated at my own inability to comply.
Fast forward a few years to when I began having children of my own and needed to make parenting decisions about everything from breastfeeding to cosleeping to discipline. On my journey to gentle parenting I revisited my childhood memories often, finding myself appreciating my mom’s gentleness and her way of using silliness to help me see the ‘silver lining’ in life when things were hard. In some things, I chose to follow the parenting path my mom took, and in others I took a different course and blazed my own trail.
When I was at university, I worked as a certified nutrition consultant with a focus on natural approaches to nutrition, health, and fitness. I took that knowledge, along with my studies in developmental psychology, human behavior, and communication, and incorporated all of it into my parenting decisions.
As I muddled through the toddler years with my firstborn, I decided to take an approach to nutrition that was unheard of, as far as I knew. I would offer to nurse, offer the food on my plate, and offer food I’d made specifically for him, and then let my little man decide. That was the beginning of our baby led weaning, though I didn’t know that term at the time.
What I discovered then and have seen proven time and again through the years with my own six very different children as well as with the families I’ve worked with is that, given the freedom to choose, children will generally experiment with more textures and tastes than if they are forced to eat their parents’ choice of food for them. It’s simply human nature that, if a child (or an adult, for that matter!) knows that they don’t have to try a new food and that they can run to the trashbin and spit it out if they do try it and don’t like it, then they are far, far more likely to give it a chance. And if they don’t try it the first time it’s offered, or if they do try it and don’t like it, making it available again off and on in the future will give them more opportunities to try the food and perhaps end up liking it when their tastes mature a bit more.
In our home, my children know that if they don’t like what’s being served for a meal there is always an alternative in the form of a PB&J or a reheat later if they just aren’t hungry at mealtime, though if we’re sitting down together I do expect them to sit with the family and chat with us while we eat. Even if they like the food being served, they may not feel hungry for a heavy meal just then or perhaps the last time they ate that meal their tummy got upset or maybe there are other reasons they don’t want the meal that they simply can’t articulate. As the adult, I can choose to make an issue out of it and end up in an unnecessary power struggle, or I can choose to offer my children the same respect I offer myself, because you can bet your bottom dollar that if I don’t want to eat something, I’m not eating it!
Among the many benefits of this approach, beyond the greater propensity for a child to experiment with tastes and textures and beyond the elimination of mealtime battles, I also saved myself a ton of mommy guilt through the years. I had no way of knowing early on that my renaissance girl had Sensory Processing Disorder which was strongly affecting her ability to eat or that my little caboose was missing an enzyme and couldn’t eat meat. Had I spent their toddler years forcing foods on them and engaging in coercive or punitive mealtime parenting, the damage to our relationship, not to mention their health, could have been disastrous. Additionally, children who feel powerless over their lives can begin trying to recapture a sense of power by exercising excessive control over their eating with the danger of a resulting eating disorder when they get into their teen years.
So, on a practical level how do you get a toddler or preschooler to eat? Well, first and foremost, rigidly scheduling mealtimes creates a battleground in and of itself. Toddlers’ and preschoolers’ ever-shifting growth patterns cause them to go through slow-growth periods where they simply aren’t hungry and other periods where they’re hungry 24/7! Grazing, or eating multiple small meals and snacks throughout the day, not only fits these growth patterns better, but is actually a much healthier way for all of us to eat because it stabilizes blood sugar which, when low, leads to overeating as does simply eating because ‘it’s time.’ Teaching our little ones to listen to their bodies’ hunger cues is a hugely positive step toward avoiding obesity later in life, as well!
Secondly, a combination of keeping little ones active so they work up a good appetite (which also sets them on the path toward an active physical lifestyle!) and offering a variety of healthy foods throughout the day will typically be all it takes to meet their nutrition requirements. As a general guideline, toddlers and preschoolers need:
- Two to three servings of dairy (i.e. 1 oz. cheese, ½ cup milk, ½ cup yogurt);
- Four to six servings of grains (i.e. ½ slice bread, ½ cup non-sugared cereal, ¼ cup pasta, 2 crackers);
- Two servings of protein (i.e. two 1” squares of chicken, fish, or beef);
- Two to three servings of veggies (i.e. 2 tbs peas, corn, cauliflower, etc);
- And two to three servings of fruit (i.e. ½ banana, apple, orange, etc., ¼ cup raisins, blueberries, raspberries, 3-4 strawberries or grapes, etc)
Here are some fun ways to invite your little ones to make healthy eating choices:
- Need an easy and healthy breakfast for little ones? Try an ice cream cone filled with almonds & bite sized chunks of fruit & cheese!
- Start little people’s day healthy & happy. Make a smiley face clock on their plate with almonds, cheese & fruit with yogurt to dip them in!
- Try making ‘apple cookies’ (apples sliced into round discs) into faces with almonds, raisins & cheese!
- Sundae breakfast! Yogurt sprinkled with granola & raisins & nuts & drizzled with local honey (helps control seasonal allergies, too), yummy! *Note: Never feed honey to a baby under a year old.
- Here comes the sun! Make frozen pancakes more healthy by surrounding them with fruit & topping with berries & almonds & drizzling with local honey!
- Banana Boats~Slice of whole wheat bread spread with peanut butter & local honey & wrapped around a banana. Top with just a sprinkle of brown sugar for a treat!
- Double Trouble~Celery, carrot & pretzel sticks with a scoop of cottage cheese & a scoop of peanut butter for double dipping!
- Picasso PB&J’s~Round whole wheat flat bread with small dollops of peanut butter, fruit preserves & yogurt around the edge in a colorful palate with pretzel sticks for paint brushes!
- Boil some cauliflower, carrots, zucchini & yellow squash until a bit mushy & puree.
1) Mix with your favorite meatloaf recipe for a hidden veggie serving!
2) Mix with spaghetti sauce & freeze in single serving containers.
- Spaghetti Twisters~Make rotini noodles instead of spaghetti noodles for a cute ‘twist’ and add your special spaghetti sauce for a tornado of veggie goodness!
- Pizza Racers~Use rectangular flatbread & lightly coat with olive oil and broil for a couple of minutes to crisp it up, then add your souped-up spaghetti sauce & let your little ones top with mozzarella ‘racing stripes’ & pepperoni ‘racing tires’ for a super-charged dinner!
- Pureed cauliflower also works great mixed with mac & cheese, stuffing, and mashed potatoes for a hidden veggie to round out any meal!
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.